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Gamescapes: Indie video game Torpor creates a new way to talk about mortality

In part six of the series, STIR explores how the video game culture, often associated with popular combat games, is indicative of a deep desire to understand the enigma around death.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Aug 11, 2020

In the living world, death has a surprisingly strong grip on all of us. Its cold fingers find a way to creep into our lives, sometimes too close for comfort. Other times we feel it from a distance, when it is far enough for us to ponder its existence while not becoming too unnerved by its presence. The outbreak of COVID-19 has been particularly interesting to observe, as we collectively face the threat of imminent death and danger from an invisible killer. Whether we like it or not, it has forced us to come to terms with our mortality, and subsequently, with what we treasure in our lives. In the past few months, I have felt the icy prick of death through my mother’s aunt’s colleague and the grandfather of my friend’s cousin. Despite these two events taking place at a distance, they have proved to be both disconcerting and also enough for me to recognise its inevitability.

The game catches the player off guard from minute one, killing the protagonist with no explanation | Torpor | Gamescapes | STIRworld
The game catches the player off guard from minute one, killing the protagonist with no explanation Image: Courtesy of Team Torpor

Death and the concept of killing gets very quickly brushed aside, a topic we would rather not confront. Instead, we encounter it vicariously through books, films and paintings. Video games too, elevated by their immersive and interactive nature, possess this capacity to design conversations around themes which we find otherwise challenging to face. Video games can walk us through the challenges of coming to terms with this phenomenon and exploring its nuances.

While there are arguably too many combat video games that focus on gaining ‘kills’ as the end goal, there are also many that approach death through a different, more interesting angle. Torpor is one such video game. Built by Josh O’Caoimh and Adam Waggoner in collaboration, the game looks death directly in the face. On how they joined hands, Waggoner mentions, “Josh actually reached out to me on Gamejolt. He liked my game Eighteen and pinged me to see if I wanted to work on anything together. I played his games and was totally blown away by his artistic talent, so I was incredibly eager to work together. I thought a game jam would be a good way to see if we worked well together, so I messaged him asking if he would want to do Adventure Jam with me”.

Throughout the rest of the story, the player is encouraged to explore the protagonist’s home | Torpor | Gamescapes | STIRworld
Throughout the rest of the story, the player is encouraged to explore the protagonist’s home Image: Courtesy of Team Torpor

Torpor came to life during Adventure Jam 2016, a two week-long competition. Unlike most video games, which emphasise the act of killing opponents, this one depicts the death of the protagonist right at the beginning, a creative decision which catches the player by surprise. The game then invites you to explore the life of a soldier through various objects and associated memories within the soldier’s house. O’Caoimh elaborates further, “I think we began with the concept of locations that contained interactive objects, which would transport the player to new locations and then we built the story around that system. We developed the story together through back and forward communication and then each focused on our own aspect of the design. We liked the idea of beginning the game as a soldier who has just killed someone, and then have them explore the person’s life that they had taken”.

The gameplay and storyline in ‘Torpor’ is layered and thought provoking | Torpor | Gamescapes | STIRworld
The gameplay and storyline in Torpor is layered and thought provoking Image: Courtesy of Team Torpor

While discussing the way the video game industry relies heavily on violence and killing, Waggoner says, “I think a big reason for the fixation on violence is because it's popular. Ever since the era of DOOM, I think people have known that first-person shooters were easy to make fun. AAA game developers can pitch combat games and expect a reasonable amount of success because they can say: “Hey, we saw that PUBG did really well, here's a game like PUBG". As a game designer, I am actually not a big fan of violence. I definitely enjoy playing violent games, and I certainly respect the work that goes into making them, but I like trying to constrain myself to make non-violent games. Non-violent games are more accessible to a broader audience. For example, my mom has absolutely no interest in Call of Duty, but she can happily watch Markiplier playing Torpor and be interested in the game. I think violence is a crutch that many developers lean on because, as I said, it's popular. A result of years of violent games being popular is that the vocabulary of game development is rather limited to verbs like ‘kill’ and ‘die’. I am really interested in making games that use different verbs or ideally create new verbs that other developers can use. So, with Torpor, the verbs were more like ‘examine’ and ‘explore’ and that was one of the factors that drew me to the idea. With Torpor, I primarily hoped that people would get it, but I also wanted players to come away feeling like they had a unique experience”.

On a similar train of thought, O’Caoimh explains, “I think the most popular games are competitive, social, have a skill curve that gives the player a sense of improvement, and which constantly provide the player with the challenge of outsmarting their opponent. When they succeed it’s a very rewarding feeling and when they fail, they learn, which provides a sense of improvement over time. I think it’s just difficult to make a game that fulfils all of those aspects without it revolving around players killing each other. Games like Minecraft and Rocket League have done it”. The duo is currently working on their next project titled Please Respond, Colony One, which is similar to Torpor and invites the player to piece together the story like a puzzle.

01 min watch The official trailer of Torpor | Torpor | Gamescapes | STIRworld
The official trailer of Torpor. The game can be played on Linux and Windows. Video: Courtesy of Team Torpor

While Torpor is a conceptually intriguing video game, it is a relatively small one. This is perhaps due to it being the product of a two-week long game jam. However, the captivating and engaging nature of the game leaves me wishing there was more of the Torpor universe for me to discover. That being said, it is an exemplary illustration of how video games can expand on difficult conversations like health, death and emotional complexities. The form itself allows for dynamic shifts in perspective and cultivation of plural perspectives, while being absorbing and fun too. Some more games which tackle the swathe of complexity within the idea of death in a rather unique manner are Death Stranding by Hideo Kojima Studios and What Remains of Edith Finch by Giant Sparrow.

The gameplay and storyline in ‘Torpor’ is layered and thought provoking | Torpor | Gamescapes | STIRworld
The gameplay and storyline in Torpor is layered and thought provoking Image: Courtesy of Team Torpor

Click here to know more about video games as an artform and read the other articles in the Gamescapes series presented by STIR.

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