“Oneiric Gardens” Review
You know what, I’ll just post the Itch description:
“series of chambers drawing from half – remembered spaces, feelings
“try to grind into as many things as possible
“NEW AMERICAN GAME 2K14 VERY GOOD PLEASE DOWNLOAD
“GAME N THINGS BY BIOFORM ‘LILITH’
“HONKING CUBE SOUNDS PRODUCED BY ‘PORPENTINE’
“CUTE SLUG BY ‘SIDNEY LAPORTE’
“it’s free!! but money helps immensely!! ack!!! h – help!”
“Oneiric” means “dreamlike”
This is a game in the same way Electric Highways is a game, in that I walk around some environments and do nothing much at all. Unlike Electric Highways, there is no structure, plot, overarching theme, or other excuses as for the existence of this title: it’s another environmental sim using the same low – resolution art style, though decides to go for Unity instead of the Build Engine. Whoa, that’s cheating! You can’t have 90s æsthetics and then put it on a modern engine! So it’s fortunate you decided to use Unity instead of one.
There’s a certain subset of reviewers who believe the best way to review a game is to describe what happens in it, which usually takes the form of repeating whatever happens in the game’s trailer, and the rest of the descriptions being the same type of “OH MY GOD IT’S SO COOL YOU CAN BE A DINOSAURRR” type of proletariat navel – gazing that results from people whose existence has been so mind – numbingly boring they have nothing else to talk about beyond the banal spectacle that game makers rely on in order to trick those without higher brain functions into buying a game. Upcoming developers: you may be tempted to put in as much “cool” stuff as you can into your game in order to attract these magpies. I will warn you that the type of audience to be distracted by novelty are the same audience you will be unable to sell anything to ever again. And for players: the more smoke and mirrors that goes into a game’s production, the less game there is, to speak nothing of the story.
The case of the environmental sim is special in that the novelty of its existence is the entire reason for its existence. If one is not awed by what they see, then it might as well not exist. The difficulty of recommending such an experience is the contradiction of the genre’s being. It’s main draw is the surprises and secrets you get to discover, but to recommend it you must share its surprises and secrets. It is an entire subset of interactive art installations who seeks to inspire through the same smoke and mirrors that other games use as a crutch. I then wonder why more games don’t take a cue from this genre and make their titles and worlds as fascinating as the environmental sims are. Perhaps it’s because so few developers realise that art in games is as delicate a balance as anæsthetic: too much, and the patient dies. Too little, and the patient feels everything. But you gotta have it, and if you don’t, you’re not really a doctor. And, for that matter, nobody really understands how it works.
The Contradictions of Sim
The sim itself is a short series of rooms and ideas supposedly developed from the dreams of the developer, who might still be sleeping given how their website looks like the cover page of a secret snuff film production ring. I get the feeling this is the type of developer who disables comments on their work not because they are aware that the infinite sum of human knowledge is still less than the infinite sum of human stupidity, but because they are likely to regress into a corner at the slightest provocatation of anybody saying anything mean to them. Such is the slithery nature of the artist: they produce their work, and they say “look at this!”. But when you share it without their permission, or you say things they don’t agree with, they call you vicious names, block you from their profiles, and create more propaganda against free culture and free speech. There are reasons why I love the arts but hate the artists. You can rarely possess your cake after consuming it.
There are rooms made of lava and rooms made of blood. There are rooms made of sky and rooms made of stone. Rooms where there’s water and rooms where there’s metal, and all of these make up the elements of fascination. Set dressing is the whole point of this experience; without it, there is nothing, and so I wonder if these sets are particularly underdressed. For such a sim to invite exploration across its every corner, there are very few secrets, easter eggs, or other topics of surprising interests that you can find outside of what the typical player would see regardless. It was like this in The Beginner’s Guide, too: you can explore the maps all you want, but all there is to see is what the story wants you to see. There is no story in this garden game, but it’s obvious which rooms you’re supposed to explore, and once you’ve seen them, there’s nothing left.
The art direction in this game, like all environmental sims, is what I’d like to call a “once – in – a – lifetime – holy – shit – experience”, but that’s tempered by the realisation there are many, many more styles of this type lurking around for me to find, and I have just yet to find them. The style is at the same time claustrophobic and spacious, being oppressive by how massive the spaces can be, where the closed – in rooms are more comfortable because of how less there is to see. The worlds are composed of pictures whose origins are unknown and would never be made today because of how low – quality they are. The entire creation of this simulator is in the nostalgic jankiness of the ancient Web and of schlock culture, patronising not only the innate weirdness of the digital age before the 2000s, but also the deliberate banality of how much bad culture we throw into society and just ignore because of how ignorable it really is.
All of this is told solely through art, and through no words at all, and it’s through this short simulation that I begin to understand just how much æsthetics can say without having to try at all. My typical school of though with art is in its practical functions: what art does for your psychology, for your biological functions, for how it allows you to navigate programs and live your life through material and minimalist design. It’s about how to develop a reputation using art, and become a man of class through appreciation of the finer things in life, and how these finer things are considered fine solely because of the design and the materials which they are made of. It’s about how so much of art, all its concepts and theory and wit, is an insular system designed solely to maintain itself without regard for how it affects the outside world. But as I mature, I am forced to make concessions that art can discuss things without any consideration of its practicalities or pragmatisms, and — at my horror — I begin to understand just what hippies see when they say you can never really “understand” art. Because this title, as hastily as anybody could have ever produced it, says a lot more in such an undisciplined space than most “disciplined” forms of art, such as the writings of yours truly, can ever hope to achieve.
There’s a magic to this title I don’t particularly understand, and though it’s so short, it is sweet, and I think I must begin to appreciate these “walking simulators” in ways I did not consider before. Story in games? It seems that games can produce story without saying anything at all. I wonder why developers are afraid to try?
I hate art theory. I hate having to admit that everything I know and love can be easily reducible to a few base ideas that anybody can learn and then mindlessly imitate to create “good” work. It’s the application of these ideas, without understanding the origins of where they come from, that lead us to litmus test games like Undertale and Earthbound that are critical darlings, easily able to manipulate the artistically unsophisticated masses, though anybody with a clearer understanding and experience of the medium understands just how manipulative and archetypal they really are, and anybody who gives praise to such titles are either lying to themselves, or lying to their audiences by recommending this pedestrian work.
But the formulæ help, and the reason we even have formulæ is because some time in history there was a particularly skilled artist who inspired everybody they made art for, and as a result they had scholars reverse – engineer their work to see just what made them so inspiring. Artists know the rules they follow and the styles they produce as a matter of instinct, and the expression of those instincts most often come from looking at their past work and seeing the mindset they were in when they produced it. These artists are experts, with scholars as rationalists, who see patterns in works and then derive theories based on those patterns. I cannot blame them for being scientists and trying to categorise what they had brought forth into existence, and it just so happens the categorisation produces a lot of rules and suggestions that anybody can follow in order to create their own great work.
And you become so experienced in the arts that you see these rules pop up wherever you look, following the theory categorised by TV Tropes and the suggestions as brought forth by other artists. You understand that good art has fleshed – out characters with emotional events and the ability to make one laugh and cry, and overall, feel the entire extent of humanity, to appreciate having been born and to exist and to appreciate the Earth that against all odds manage to support their being for the cosmic blink in time that they manage to be. It’s not something you can just apply a few rules to and expect to suddenly invoke those feelings. You need a deft hand, a disciplined set of skills, and the ability to feel the same feelings you’re trying to invoke. When you see art try to make you feel without understanding why you feel at all, and to create characters that don’t understand what makes a character, it stops being art. It starts being a series of base manipulations, the unrefined pink slime that could have been art if its producers cared about creating art, and to praise this slime on the same level of the fine art that I try so hard to bring to you… I can handle the insult. I can’t handle seeing you waste your time on something that’s selling you bullshit and expects you to enjoy eating it.
I guess that’s why I just hate seeing titles like Undertale and Earthbound get so much praise. They don’t deserve it, and to get so much success is an insult to everybody who has dedicated their life to perfecting their art. These titles, and many more like them, are not perfect. They are so far away from perfect that to have “perfect” in the same article as them is a slap in the face to the arts. To then give them praise for being close to perfect, or even being “good”, is to be ignorant of everything that art can ever do for a person. And ignorance, with knowledge against it, is the world’s greatest evil.
I don’t think that Oneiric Gardens is fine art. I think it’s a part of a genre that can invoke many feelings in many people — and in many cases, no feelings at all — just by existing at all. And I think it’s existence in this way is special enough for me to make it worth my time to talk about, and to discuss everything I’ve felt because of it. I don’t know why I felt such things, or the theory which caused it to produce these feelings, but I know that it did, and I cannot deny that it did. I will grow older and wiser and the magic will fade away as so much magic fades away from our lives, and I will be grateful to learn about the easily – reducible base ideas that is responsible for this title’s existence. But as for you, I don’t know if you’ll feel the same way. I certainly didn’t expect to.
Is too much to ask you to form your own opinion of a work? Or is the three – star rating good enough for you to call it good? Well, you can’t please everybody. You can’t even try.