Monday, March 6, 2017

The melancholy of screen space in "Universal History of Light" by Stephen Lavelle

WARNING: This post somewhat "spoils" the 2014 game Universal History of Light.

Stephen "increpare" Lavelle's "Universal History of Light" is a highly symbolic "adventure" game released back in February 2014. Reviews at the time hinged on describing it as an "insane dog simulator" game, which doesn't really capture what the game does, so this is me trying to offer a more robust interpretation and understanding.

Universal History of Light begins with a short lecture about the dangers of using laser pointers with dogs. Because a small red laser dot is incorporeal and intangible, a dog can never actually "catch" it -- and they will never understand their inability to catch their "prey", which will supposedly haunt them and cause psychological damage for the rest of their lives.

You then play as the lecturer at the front of the lecture hall, and you point your laser pointer at a student's assistance dog / seeing-eye dog, thus inflicting catastrophic hallucinations upon the dog. The dog now enters the brilliant burst pictured above; what awaits the dog in a new dimension of pure light and knowledge?

Turns out, it is a world of monochrome trauma. In the distance, we see countless planes, searchlights, and anti-aircraft flak illuminate the night sky. As the dog, we are basically wandering the outskirts of London during the Blitz.

The whole scene feels very chaotic, with lots of jumbling masses and morphing objects everywhere. It's pretty overwhelming, and it's difficult to understand what's going on or what we're supposed to do here. But as you walk around, you eventually realize you're supposed to solve a short sequence of puzzles about acquiring abstract symbolic items like justice (a gavel), companionship (a butterfly fairy), and comfort (a hoodie).

One puzzle involves getting a carpetbeater to get warm blankets for a shivering homeless person, who gives you a key to unlock a giant keyhole near the beginning of the level. This is a pretty obvious and literal puzzle design with concrete connections (a key unlocks... a locked door!) and I want to contrast that simplicity with a different, more symbolic / more "difficult" puzzle: you have to acquire a hoodie, which will let you steal a carpetbeater from a store, and then wield the Gavel of Justice to spite the shopowner and keep the stolen item anyway.

The idea that a hoodie lets you rob a store is a very sarcastic representation of how racists believe crime happens -- for instance, the racist claim that Trayvon Martin (a young black teenager shot in 2012 while returning home from a store) was deemed "suspicious" because he wore a hoodie, which is a dog-whistle legal strategy for invoking racist fear of black kids -- combined with the racist hallucination that the justice system, under Obama's control, would enable this (imaginary, invented) black crime wave to continue.

In this way, unseen intangible forces like racism affect the seen world at all times. We are all like dogs chasing red dots like justice and equality, never quite reaching them, thus enabling suffering (the homeless man) and destruction (the Blitz) on extreme scales...

And to me, that is a pretty obvious straightforward reading of Universal History of Light, and I just want to set that interpretation as a baseline for thinking about it. Now let's think about it in another way:

Screen space is the 2D counterpart to 3D "world space", it is literally about the 2D pixels and coordinate system of your flat screen. (In a 2D game, screen space and world space are the same.) ... and I argue that Universal History of Light does brilliant things with screen-space shaders, and there's a point to why it does it:

As you walk around the world, you notice these jumbled masses of lines and noise. It takes effort to make sense of them at first, but as you stare into them, you realize there are messages hidden in them. The sculpture pictured above reads "WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF LIGHT!" and it hovers near the entrance. It teaches you to stare into screen space to read messages, and it is relatively easy to parse. Another more important but less legible sculpture reads "PRESS T, THEN H" as part of a puzzle to solve. (Many players never quite grasp that particular puzzle, and never complete the game.)

the gridded camera projection ("Image")
is the camera's 2D "screen space"
In video games, we rarely use screen-space in such a blatant and instrumental way. We usually use it to calculate certain graphics effects like bloom, motion blur, or the notorious "screen space ambient occlusion" (SSAO) effect seen in countless AAA games. (for a game that weaponizes screen space differently, see "Perspective" (2012))

You typically never want the player to stare into a screen space buffer or overlay directly, because then that supposedly ruins the illusion of a plausible realistic world. Ideally, the player doesn't even understand what screen space is, or that there is even a screen space to stare into. In short, screen space is not supposed to "exist."

In this way, the game directs us human players to act like dogs staring at red dots. Universal History of Light challenges us to try to gaze upon these distorted shapes, to peer into a projected screen space that does not physically exist inside the game world, to fixate upon these abstract "virtual" objects... like justice, safety, happiness, or the arbitrary necessity to press T and then H.

The light of these ideals radiates all around us, in a brilliant kaleidoscope; to emphasize this point, the player finds the "Gavel of Justice" in the gorgeous pulsing rainbow dimension pictured above. Rainbows are good!!! It is a gorgeous sanctuary from the stark black-and-white warzone outside.

But this prismatic rainbow look is ultimately unsustainable and disappointing. In the third and final act, we play as the friendly butterfly sprite NPC (one of the few other rainbow-colored things in the game) at home in their drab brick cottage, with their butterfly wings hanging on a coat rack and their butterfly antenna resting on the table. Epitomizing hope and optimism is hard fucking work, and now the helpful butterfly feels exhausted?

The last scene feels desperate: you pick up a roll of black duct tape, and draw a sad face on the window with it, like one last-ditch attempt at communication with the outside world. Lavelle frames this last shot with a text epilogue:
"You've seen and lived and thought
in worlds beyond my imagination,
and to such places you returned.

But if you happen to let your
thoughts wander back to here,
I hope you'll see how much i miss you."
The speaker and the addressee are unclear. Is this the butterfly speaking, or is Lavelle addressing someone in real-life? Whoever it is, the speaker seems resigned and wistful about the situation -- all they can do is miss someone, because they cannot quite follow.

I guess you can't blame the dogs for getting depressed.