The ‘Ruins’ at the ‘End of the World’: Atmospheric Ambience and Dream Space

It’s hard to play games on my little netbook. Cardboard Computer’s Ruins barely runs, but it still manages to be strikingly beautiful. A brief, branching dreamscape involving several layers of metaphor, there isn’t much I can say about the actual contents without making the game sound more mundane than it is, so I encourage you just to try it.

We have seen several games try to approximate dream logic, and from an aesthetic point of view, Ruins might come the closest to doing so. Set in a tiny space of uncertain dimension and shifting perspectives, the experience is set so much in a perpetual haze and glow that you can’t be sure of where you are going or what you are looking at.

The game conveys its backstory via textual conversation, reflecting on events that we gather information about only in fragments. It is not even initially apparent that we’re in a dream or who is doing the dreaming. Ruins exudes a sense not just of a mystical space but increasingly, a private one, with meanings and distortions that we aren’t meant to understand.

It reminds me in no small degree of the dream machine in Wim Wenders’s Until the End of Time. Here, one of the central figures (played by Max von Sydow) starts out by inventing a device to record an individual’s visual and cognitive perception in order to give his blind wife a glimpse of the visible world. Following her death, he turns the machine on himself, his son and his son’s girlfriend to record their respective dreams. The resulting images are blurry, distorted, and apparently intelligible only to the dreamer, as none of the three test subjects have any interest in any dreams besides their own.

Wenders paints this as a dangerous technology, one fueled by nostalgia, narcissism, and the overconsumption of images. The three subjects quickly become addicted to the recordings. The scientist dies in a dream-like stupor, while the younger two are rehabilitated and learn to leave the images behind them. What I found most striking in this story is how similarly the device, a sort of cyberpunk fantasy of the late 1980s, mirrors existing technologies like pixel-based optics for the blind and 3D visual activity cameras. Blog pieces like these show technologies in their infancy, barely resembling what we see in the film — but they also clearly indicate a future trajectory of development, and it’s one that we can’t help but recognize.

It is said that games are not interested in reproducing reality, just realism. The difference between them is the difference between the authentic work and the simulacrum — but not a fake. It’s not simply the difference between the Mona Lisa and a forgery, but instead a forgery accepted as equal to the real Mona Lisa, even one possibly superior to it. Joshua Casteel has written lucidly about this idea in one of my favorite essays on first-person shooters. McKenzie Wark makes it a cornerstone of his Gamer Theory: “The game has not just colonized reality, it is the sole remaining ideal.” Games offer worlds that are fairer, more cleanly delineated, more elegant than reality. They are very far from dreams. So it’s difficult for a game to simulate one.

Moreover, what does it mean for media to attempt to approximate dreamspace? Inception toys with this a little, but generally the sequences in that movie are easy to distinguish from actual dreams. And films have a much simpler subject-position than games, which prioritize the space and the logarithm, establishing boundaries and conditions that need to be played with creatively in order to give the appearance of “breaking” the system. Even something as hallucinatory as the non-Euclidean geometry in this Portal 2 mod loses its mystique when the “trick” is revealed at the end:

Ruins is not half as ambitious with its spatiality as the above mod (or even this Minecraft one). It establishes its dreamlike characteristics in part by establishing itself outright as a dream through text. And there is little danger in mistaking it for one’s own subconscious — we might dream of ourselves as dogs, but we don’t (and can’t) have dog dreams.

In Until the End of the World, the scientist’s unsighted wife dies of grief after being shown an ugly, troubled visual world. The scientist loses himself in a similar grief born out of his dreams, in which she is still alive. Ruins is nothing so macabre, even if it is similarly ghostly and melancholic. What it does seem to speak to is the fantasy, even flight of fancy, of the subconscious as an explicit space — even if by the very action of defining the space, it stops being dreamlike.


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