Stefano Gualeni messaged me about what he called an “attempt at playable philosophy” on December 11th, so I am a day short of having put it off for an entire month. Not that I have valid reason to have avoided it for so long! I loved (and highly recommend) the only other one of Stefano’s games that I’ve played: Something Something Soup Something.
As you may know, I’ve written half of a book about philosophy through play, and one thing I learned through that process is that it’s often far easier to illustrate the notion of games as philosophical through discussion of ethics (even though I did not study ethics and that half of the book was my co-author Dan Griliopoulos’ responsibility): video game versions of the Trolley Problem, and so on. But in Something Something Soup Something, Stefano made a game about language, inspired by the work of Wittgenstein. His new game Here is about indexicals.
(Indexicals are essentially words that refer to different things depending on the context. Like “here”.)
Here very deliberately presents us with all of the trappings of a traditional role-playing game. You awaken in an inn. You find a coin in a chest. You speak to the innkeeper, who is unapologetically unhelpful. You fight a dragon. And then, you meet a wizard, who gives you a quest: find the magic symbols to open the cave. Where are the magic symbols? Here.
I don’t want to spoil the reveal, which is funny as well as philosophical (and those two coincide more often than you might think). Needless to say, here is where the game becomes something different. And then it ends.
What I love about Here is that despite being this very short game about a niche (if fascinating and globally relevant) topic, it’s so polished, a word I know many video game critics hate but seems a nicer way to say “not shoddy”. It’s simple to play, and I ran into no bugs. The voice acting is utterly charming, including surprise cameos from notable game developers Emily Short (frequently referred to as the best writer of interactive fiction), and Pippin Barr (who also makes philosophical games).
I especially love the visual design, which artist Rebecca Portelli explains in more detail here. Each area has a single dominant colour (the Purple Inn is purple, the outside world is green), with background objects left as simple line drawings in the same colour. If an object is more detailed and features other colours, then you know you can interact with it, and there are so few of these that they stand out really nicely. Characters similarly stand out, with line-drawing bodies topped with black-and-white photos for heads.
The player character is a cat, who sticks out her tongue when annoyed. And if nothing else convinces you to play this game, I hope it is that.