At the suggestion of J.P. Grant, whose excellent blog I recently discovered, I checked out But That Was [Yesterday], a small art game that took 1st place in this year’s Casual Gameplay Design Competition. For another perspective, Grant’s review is up at Kill Screen Magazine.The game probably takes 15 minutes to play from start to finish, so if you’re interested, you might as well try it.

Briefly, the premise: you’re a guy. You have to move forward with your life somehow, but a roiling black wall of memory seems to be preventing you from doing so. There are three main sequences in the game, each of which introduces a new loved one and a new mechanic—these sequences seem to be memories as well.I’m generally a fan of “art games”—my glowing review of The Path ought to be some evidence of that. I like But That Was [Yesterday] as well, although I wouldn’t say that I’m evaluating it by anything like the same criteria that I apply to games which offer meaningful player agency. Before I get into critiquing the game, I’ll volunteer that I had a strong emotional reaction to the game. As soon as I was done, I went outside and played with my puppy. Awwww!

One thing I do like about the limited nature of the interaction in BTWY is that it allows close reading in a way that many games don’t. For example, take horizontal movement, the primary measure of progress in any platformer. I read BTWY as suggesting that moving to the right represents the “moving forward” of the tagline (“A personal journey about learning to move forward in life”), which would suggest that moving to the left—or facing the left, since we in fact cannot move in that direction—represents being focused on the past.Although it’s a completely linear, author-directed experience, BTWY probably does meet my definition of a game. I’m of the opinion that designer Michael Molinari’s QTE-like design feels a bit rote when contrasted with other art-game philosophies, but that’s subjective. Jason Rohrer and Terry Cavanagh make games whose mechanics are more fully realized, and although their work is precisely as linear as BTWY, they don’t give me the same impression of running through a tunnel. Daniel Benmergui’s games are also very different, more like little poems than animated shorts with added interaction.

However, it is actually running to the right that halts progress, as the main character is apparently overwhelmed by ghosts of the past. This suggests that some crisis is created by moving forward without pausing to reflect on the past. Given the tagline of the game, this is superficially confusing. The game tasks us with moving forward, and does not allow us to do anything else, yet we cannot move forward without first looking back. I’m willing to accept this as a statement that we must come to terms with our past, but there is still a mechanical contradiction: shouldn’t we be overwhelmed by powerful nostalgia when we spend too long looking back, rather than when we move too quickly ahead? That’s my experience of life.

There is a clear contrast between the brief, vivid flashes of past memories we get when diving into the wall and the softer images of our lost loved ones which appear when we move forward “properly.” To give in to nostalgia is to live in an imaginary world in which we have no agency, because the choices were all made long ago; if we instead make new choices and forge new bonds in life, our past will remain with us in a positive way (the mechanics which let us progress are also echoes of the past).

None of this reading is valid if my assumption about the left/right symbolism is wrong, but I can’t imagine another interpretation. To assume that BTWY adopted the platforming convention of always running to the right as a purely formal element gives it too little credit, given how well-thought out many other small details are.

One mark of the game’s success is that the relationship between the boys, with their prep school clothes and tree climbing, brought to mind the novel A Separate Peace. I have no idea whether this is a deliberate allusion, but the fact that I can connect a small Flash game with a book that I regard highly without the book “outclassing” the game is quite an achievement.

A final thought: Games I have played that aim (ambitiously) for an emotional impact always take a very abstract approach. What is it about loosely sketching a story that works so well, vs. filling in all the details, either mechanically or narratively?