Experiencing Waking: Thomas Brush’s ‘Coma’

[21 July 2010]

By G. Christopher Williams

PopMatters Multimedia Editor

Opening with the barest of instructions on how to “run & jump” scrawled on the wall, Thomas Brush’s Coma is a brief and fairly straightforward flash game that seems more interested in mimicking an experience and setting a tone than anything else.  A minimalistic aesthetic and plot are clarified by another scrawled message a screen or so later, “THIS WORLD IS A LIE”.  Basically, this brief message explains the whole world of Coma.

Coma is a game about waking.  Its surreal landscapes, which are at times serene, at times disturbing, are familiar to the sleeper at the edge of waking.

Taking on the role of a small bean shaped creature called Pete, the player is tasked with a barely explained goal of rescuing a sister being held in “father’s secret basement”.  The premise is foreboding and weird just as the “goals” of dreams often seem to be.  Play and puzzles likewise share this strange and creepy dream logic.  Often enough the way forward in the game is something that the rational mind immediately balks at. 

For instance, a gigantic worm in a tunnel opens its mouth, instinctually the player moves backwards and away from it, before realizing that there is no choice but to proceed inside.  Dreams have a forward momentum, no matter whether we want them to or not.  More so, that forward momentum is something we desire to avoid, to escape.  Coma’s dreams are inescapable ones.

Because the dreamscape of Coma is so strange and instructions are so minimal, the successful Coma player is largely driven by a desire to understand how the strange characters that he encounters fit into this false world and how this world fundamentally works.  In that sense, the game mimics the dreamer grasping at trying to make sense of images and ideas that don’t seem quite right, that seem vaguely but unaccountably off.  Also, much like a dream, don’t expect those answers to ever be clearly answered.

In particular, the choice to place what is basically the penultimate puzzle in this platformer/adventure hybrid right in the first room with the player, a piano that you can play for no clear reason initially, seems an appropriate choice in setting the tone for the whimsical but disconcerting experience of Coma’s world.  The piano seems like it should be there for a reason, but initially it is only something to mess around with, to merely “play” with but that seems to not further the experience in any kind of direct or meaningful way.  The puzzling existence of the piano only becomes clear once the player is nearing the edge of waking and seemingly meaningful memories from the real world (an actual tune that perhaps the “real” Pete can relate to an actual sister?) are close enough at hand to be actually understood. 

Again, in this sense, the game becomes a familiar human experience.  Playing it feels like that moment after waking when you are still attempting to shake off the vestiges of a world that feels disconcertingly “wrong” because it is comprised in part of some familiar people and places and in part of seeming nonsense and irrational logic. 

The game is really only marred by some less than reliable controls (Pete occasionally seems to “get stuck” running in one direction or stuck in an endless fit of jumping, which can only be resolved by striking a directional key firmly).  Maybe this was the machine that I was playing it on or maybe it is an intended aggravation that is supposed to further replicate some of that disconcerting quality of waking (though I doubt this).  In either case, it breaks the mood of what is otherwise a very beautiful but frequently vaguely disturbing game. 

The achievement of the game is in recreating this familiarity of the vaguely disconcerting quality of waking.  With a visual style that looks like something out of a recent issue of a pop art magazine like Hi-Fructose, it seems like Coma could just as easily have been made as an artsy cartoon short.  However, what Brush accomplishes is largely due to the nature of the medium that he works with.  Having to actually muddle through the confounding world of Coma comes closer to conveying a mildly uncomfortable experience than merely passively viewing a world like this on another kind of screen.

It feels sort of awful to play, which is why it speaks of its subject so very well.

Coma is currently being featured at New Grounds.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/128247-experiencing-waking-thomas-brushs-coma/