29 Jun 2009

Less Content, More Matter: Robert Yang's Polaris

Polaris was released earlier this month as part of a series of micro-mods for Half-Life 2 based around the unusual themes of a) not shooting things and b) not running around all that much. It's the first release emerging from the project's initial volume called More Matter, which in turn falls under the collective series name, Radiator. Unlike the confusing multitude of their titles though, the mods themselves are designed to be concise, with the intention that they become thought-provoking, original works of fiction.

This first part has your unnamed female character spend the evening standing at a bench in a forest watching and learning about the starry sky with her date. I won't go into it any more detail than that because I think it's quite important to experience it for yourself, unaware of what's to come.

On his website, Robert Yang, the creator of the mods, claims that they have 'unorthodox gameplay mechanics used to artistic ends'.

Having played Polaris through several times now, I am still undecided as to where exactly the word 'artistic' from that quote fits into the game. And I'm not knocking the developer. I just feel that in this time of burgeoning independent games production, some people are a little too quick to label something differing from the norm as 'artistic'.

Of course, if a game was created with artistic intentions then that, by definition on a base level, makes it art. You can't argue that, you can only say that you don't like it. The problem - in my opinion - with many 'art' games such as this lies with the workmanship that leads to the final product. Does it subscribe to the same elements of influence as already established art-forms? When you look at a painting, the visual aspect of the thing is the only sensual input you receive from it. It's set, never changing, but it can alter your perspective, provoking thoughts or feelings that leave you dazzled by the skill of the piece.

So, with games then, when there are so many facets to their development, why aren't they infinitely more affecting more often?

The answer to that question, I feel, rests with the age of the medium. Because it's such a complex combination of assets, we're witnessing the early stages of its life. We're finding our feet with the staple genres and taking our baby steps through experimentation with looks and sounds and interactivity. Perfecting all three in one glorious software application is not an easy task.

I'll end this tangential ramble swiftly by saying that, although Polaris hasn't deeply affected me, I do believe that this kind of gaming and the thought that is at work behind the creation of such a series is entirely the right direction for the medium to be taking.

If so far I've given the impression that I didn't enjoy the game then I've gone about this article in the wrong way. I really did like it, mainly for its atmosphere and quaintly constructed puzzles. For such a short, restrictive experience there is a tremendous sense of belonging to the world helped along by the finely constructed scene, with an astronomical map spread across the bench and soft guitar music playing from an iPod, it's hard not to feel that you've walked into the early days of an uncomfortable relationship, aided by the writing that accompanies play. Whether or not it happens to be art seems to be of no consequence when you're playing Polaris and neither should it be.

The novelty of playing such a non-violent, reflective game in the Source engine is also a big part of it's appeal. However, the promise of further episodes offering differing stories from other perspectives has me rather excited. Traveling between different people's minds and experiencing a diverse selection of situations, locations and characters really has me wishing for the next instalment as this ambitious series could well become the definitive Quantum Leap of gaming.

You can grab the mod from the Radiator website and while you're there it's interesting to read up on Mr Yang's developer guidelines that form the basis of the series. Oh and you'll need to install Half-Life 2: Episode 2 to be able to run the thing.

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