The Left-Hand Path Less Taken
I had one goal for PAX South 2016: Play as many games as I humanly could. This meant I prowled like a madman through the booths of various developers, looking for any opening I could slide into and get into any game at all. The throngs of people around some games were a pretty good indicator of who had brought the crowd-pleasers, or at least who had laid their booths out poorly.
Then at the end of a section I came across a sparse, mostly empty booth. A large TV in the center, in front of it a wooden box with a single button. Standing patiently to the side was M. James Short, the creator of what would become my favorite game in quite some time: Den Vänstra Handens Stig.
At first the pixelated graphics seemed like de rigueur for an indie game at PAX South. Upon a longer look, the game’s art stood out as inspired more by the fluid animations of the original Prince of Persia instead of the more common Sonic, Mario, and other throwback homages. Much like Prince of Persia, Den Vänstra Handens Stig is the product of one passionate man, in this case it’s M. James Short. The game’s name translates from Swedish to “The Left Hand Path”, which is an oblique reference to the concept of the existence of dark magics, as opposed the benevolent white magic that is known as the Right-hand path. This theme saturates many aspects of the game, from it’s pixelated black-metal homage logo to it’s musically likewise soundtrack filled with harsh, somewhat dissonant tones also composed by Short.
“…but if you press the button you must give a blood sacrifice to the game to ask the protagonist stop his quest, and forget everything he has learned, and go back to the beginning.” says Short to the new crowd that has formed. The statement elicits a selection of responses from raised eyebrows to questions about sanitation. “Well PAX wouldn’t let me keep the needle in the button for the con, but when the game is released the custom controllers will include it.”
After talking through the game with Short in detail, over the course of the weekend I dragged every friend I could over to the booth to share the experience with them, so I heard the explanation of DVHS many times over. Each time was a bit different, showing that Short was explaining his game like a piece of art he was passionate about, and not reading from a pre-written script he’d whipped up.
The basic concept of the game is that the AI awakens under a tree, grabs a red cloth that is waving in the wind upon one of the tree’s outstretched branches, and sets off walking toward a destination that can be seen far in the background. It starts as a blank slate, but along the way it will learn how to traverse the land it is crossing, and the terrain itself may suffer from random effects that will affect how it will appear when the AI encounters it later in the game. The only control available is a single button.
The game upon release will take about four to five hours to complete, and each playthrough will be totally different. For the most part all action is dictated by the complex AI that controls the character on screen. The AI is designed to learn through trial and error how to navigate across the varied obstacles it encounters, applying previously successful actions to new challenges it decides are similar enough and modifying expectations based on the outcome. The primary driving force for all decisions the AI makes is the conservation of energy. If it does not have enough energy, or it thinks it would be harder to jump across a gap instead of just fall, it will choose to just drop and save the effort.
Behind the scenes there are a dizzying array of parameters and calculations that the AI is using to make its choices, but the screen has no bars, numbers, or any feedback other than the slowly trudging AI itself to relay status. Through subtle variation in the animation of the AI the player is expected to infer things such as current energy and injury. This has the dual effect of keeping the screen clean, and also making the player have to more closely observe the game if they want to see what’s really happening.
The game is still under development, and Short says that while he has a way to go, it’s coming along nicely. The hand-drawn animations and backgrounds are currently the largest unfinished workload, while the driving AI for the game is in a mostly-developed state already.
What I love so much about my experience with this game is that it delivers on a promise that I’ve been waiting on for so long. The idea of games as art has been bandied about for as long as I can remember, and yet this is the first time that I’ve personally interacted with a game that I felt deserved the dual classification. There’s a greater statement about abstract concepts than you’d see from most games that attempt to be “art games”, but it’s not heavy-handed in the delivery. The idea of a game that you can only complete by allowing it to play out without your intervention flies in the face of almost every concept that defines a game, and yet there is a meaningful interaction available to the player at any moment they desire. To interact with the AI a player must be willing to sacrifice a part of themselves to ask the AI to give up it’s quest. Why would a player want to do that? No one can sum it up better than the creator himself:
“Through the time that you watch the AI on it’s quest, it’s my hope that players will be able to form an emotional bond with it. As time passes and the AI gets farther along its journey it’s possible that the player may start to realize what exactly its quest is and you may be uncomfortable with it completing its goal. So it’s up to if the AI is able to complete its mission if you are willing to let it.”
What is the AI’s quest? The only way you’ll ever find out is to not press the button, so choose wisely.
Head on over to the Steam Greenlight page to watch a video of M. James Short explaining the game in his own words and to get more details.