'The Plan' and Expressionism

by Eric Swain

26 February 2013

You are a fly sitting on a moss covered rock, and six minutes later, you won't be.

You are a fly sitting on a moss covered rock. You are a detailed fly and are granted a far closer look of yourself than you probably ever have had before. Then you begin the game and take to the air. You travel upwards traversing between branches, avoiding falling leaves, and escaping the sticky threads of a spider web. Once, twice, and with a final effort, you break free, You continue to fly up and up. A gust of wind occasionally tries to push you this way or that. It hits you head on, and you weather it before continuing on. The sounds of nature are your soundtrack. The chirping and calls of birds, the buzzing of your wings, and, yes, the occasional gust of wind.  The camera pulls further back the higher you fly. You pass the treetops and out into the open sky.

The Death of Ase by Edvard Grieg has started playing. Soft yellow rays of light stream down from above. Soon the blue skies fade into darkness and the stars come out. The music swells at this point, something classical and perspective expanding. Soon the fly is only a few pixels large. The stream of air that it leave in its wake is more easily discernible against the backdrop. The concerto continues on. The strings playing a backdrop to the heavens. The fly passes nebulae: the pillars of creation, the horse head. The stars fall below the screen. The gasses of the nebula part for your fly. The yellow light has changed to a strong golden hue and now into the pure white of heaven. The fly leaves behind a contrail now turning shadowy, accepting the light head on. Suddenly a bright sphere appears from above. You look on, still pushing up, as the music heads into its final few notes. You cannot turn away and fly up to the sphere. A filament appears, its buzzing still audible behind the music. Then with a muted ch-chink of glass breaking followed by a sizzling sound, the screen fades to black.
That’s it. That’s the entire game.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect going in. I heard nothing about it and knew nothing about it. At first, I thought maybe The Plan was an obstacle course style game, in which you would navigate the fly through areas, dodging obstacles, like the falling leaves. I saw the spider web as a tutorial device to show the type of dangers ahead and how to escape them. But as I continued, the only path available was up. Once I passed the treetops, the obstacle course idea left my mind. At this point, the music had kicked in full force, and I was just taking it all in. The music, the images, the light coalescing into an experience of wonder and awe inspiring perspective. And a minute and half later it was done. The Plan is about six minutes long in total.

All in all, it all feels like it’s a piece of interactive art based solely on a joke. The light bulb is the punchline. But at the same time, it’s played too straight. It’s too serious to be trying for a laugh. Instead it seems like it’s reaching towards some form of black humor—reveling in the nature of life, its shortness and fragility. The Plan seems also to be a statement on reaching for the stars, the promise of hope that the images heavens bestow upon us. Then it all turns out to be false hope, and the light we were striving towards is the thing that ends us. I suppose that is what The Plan of the title is referring to, as the logo itself centers around the fly.

These are just musings. I have no idea what the Plan is about or if there is anything to get from it. It’s a piece of emotional expressionism. I suppose the act of moving through the world accentuated by the sounds of the forest and the celestial strings is enough. According to the developer, The Plan was a side project that they took on to take a break from their main effort—Among the Sleep—in order to rejuvenate their creative juices. It seems that Among the Sleep is about imagination and the unbounded creativity of a child, so a game imagining a fly going on a transcendent journey that ends in being fried is right in line with that.

Sometime back in the wild history of our medium such experimentation with content and form faded and experimentation was wholly replaced with iteration. I personally place that point in time in the early 90s. In looking back over the design lessons in video games from the late 80s, I feel like we spent the latter half of the previous decade relearning lessons from the material that was lost. In a lot of ways, modern indie developers are picking up where the bedroom programmers of the 80s left off.

In another time period in another medium (say, in movies from the 1920s) experimentation became the foundation that later generations of creators would look back to for lessons on how to make their own work better. Hollywood had established itself on the romantic notion of art. (That’s romantic as in romanticism.). American films were escapist fair, the pretty baubles of the medium. Elsewhere in the world, however, filmmakers were exploring the concept of playing with the different ideas of various artistic movements within the confines of this new medium, like German Expressionism, Soviet Montage, Japanese Naturalism, French Impressionism, and Surrealism. While the previous decade set the foundations of the techniques used by filmmakers, this decade was about establishing styles. (I’m being broad in my recounting of this history here.).

Up until now, despite AAA games being the popular target for accusing the medium of superficiality, really all video games have been mired in the singular style of romanticism with little expansion beyond that philosophy. Though many indie games until recently have fallen into the same trap despite fresh mechanical or narrative takes on the age of classic video games. It’s only recently that video games seem to have discovered that there are other was of viewing the world and expressing it—through the Expressionism of Journey and Kentucky Road Zero, the Impressionism of Thirty Flights of Loving and Dys4ia, the Surrealism of Anitchamber and Bientote L’ete, the Naturalism of Cart Life, the Modernism of Hotline Miami, and even the Transcendentalism of Dyad.

We don’t look at games within these realms of thought even though they are demanding to be seen that way. Many players are turned off because they look at games through the lens of traditional gaming, a form that has been dominated for decades by Classicism and Romanticism. I know that I’ve made at least some of you go cross-eyed with all those –isms, but they aren’t just fancy terms people throw about to sound smart. They are modes of thought and style that express a way of thinking about and viewing the world. Works that view the world under one of those broad headings charge forward each in different direction towards sublimity.

Which brings me back to The Plan. For all of that postulating on the differences between thought and approach, an experimental work is only good if it has a definite purpose behind it. Recharging their creative juices is good for the developers, but is an experience rather lacking for the player. On the other hand, the game’s narrow world is beautiful, the music is beautiful, even the rendering of the fly is beautiful. The “joke” can even be seen as beautiful in its telling. And for all that, I think beauty for beauty’s sake can be a worthwhile enough reason to play it.

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