For a medium in which the worlds, the architecture, the landscapes can never erode, video games are obsessed by ruins. Perhaps that’s entirely understandable – ruins have always carried an emotional weight in art, being a touchstone for the surreal, the romantic and the fantastic. But, in video games’s streamlined worlds of frictionless travel, tireless avatars and constant visual gratification, there’s something of a disjunction with the formless, opaque and forever unwinding quality of a ruin. At least, that is, outside of the world of Vane (2019). In Vane, the ruin is the blueprint for its design – a space where time eats away at the world, where pieces always seem to be missing or lost, and gratification is never possible, beyond the temporary flash of progress towards what may be an unwelcome goal.
Vane is not like other games. In a medium where ‘flow’ is the goal of many designers, and feedback loops are carefully honed to provide constant reinforcement of the player’s position, objectives and sense of achievement, Vane seems distinctly opaque. Built over 5 years by the 5-person team at Tokyo-based developer Friend & Foe, this elegiac game, which sees the player wandering a ruin-strewn desert first as a bird and then as a child, refuses to force your interest. Though the game’s narrative has a through-line of puzzles, culminating in an ending, its path to this point feels loosely shaped, open to revision.
The title sequence of the game sees the player abandoned in a vast desert as a bird, whose wings cycle from black through an oily spectrum of colours in the hazy sun. There is an objective here, a sparse breadcrumb trail of visual and sonic cues which brings the player to a creaking weather vane, ripe for collapse, but there are also square miles of landscape, in which useless staircases and eroded walls rise up like ancient archipelagos. The player can, without obvious purpose, land among these ruins or their surrounding expanses and hop along the sand. They can perch on the new growth of trees, the first fragments of a landscape perhaps coming to life once more. Most of all they can think, through the mind of the bird perhaps, about time.
The axis of time is never clear in Vane. From the desert a tower grows, with the jerky motion of stop animation. But, considering the ruins it emerges from, is this a return or a progression? Are we seeing the golden age brought back to life, or being accelerated into a powerful future? Throughout the game the player is caught in this tension. As a boy, they learn they have a voice, one that can physically drag ruins from the ground, from past or future. They assemble like structural tumours, one staircase jointed into another in illogical ways, the idle doodles of an architectural mind. There’s a plasticity to these interactions, which is supported by the awkward stumbling of the player’s nameless boy. The surfaces themselves are struggling too – hewn from raw looking polygons they are at once both natural and unmistakeably digital – polygonal ruins of fake stone. Yet the result is strangely analogue – all things struggling to exist.
Vane is a struggle too then, sometimes intentionally, sometimes due to a long development that seems to have left many small dysfunctions in the game. But rather than collapse the game, these imperfections seem to speak to the same struggle, as if Vane itself is struggling to come into existence, to be coherent, to find a fixed point in the flow of time. This faltering quality is an alien one to many notable games, and Vane will most likely feel impossibly alien to many who are used to playing them. But in its pitted surfaces and ragged edges there is the suggestion of something outside of an orthodoxy of gratification and flow, where the best games are those that pass freely through the player’s hands and eyes, into their minds. This is a pattern rarely challenged, the expertise of a game designer being one which provides a carefully built structure of difficulty, pace and ‘golden moments’ of narrative disclosure. There’s a reason for this of course, but there’s also a whole medium of other approaches outside of this that are equally viable, and perhaps less easily connected to the narratives of individual gratification that mark out the familiar position of the consumer.
Vane is a ruin, four broken walls containing nothing but the unsatisfactory passing of time itself. Its end feeds into its beginning, and the emptiness of its desert suggests a history that is never apparent. It is always already falling apart, always already being rebuilt towards another fall. The term ‘bird’s-eye-view’ has come to mean nothing more than a view from above, but in Vane it retains an older meaning. Joseph Michael Gandy’s 1830 painting A Bird’s-eye view of the Bank of England is famous for its conflation of architectural rendering and romantic ruin, so that it is unclear if its subject is under construction or falling into ruin. The ‘bird’s-eye’ in the title indicates not just the painting’s elevated perspective of the vast financial institution, but also the sense of distance from this formless ruin – after all, what use does a bird have for banks? For money? In Vane too, idling on oily wings above the plain, its clear that these aren’t your ruins, your staircases and fortresses. Even the player knows there is nothing of value here. But they draw you in to settle on their stones nonetheless, and then, having discovered nothing, you take to the skies again, eyes always searching in a ceaseless cycle of time.
Main image: Vane, 2019, film still. Courtesy: Friend & Foe