Can a Video Game Make You Belatedly Appreciate Brutalism?

'Fugue In Void' is a hard-edged game about Brutalism and inescapable architectural detail.

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Jul 27 2018, 7:12pm

All images courtesy Moshe Linke

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

Fugue In Void is the kind of game that would have generated some discourse a few years ago. It’s a first-person game that abandons most forms of interaction. There’s no dialogue, and there’s not a traditional narrative, and for most of the game’s runtime it isn’t even interactive in any way that we would normally use that term. It’s undoubtedly in the “walking simulator” realm of games.

It feels like it belongs in a gallery as much as it does on a digital storefront. And, you know, it’s also good, a fulfilling experience that does something to move the chains for video games in a general sense. It’s a game that got me thinking about hardness and softness, opaqueness and transparency, accessibility and total obtuseness. In other words, it made me think deeply about what I want to get out of the first-person exploration game genre.

It might be best to think of this is terms of “hardness” and “softness,” a scale of conceptual concrete to metaphorical pillows, and I’m only getting to this imagery because of how I was introduced to the game. My frequent collaborator, the filmmaker and musician Chris Hunt, has been talking my ear off about the brutalist first-person games of Moshe Linke for a few months now. Chris is a video game appreciator but not a “video game person,” and I took the recommendation seriously.

The “brutalism” of Linke’s work, and Fugue In Void especially, isn’t metaphorical or conceptual. There are giant grey buildings made of concrete in this world, and they tower over other buildings or figures just like the real-life Brutalist buildings that popped up in the back half of the 20th century. In our world, these were and are massive structures of concrete with broad surfaces that displayed a shocking honesty about their creation on their surface. Look closely and you can see the waves where the concretes is shaped and pulled, fanned and scraped, into its smoothness.

Fugue In Void has a kind of pure honesty about what it is as well. The concrete buildings that you wander through in various sections of the game don’t seem to mean anything. They’re not standing in for brilliant ideas about humanity or the soul or anything else that you might substitute in the place of thick walls and thin corridors. Rather, they seem to simply stand there as giant hard edifices and you have to navigate your way through, and it’s only then that you get to the softness beyond.

I’m thinking of hardness here in terms of how intentional the game needs me to be in order to progress. Hardness as in the Mohs scale, which is how we measure exactly how hard rocks and minerals are. How much effort it takes, how much endurance you might need, to make it from the beginning to the end, and how much intentional concentration that the game might require for you to smash through it and make it to the other side. In this speculative way of talking about games, Fugue In Void is hard.

Made up of vignettes, Fugue is about the effort of sitting through it. The store page explains that the game “should be done in one walk-through [which] takes about 45 minutes,” meaning that you’re sitting there in a chair paying close attention to the game for quite a long while. And, to be honest, that’s a little rare for me these days.

I spend a lot of time playing PUBG, Fortnite, Heroes of the Storm, World of Warcraft, and strategy games, all of which are specifically built to generate a rhythm of attention and inattention. These are games that you can zone in and out, play for 15 minutes and then put down, or play while doing something else entirely. They fill time. Fugue In Void, on the other hand, demands time.

It’s “hard” because your attention has to grind on this impenetrable object made up of pseudo-symbolic vignettes. A vast clockwork device spins in the sky. You look out on a field of vertical stone on a warping sea of dust. The opening scene of a strange starburst so distant and so slowly approached by the uncontrollable camera that I thought the game had somehow broken or frozen. A couple minutes in I realized that, no, it wasn’t frozen. It was just beyond my control. That set the tone for the rest of it.

Fugue In Void is the kind of experience that really delivers something when it comes to that hardness, that opacity, that unwillingness to let players do what they want when they want. It delivers itself at its own pace. I recently reviewed the beautiful Shape Of The World, and my precise problem with that game was that it seemed to give in at every turn. It wanted to unfold for the player, and it didn’t have any of the friction of narrative or interaction that I wanted from it. It didn’t demand anything from me, and it delivered everything wrapped up with a bow.

And I prefer the brutalism, the magnificent raw structures of digital experience, that stand in my way and ask me to navigate and interpret them. I can walk through some, recognizing the corridors and the stairwells, but just as often Fugue In Void is demanding that I sit in contemplation of the object that it has placed in front of me. Unable to look away, unwilling to give up in the face of an object that doesn’t have any room for my mechanical interaction, I see the clockwork objects spinning, the corridors lighting up, and the ships coming in as I walk toward the horizon.

There’s a hardness there, the diamond-like quality of the video game art piece.

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