Terry Cavanagh's At A Distance Is Social, But Not In The Facebook Way

VVVVVV developer Terry Cavanagh's new title, At a Distance, is a social game, but it would never work on Facebook. Gamasutra contributor Phill Cameron reports from the game's unique launch event.
On entry, I'm handed a pair of Tarot cards: The High Priestess and The Emperor. They represent the duality of spirituality and worldly power. The dichotomy between male and female. It's significant, I'm told, that the Empress is missing, that I've merely got the two and four, with an absent three. It's awfully tempting to draw a comparison between this juxtaposition, when I'm in a pub in Vauxhall, London, to attend the launch of a game that's almost entirely about the interaction between the two sides of the same game. But they're just the tickets for the drinks, gone in half an hour. A good conversation piece. Last week on Wednesday night, At a Distance was launched. On Tuesday night, developer Terry Cavanagh was still adding new things to the game. This is a game that, by Cavanagh's own admission, has been completed for "months." At a Distance is not like other games -- not even like Cavanagh's past efforts like VVVVVV and Don't Look Back. That's primarily because At a Distance is an event game. It was made as part of the No Quarter project by the NYU Game Center, the second season of it, following the likes of the infamous Nidhogg and 16 Tons. They're games designed to be played in a social space, as an exhibition piece. It's not about sofas or desk chairs. It's about a wide open space filled with people, talking about things while the game is being played. At a Distance is the first of these to be made available outside of an event. You can download it off Terry's website, for free, right now. At either end of the small function room, there is a pair of screens. Between them is a sea of chairs, some occupied, some empty. During conversation, the independent developer I'm talking to keeps getting distracted by watching the game being played, before catching himself and laughing. You can ruin the game for yourself by watching it, you see, because half the fun is figuring out how it works. I'm finding I'm having the same problem; it's visually striking, and instantly mysterious. Just how does it work? That's half the point. It's meant to stimulate conversation, it's a game that doesn't play the same way twice, where there's more than one ending, and most people won't even realize that if they're not perceptive enough. They don't have to be, though, as the people playing it invite those spectating to join in. It's hard not to collaborate, even if you don't have a controller in your hand. Puzzle games are always at their strongest when they're a group activity, when you can harness the power of a few brains, rather than struggle with the concept within a single headspace. It might seem counter-intuitive, then, that this is emerging outside of this social space, being available to become that sofa game. Except that's not exactly how it's going to work; the game still requires to PCs to play, forgoing the likes of splitscreen or internet play. It's still social, then, once you've downloaded it, just a little more intimate.
At a Distance doesn't take long to play. Ten minutes, 15 at most, before you've managed to figure out what you're doing and how to do it. It lends itself to an environment where there are many different people having many different goes. In a medium where we're moving more and more towards extending the longevity of games, it seems almost like you're being shortchanged at first, when it's over so quickly, without really inviting a second go, except perhaps to witness things from the other player's perspective. That's why it makes sense it's being released for free. While my only experience with the game has been at an event, I'm not sure I can reconcile it in any other circumstance. There's no instructions on the website, merely a link and a poster. But, with an eye to play it, hosting it at a party, a pleasant distraction in the corner, seems like the best way to go. It's an "event" game, after all, and that's how it was designed.
It's really difficult to genuinely pay attention to the context of a game, when that context doesn't come with it. Every time I've played Nidhogg, it has been as a social thing, with people gathering around the computer screen to laugh and wince whenever something goes hilariously wrong. Laughter is a social thing, and to take away the people around the game would certainly detract, but at the same time it might steal away the experience with it. At a Distance isn't a funny game, but it is one that benefits massively from the people hovering behind your shoulders while you play, conversing while you play. So the tarot cards are important, after all. Because the drinks are important and so are the people drinking them. Because At a Distance needs to be stimulating conversation as much as it's stimulating your brain. It's about being part of the party, rather than the sole focus of your attention. [Images in this article were provided by Simon Roth]

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