Asked to test a feature in the alpha stages of a game, the player takes on the role of a blue square that can move and jump in Jonas Kyratzes’s Alphaland, and I’m going to stop right there. To discuss the game any further is to spoil essentially the whole plot. However, it isn’t the plot that I am really all that concerned with spoiling but with the experience of that plot. So, I’m just going to stop right here and suggest that if you have not played Alphaland that you do so before reading any further. You can find the game at New Grounds, and it will probably only take 10-15 minutes to play.
Given the dearth of games that have broached the subject of the player’s relationship to the systems of games and the manner in which the player is forced to conform to them (I’m thinking here of games like Bioshock and Loved) and also the tendency of such games to suggest an antagonistic relationship between player and system (I’m thinking again of games like Loved and now Portal), Alphaland comes with a refreshingly different approach to the topic of power and gaming systems. In the aforementioned games, we discover that player choice is more an illusion than a reality (the “twist” in Bioshock‘s narrative), that we are lab rats ever driven forward by the instruction of the designer of our “tests” (Portal‘s GLaDOS), and that any sort of intimacy that exists between the authority of the program and ourselves is a rather twisted kind of “loving” relationship (Loved).
However, Alphaland‘s very simple plot, test a feature in the alpha stage of a game (in this case, just collect an object in the game world) becomes a game of exploration of such relationships that draws very different conclusions about how such relationships work. Maybe it is largely the fact that there is so little real conflict in Alphaland, that the player spends much of his time in the game just learning what the rules of the game are and exploring a system “behind the scenes” that allows it to move away from the idea of suggesting antagonism between player and system. There are few ways to die in the game (a few scattered enemies that are generally easy to avoid and a few spots on the map that you can fall on or strike in midair that will insta-kill the player), and death is not much of a setback given that the player’s restart in the game is always so very close to where he last left off. Death becomes more of a testing system that allows the player to figure out the “rules” of this game and how to navigate and orient himself towards it, drawing the player closer to the system or allowing him to better understand it rather than be frustrated by it.
Of course, what is happening alongside the player’s exploration of the system in Alphaland is the system itself exploring what it is. Very simple textual cues indicate the existential crisis that the system that the player is exploring is having alongside him. Questions like “What am I?” and “Am I broken?” mirror the players own concerns with the game itself. The player is trying to figure out what his own role is in this game, how to properly interact with power ups and enemies and the like in order to proceed, and wondering if the game is broken when solution isn’t immediately obvious. Since the game doesn’t “tell” the player what to do, it is only through interaction with it that the rules become clear and, therefore, the player’s sense of his own purpose in the game.
That grasping for meaning in the world, though, is the central issue of the game. By figuring out how the game works, both the player and the system are defining themselves through interaction, not animosity. In fact, towards the close of the game, the system becomes apprehensive about the changes that it will potentially go through should the player succeed in his own assigned role. What if the outcome of the test results in revision of the program, a change to the system? So, too, the player also apprehensively discovers that rules change throughout play and is then challenged to figure out as these changes occur (Once you could step on these colored tiles, now you can disintegrate them by touching them. Once you could only jump so high, now you can jump very high if the background of the game changes in certain ways.) how to rethink his relationship to the world and how to adapt himself to it.
The system’s concern that a big change is coming and fear that it might fade away if it does is assuaged by the realization of the aforementioned relationship though. The game exists and changes because the player plays within it, because that player tests it. The system while testing the player’s acumen, unlike a GLaDOS or the authoritarian tutorial voice in Loved, realizes the necessity of the player to its own existence. It won’t fade away if the player is there to test it. It will change, but as any good alpha or beta test will do, it will only improve through constant interaction and revision alongside the player. In this sense, Alphaland feels (and it is in the exploratory play within the world less than through the simplistic monologues of the system itself that convey this) like an affirmation of the positive relationship that can exist between system and player. It is the anti-Portal, the anti-Loved that doesn’t deny that the player is manipulated by the system but suggests that the player manipulates the system as well and that the two may be better for that shared interaction, changing, revising, and bettering each other. In order to play, the player needs the game, and in order to exist as a game, the game needs to be played.