I was at work listening to one of @The_Rami’s spontaneous interviews when I first heard about the indie game Vesper.5 by Michael Borough. It’s a game where players explore what looks like a pixelated alien planet by examining the local flora and fauna and squirly pixel things. Rami loved the game:
“I think one of the most powerful statements when it comes to movement has been Vesper 5 by Michael Borough. One of the most impactful games in terms of movement as action that I’ve ever seen. “ ~ Rami
There isn’t much to Vesper.5 aside from its twist on movement, which Joseph Elliott describes this way:
“VESPER.5 is a game by Michael Brough about rituals. The player is tasked with undertaking a pilgrimage through a strange, cavernous labyrinth by taking one, and only one step every day. … Each time you start the game, you’re shown a retracing of every step you’ve made; after taking your turn, your avatar defiantly sits in place until the next calendar day when you’re allowed another step.”
Here’s what the creator had to say about the game:
Make a ritual out of it. How will you incorporate it into your daily schedule? Will you tie it to an existing activity? Will you treat it as a ritual or merely a routine? Will you add to the ritual, embellishing it in your own way, making it yours? Meditate, say a prayer, think back over what has happened while you have been playing? Will you approach it alone or share it with another?
It’s a pilgrimage. It’s very simple, but it does have choice in it; even the smallest decisions have their consequences amplified when you can only move daily.
My pilgrimage through Vesper.5 started on 8/8/14 after I downloaded the game on my work computer. I figured why not take my daily, in-game step at the office. So from the outset, instead of progressing 7 steps a week, I progressed 5 steps a week. In the beginning the replay of my past steps was very short. So I made a habit of booting the game while I took off my coat and rearranged my seat. A few weeks later, the length of the unskippable replay became too long and too conspicuous to run full screen as lawyers and department heads frequently walked past my desk. So my routine moved from morning, to my lunch break, and finally to the end of the day.
When I gave my two weeks notice, I looked at how far I had made it through the labyrinth of Vesper.5 and came to the conclusion that I needed to head straight for the finish to complete my journey in time. Before this point, I had freely explored every plant and odd looking artifact I came across despite it literally taking days to satisfy every curiosity. I figured I had unlimited time to explore the world of Vesper.5, a zen-like attitude I developed after 3.5 years of relentless deskwork where the only thing consistent in my work day was an inbox full of problems.
105 steps after starting, I had completed everything I set out to do in the alien world of Vesper.5 and the corporate world of an international law firm. I started my pilgrimage on 8/8/14 and I finally reached the end on 3/27/15, mere days before I left my job entirely to launch Design Oriented.
Vesper.5 is an interesting idea, but the novelty of its gimmick quickly wore thin on me. The much-vaunted ritual theme isn’t quite in the game. Though the step by step progress reflects a pilgrimage and the time that passes between steps encourages the player to make a habit of checking in with the game daily, the lack of narrative context or background information about the monk player character left me guessing at every turn rather than wondering about the context, history, and possible connections. Repetition, and forced repetition at that, is not enough to make a task into a meaningful ritual.
In terms of gameplay, there isn’t much to engage with. There’s a lot of walking and sightseeing but no real threat and no challenge. Without some kind of challenge to it, the experience lacked a powerful way to engage me. But gameplay challenges aren’t the whole of engagement and are certainly not necessary to make a great interactive experience. Simply exploring a world and piecing together details can be effective.
I went out of my way to examine a mini colony of pink, pixelated, sea monkeys hanging out on a foreign plant on my pilgrimage. What did my choice mean? What did I gain? Well, I saw some slightly different graphics that cost me a few extra days to reach and return. That’s it. The game provides nothing else to consider. Every step of the way in Vesper.5 is like this; a quiet, reflective, almost nothingness. In reflection, this near-nothingness is near-laughable: I spent months browsing a handful of seemingly unrelated pixelated images.
If you want to take your time and explore everything, do so. The only real pressure comes from whether you’re the kind of person who will quit before seeing the end of the pilgrimage. Without a more engaging complex system to build rituals around, Vesper.5 was merely a test of my patience.
“Brough has created a game that invites existential and poetic musing, which is a daily ritual I gladly accepted into my life.” ~Joseph Elliot
Vesper.5 does no more to invite musings than any other game, or even the events you may meet with in your daily life. There are no fragments of text or bits of poems scattered across your journey to invite you into self-examination. Though every step costs a day of movement, the experience didn’t add up to anything. If being forced to make progress in small increments is what invites existential musings, then games like Animal Crossing, Giga Pets, or the Nintendo 3DS Street Pass games should receive similar praise for philosophical depth.