The untying knot

I'm going to recommend you buy a video game today. The game is Saira by Nifflas. It's a knot that's made to be untied.

The nature of the untying knot is part of what makes some video games feel like a "waste of time:" that they are often ornate puzzle boxes, taking years to construct then hours to disassemble and discard. In a game like Saira (or other Metroid/Castlevania-style games) you start with no knowledge of the gameworld around you. As you spider out into all the nooks and crannies, you unlock new areas, eventually uncovering all the hidden rooms, all the important items, complete all the goals, and you're done. The knot that someone spent so long tying has been undone and lies there limply on the floor.

The predestination can be palpable-- it's so convenient, isn't it, how all the keys are on the correct sides of their locks? How all the clues are available before you reach the puzzle? Everything has been placed carefully, and you can be secure in knowing that it is possible to sweep away every barrier. This world has been constructed by an intelligent presence. To practically feel the designer leaning over your shoulder can be eerie. It can also make the experience feel oddly pointless: ah yes, this is a series of tests that someone created, for me to waste my time unraveling. I must go through all the motions everyone else has to go through to finish this exercise and move on. If you get to the point of "why bother," it's all over.

And so the job of the fiction, of the visuals, of the sound and music and all the presentation the puzzle comes wrapped in is to distract from the mechanical artificiality of the base interactions. The puzzle box has to be brilliantly crafted, but we must be made to forget that our actions in disassembling it are predestined-- that we are in fact volunteering to be manipulated by the designer. And on both fronts, Saira is wildly successful.

It's an indie production of surprising scope and depth: what you do is mostly run and jump around alien planets, solving puzzles using computer interfaces and collecting key items to fix a broken machine. The scope and depth come from the incredible imagination and attention to detail evident in every aspect of the experience.

Saira, a bold adventurer and freelance photographer (giving her something in common with Beyond Good & Evil's protagonist, Jade,) finds herself alone in the universe after a mysterious teleporter accident. In your quest to find someone, anyone, you'll explore more than a dozen different planets and satellites, each with its own unique aesthetic and set of challenges: some are idyllic and Earth-like with rolling grass hills, others covered in snow drifts or dotted by the ruins of a destroyed civilization; a derelict space station is riddled with steam jets and radioactive leaks, a planet with a toxic atmosphere challenges you to hurry between life-giving plants; the effect conveyed is of an astonishingly varied universe where each place has its own history and ecosystem.

As Saira, you'll become a master of any environment, running, climbing, leaping from rock to rock, and even occasionally flying to achieve your goals. There are some dangerous creatures, but there is no combat whatsoever: Saira's only abilities are athleticism, intelligence, and her trusty camera and PDA. Death is never a major setback, as checkpoints are placed liberally around the world, you never lose progress, and you can teleport back to your ship at any time. The goals and obstacles then are refreshingly inventive: not just the clever arrangements of rock formations and cave systems, but the cryptic clues scattered throughout the environments that you must photograph and use as guides. The different logic and timing puzzles take the forms of everything from a footrace to a multiple choice quiz to light computer programming and circuit design. Each world truly does have its own identity in visual aesthetic, spatial arrangement, and the logic of the manmade systems left behind by the universe's vanished civilizations.

The great success of this type of game-- and Saira is a great example of the genre-- is its ability to simultaneously draw you into both the raw cognitive connection-making of mentally mapping spaces and logically deconstructing puzzles, and the aesthetic allure of exploring new and unknown locales, discovering the flora and fauna and history of these strange and alien places, of receiving bit by bit the story of the protagonist and how she's come to be where and what she is. It's an experience that engages both the left and right sides of the brain in equal measure-- as Michael Abbott says, "Play Saira and see which side gets stimulated the most."

It's that sense of discovery, of freedom to explore as you want, of real ingenuity when you overcome a tough puzzle using your own wits, of achievement and completion as you unlock every last tricky little passageway, that makes Saira feel like a legitimately enriching, thoughtful, special experience, not just another waste of time.

And so I suggest you visit Nifflas' site and explore the strange, wonderful, challenging universe of Saira. I hope you'll get as much out of untying this knot as I did.

Illustration from the deviantart page of Saira's concept artist

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