Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Humbled: a Review of Gemini

High-concept games impress me; I like it when my understanding of reality is enhanced by having been twisted in a particular way, as with Portal and Miegakure.

Sometimes, though, it doesn't take much for a game to be a mind-opening experience for me.

This year at PAX Prime, I came across Gemini. Drawn in by the soothing graphics, I picked up a controller at an available station.

In Gemini, your avatar is a small sparkling circle. The world is 2D. There are no apparent obstacles; just the ground, which is a line you can't fall past. The game uses all of two buttons: left bumper and right bumper.

Naturally, I moved both left and right along the ground, but I didn't seem to be making any progress. I glanced over at the other players. They were clearly able to go up. I wanted to go up, too.

After skittering along the ground for another minute, I started pressing every button on the controller in a vain attempt to start flying. Sometimes I hopped a little. One of the devs caught me button-mashing, and tapped me on the shoulder. "Those are the only controls," he said, pointing at the LB and RB icons on the screen.

Exasperated and embarrassed, I looked up at the game's poster for additional clues. I finally parsed the name, Gemini. The twins, a constellation. Wait a minute. Twins. Should I expect another player to show up?

There was a glowing bauble that appeared from time to time. I had presumed it was a part of the background. It had moved around some, but didn't seem to do anything. I had ignored it. I did recall, though, that every time I'd hopped off the ground, that bauble had been nearby. Maybe it was important, after all.

So I went back over to the little glowing orb, and sure enough, I jumped a bit. But it wasn't a real jump. Instead, I ascended somewhat unpredictably while in its proximity. With more experimentation, I found that it would follow me upwards. The bauble and I were entwined, but only just so. I couldn't get too close, or it would repel me like the wrong end of a magnet. I couldn't get too far, or we would both drift to the ground. If I kept to a certain 'Goldilocks' distance, however, I'd move upward, and it would follow me a little bit. Only together could we ascend.

I found that I had the power to fly wherever I wanted, but I could never take a direct route to get there. Gemini rejects precise, Mario-like controls. Instead, you make a butterfly-like dance across the screen with your companion orb.

When I made this realization, I had to blink back an actual tear.

You see, I'm from a WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) culture. We emphasize the individual over the group more strongly than any other people in the world. The boundary I draw between myself and others is so strong that it took me several solid minutes to figure out that I even had a companion in a game called Gemini, let alone that my interactions with that companion could let me fly.

For gods' sake, I had rejected the power of flight in favor of telescoping in on the one aspect of the game I had the most control over. I was blind to the fact that my avatar could even exist as a system between a pair of entities. Consider my eyes opened, Gemini devs, and thank you.

NYU Game Center Incubator, please release Gemini soon. Every WEIRD person in the world needs to play it and be humbled.

These postings are mine alone, have not been reviewed or approved by any employer or company, and do not necessarily reflect the views of anyone but me.