The encyclopedia was always a revelation. That was certainly true for me as a child, but my point here is not about nostalgia. The feelings that moved me as a lay on the carpet and flipped through entries for Iberia, ibex, Icatha—in all likelihood those were also the feelings that moved the authors and readers of Diderot’s Encyclopedia, which became the model for an entire genre of multi-volume compendiums.
The Catholic cathedral, too, was a kind of encyclopedia, as the art historian Émile Mâle explained in his masterwork, The Gothic Image. Both served as monumental reflections of the current state of useful knowledge about the world. As editor of the Encyclopedia, Diderot was performing for a secular age much the same task that the architects and artisans had in mind when they planned Notre Dame. Both were compressing the world into an accessible space.
What is remarkable about either is not so much that they reproduce what we think we know about that world, but rather the novel ways that they allow us to move among the elements that make up that world. In the 14th century, you might have walked from a scene of Plato discoursing in the Lyceum, to a depiction of the Massacre of the Innocents described by St. Matthew, to examples of the flora and fauna that would have been familiar to the duomo‘s 13th century planners. After the 1750s, you could move through those topics and more as easily as turning the pages of one or another volume of encyclopedia. And starting in 2001, you could traverse summaries of nearly every known fact about the world my navigating the hyperlinks that connected the virtual pages of Wikipedia.
The story of our successive compendiums is the story of how we’ve chopped up, juxtaposed and organized space and time, first as architecture, then as print, and now as the intangible stuff of digital media. At times, it strikes us with awe and wonder, the 18th century Encyclopedist no less than the 14th century bishop or the 20th century schoolchild flipping through an already outdated Britannica volume.
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Today, I am looking at a square frame, subdivided into smaller squares like the panes of a window. In one pane is a picture drawn in the style of a children’s book illustration. It shows a boy sitting beneath a white stone arch in a Gothic garden. In another frame is a second illustration, this one of two footmen holding an empty sedan chair, vaguely Rococo, between them. Apart from having been drawn in the same style, there appears to be no connection, but look more closely. The outline of the arch and the outline of the sedan chair are congruent.
Now watch this—I click on the second illustrated tile and drag it from its pane. What looked like merely artistic white space in the interior of the sedan chair is transparent, it turns out. When I move it over the first pane, the tower shows through from behind; when I move it into place, the two panes snap together. The arch and sedan frames overlap perfectly. Forced perspective makes it appear that the boy is sitting in the sedan chair.
There’s more. When I drag the footmen and sedan to another pane, the boy comes with them. His appearance in the sedan chair was no mere trick of perspective, then. By overlaying the two illustrations, I’ve moved him from one scene to another.
These are the basic motions of Gorogoa, a mysterious little puzzle of a game by artist and designer Jason Roberts. I call it “little” because at the moment the only publicly available version is a demo that, once you know the proper moves, can be played through in a matter of minutes. The full game promises to be bigger, though how much bigger remains to be seen.
In fact, it may be getting it all wrong to measure the scope of the game in terms of the minimum number of moves required to unravel its mysteries. As with the Encyclopedia, much of what you’re doing when you play Gorogoa is about folding and unfolding space. You can move through individual tiles, zooming in on this detail or panning over to a previously unseen section of the scene. Certain moves will trigger animations that move the boy through the world or alter the illustrations. When, for instance, I want to transport the boy from one rooftop to another in the distance, I do so by overlapping doorways that have no apparent physical connection in the world depicted by the game. Whether those transitions represent elided time, or point to a kind of magic based on the correspondence of shapes is not always clear, and that has the effect of packing the player’s experience full of intimations that resonate like metaphor.
At times, for example, moving one tile will reveal a picture spread behind the active tiles. The entire picture can only be viewed by moving the foreground tiles a space at a time. It is a bit like peering behind the surface of the game world to its underlying reality. At times, that underlying reality is a child’s bedroom, the walls decorated with drawings. At others, it is something more fantastic, and perhaps more sinister.
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I started by discussing the encyclopedia because playing Gorogoa is a bit like putting together a conception of the game world much the same way that a schoolchild might build a sense of the real world by drawing connections between encyclopedia entries. Indeed, the game begins with the boy flipping through the pages of a book to identify a fantastic creature that he has seen through the window of his apartment home. Having decided on a Chinese dragon, he sets off on a journey through a town increasingly invaded by the imagination.
A kind fairy tale narrative emerges as you shift and collapse the tiles, but it emerges from the progressive working of the puzzle, rather than as an interruption of play. I think of it as a puzzle in part because it lacks the flexibility of other kinds of games—at least in the demo, the sequence of events happening within the tiles is rigidly scripted. There is little scope for strategy, and the requisite skills are mostly observation rather than reflex. Even the game’s primary character is out of your control; unlike other video games, the boy is not the player’s onscreen persona, responding to direct commands, but rather something of a free agent moving toward his own goal. Solving the game’s elaborate puzzle only sets the pace at which he moves toward the dragon.
It is, nevertheless, a puzzle that compels, and the way it threads along that narrative is satisfyingly elegant. That is, perhaps, the most striking thing about Gorogoa—the potential it reveals for creating in a computer game the sort of puzzle that would be all but impossible in a physical medium. The interaction of the tiles with one another is complex and often unexpected. There are times when a sharp-eyed player can see the way forward simply by looking for congruency or potential points of contrast, but often those opportunities only reveal themselves as you play with the tiles.
Back in 1988, there was a video game version of chess that presented animated battles anytime one piece captured another. There was a kind of transitory fascination in seeing a pawn bash a bishop, but those battles were cosmetic. They did nothing to change the underlying game, which it would have been just as easy (if not easier) to play with a real board and piece. With Gorogoa, the complexities and slights-of-hand actually drive the game. Without them, there would be no game, no way to work through the puzzle, and virtually nothing left of the experience it makes possible. Getting all of the hidden tumblers to click into place can be immensely satisfying, and that satisfaction combines with the overall tone of the game to evoke a more complex feeling.
Roberts has spoken publicly about Gorogoaas a kind of interactive comic book, or “a card game that is simultaneously a magic trick.” In fact, the points of reference are many—sliding tile puzzles come to mind, as do the emotionally rich animated shorts, produced by the Canadian National Film Board, that Nickelodeon aired as filler in its early days. But perhaps even beyond those mostly apt comparisons, there’s much to recommend thinking of the game’s play-field first and foremost as a window.
Not least among those reasons is the simple fact that the game begins with its central character looking out a window at the city outside his home. The literal play-field of the puzzle points us back to the imaginative play-fields of childhood. Like the young boy at the center of the game, we are gazing through a window, daydreaming the world that lies beyond the surface of what we see.