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Video: Splashing about in Rehearsals and Returns

(from June 24, 2014)


Hello. I'm Cha and I like splashing about in video games. Today I'm wading into Rehearsals and Returns, which is marketed as a game about conversations that will never take place. It's the latest from Peter Brinson, and I think some of his students out of the University of Southern California.

His previous game was The Cat and the Coup, about the CIA engineered take down of Iran's prime minister in the '50s.Where you play as the prime minister's cat and it has pretty cool aesthetics. Both Rehearsals and Returns and The Cat and the Coup are a creative blend of fantasy and reality. But The Cat and the Coup is a documentary at is core, while Rehearsals and Returns is much more of a fantasy, just one that makes use of real world symbols and ideas. The other major difference is that The Cat and the Coup had a clear political agenda, which is no bad thing. But Rehearsals and Returns is more of a playground for your own opinions.

There is a choice of two avatars. I always like it when they aren't explicitly labelled as male and female so I can interpret them for myself. And I'm pretty sure there isn't any gendered language in this game or at least, that when there is it's within a famous quote. At the beginning I'm presented with a selection of three of these quotes. "Punishment is now unfashionable because it creates moral distinctions among men which to the democratic mind are odious" - slightly ominous place to start. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change things I can; And wisdom to know the difference" - Better. "It is not the strongest to survive but those most willing to adapt" - Yes and no I'd say, this seems like a really easy quote to misuse outside its intended context.

Each section at the game is a series of doors, with people to speak to. The doors repeating the loop until moving on to the next section. Initially these doors all contain people I know like a cousin or my dentist. At the end of each level is an imaginary conversation. At first my only option is to say one of those quotes...and then it's replaced with something new." You have no power at all if you do not exercise constant power." - Not exactly what I would call wisdom but okay.

In the levels I also pick up love or hate statements which I can use as dialogue options. Basically the choice to be nice or mean to the people you meet. Personally I'd take an honest criticism over a fake compliment every time but there's no system for judging sincerity heretic sort of feel like sincerity is implied though there's no way to stop someone from doing a troll play through if they want. I don't have much to say to my cousin, my dentist or my neighbour I usually resort to the quotes in these
situations they become a fall-back when I don't have something more tangible to say. This condensed 'maybe-wisdom' is theoretically meaningful but in a trite sound bite it becomes nothing more than small talk. To my hypothetical neighbour I suggest they should be better, which is labelled as I hate response. But I actually believe we could all do better.

My basic strategy is to keep a range of responses around, some love, some hate, and usually to avoid the really extreme statements, whether positive or negative. I'm not really looking ahead and thinking about what I might want to say to particular people until I get there It's not an optimal way to play but that's okay.

These dialogue options are restrictive but so is reality. I rarely come up with anything satisfying to say until after the fact.

Not every interaction needs to resonate for this to be worthwhile. In my circle of acquaintances the most meaningful fake interaction for me was to address my boss or school principal. I look them in the eye and say "I am NOT impressed". Generally an appropriate thought with authority figures in my experience. I don't know, I get patronised a lot by people who probably think they're being incredibly helpful and friendly.

Conversation, or at least the idea of conversation, is the most important aspect of his game but it's happening within the context of simple platforming levels. There isn't a jump button but you can get a boost from small bumps in the landscape. At first they don't send you very high but this increases with experience. In many cases falling is the only way to progress.

At the start of each level I drop-down out of a mass of identical human figures, each the same as the avatar I chose, like maybe these are different versions of myself from other times or different experiences. Or different possibilities that exist in my mind. My avatar moves smoothly and has a clear outline. The environments are scrappy but familiar, set against landscape backdrops like farmland or a tropical island.

I've seen predictable reactions from people who think this looks like it was thrown together in MS Paint, but it's all very intentional with some clear artistic influences. I don't know if the art style completely works but in a way it does feel like the brain's approach to imagining scenery. Which is real in a sense but also intangible and subject to change. Most of the details are sketchy and irrelevant until you have a reason to focus on them. And the clearest thing that persists through all that is a sense of self.

Especially in the early levels there are a lot of hints and reassuring messages from the game and its characters. No you haven't missed anything there really isn't a jump button. Later you will jump high enough. Falling is progress; you're not dying or failing. If you don't keep a love or hate statement you will see it again.

There's some psychology stuff about how much people dislike feeling like they're cutting off choices. Like in Dragon Age or Mass Effect most people put off choosing between romance options for as long as they possibly can to keep their options open. Even if they aren't that interested in some of them. People don't like to feel like they're missing out on something.

You will not be punished for what you say this is all just a rehearsal. More reassurance, this time that we aren't going to have any consequences. As much as I don't like having all this spelled out it is making a point about the entitled approach to getting choice, where it's all about making people feel important and like every little thing they do has some kind of grand meaning. But this is a more personal game, not a power fantasy, and what consequences do exist will be internal, not so much in the game itself. Besides, there is also a kind of power in being able to experiment safely and avoid consequences.

Remember, falling is still not failure. Yeah, I got that. Do you get the feeling from all this that game players are a fragile lot and need a lot of prompting and looking after? Possibly fair. The second and third sections of the game have you talking to famous figures. First from the present day and then from history. Although that could be very recent history. Really just people who are no longer with us.

To me there's not much practical difference. If I don't know someone they're more of a symbol than an individual, so I'm not sure it matters for this interaction if they're still living or not. But there is a progression here like growing up. First learning that there are people you don't know, and then that people die. Unless the game continues to update this distinction between the living and the dead makes this very much a product of this point in time.

I met The Pope in this imaginary world and wondered how much longer he would be The Pope when he hasn't been in the best of health. And honestly there are plenty of examples among the dead more relevant to my current world view. I know the current Pope is supposedly less awful than the previous ones, possibly a little more grounded, but I don't think that's good enough.

But other current figures seem more relevant. Edward Snowden is a symbol of one of the huge issues of our time which I'm not even going to try and do justice to here. So, slight gamey tangent instead. Because there was some stuff around recently about how some of Snowden's ideas about morality growing up came from games, in the sense that you're often a small, ordinary person who has to find a way to stand up to injustice. Which is a little bit cute, but no more or less valid than most people's influences. And now there are a lot of games about the guy, and I'd be really curious to know what he thinks about all that.

"It is not terrible to see you." Well, that's a weak thing for me to say.

Everything is political but I struggle to understand people involved in what we formally called politics. I can't really relate to anyone who would be willing to deal with that world, even though intellectually understand why it matters to them. Hillary Clinton thinks I mean, apparently.

I don't really believe in good or evil, so I'm very wary about either putting people on pedestals as role models or demonising them. People are too complicated for that, and none of us could really live up to either of those roles. I feel like I understand creativity and activism more than politicians people struggled to understand Yoko Ono and she got a hard time from a lot of people and that makes me feel as though I like her but it's all pretty shallow as understanding goes.

People as symbols fall apart easily. Mother Teresa has been built up as a massive symbol of compassion and charity, but she also saw something beautiful and good in the suffering of the poor, and was arguably more interested in missionary work than actually helping anyone. And as you would probably expect she was firmly against contraception and abortion. If I met her I don't think we would get along.

"Mother I think of you first when I try to understand unimaginable evil." Not strictly true since I don't believe in evil, but I have some strong feelings here.

The thing that stands out for me about Darwin is that he was such an anxiety-muffin. He spent a lot of time at home and flaked on people's invitations, and in that way he seems more relatable than a lot of historical figures. l feel like an arse trying to give Darwin a pep talk.

With Steve Jobs I struggle to express my feelings about what he created, but large companies are some of the scariest power around so the quote about power will do. I don't trust Apple, Google, Microsoft or whoever to look out for us.

The fourth section of the game returns to the personal, maybe containing some regrets and losses. The aesthetics become more glitch-like here. Maybe exposing the brain and memory as just as flawed and error-prone as a computer system. Here I try to talk to my first crush. What I'd really like to say is that I'm sorry we used to beat you up. That was fucked up. I didn't know better ways to express myself. And I think at that time I struggled to properly connect what pain looks like from the outside with how it really feels, but that's no excuse. I can only really respond to myself when I say "You should have done it differently."

My parents at my age were already my parents, but I try approaching them anyway. "Time moves in one direction, memory in another." I don't really believe that. I don't want to look back to my childhood, and I hope my parents don't either.

In this section I stop in open the door to see "That friend I stopped writing. "That seems rather old-fashioned but I've certainly drifted away from plenty of people.

Several characters in the game refer back to your responses to other people and in this case they bring up Steve Jobs. When you said something mean to Steve Jobs I wonder what he thought." Either the game's bugged here or it's possible for the wisdom statements to count as mean. That's fine though, maybe he should have thought of that before killing off Hypercard.

"Just because everything is different doesn't mean anything has changed." Yeah, I haven't formally ended many friendships in my life. Drifting is normal but unless I've said otherwise I probably still care.

The finale involves thinking about what to say to someone who is never coming back. We're just falling here and can't stop the flow of time. I'm a bit of a smart-arse about it - "Life is wasted on the living." It's really just that I don't know what to say. Most of my never-coming-backs aren't actually dead and I have no right to say anything to them, even inside my head.

The game wraps up with some player stats in the style of Telltale's The Walking Dead. It's all a bit judgey for something that claimed it wasn't going to have consequences. It says that most people were nice, but I was more hateful. That doesn't surprise me at all, it bothers me that society often values positivity regardless of whether it's honest or achieving anything useful. Anyway I don't really believe things can be so easily classified as nice or mean full stop. I can criticise people or the things they say and do but it really comes from a place or hate.

Although I did indulge that twice during this playthrough. I already mentioned what I said to Mother Teresa. I was also a really nasty to Ayn Rand. But for the rest I think hate is a really extreme word to use.

The stats suggest that most people are mean to themselves ten years ago. I called myself a hypocrite which is still am, and I think of it more as checking myself and being aware of my limitations. It might be mean if I said it to someone else but this is not equivalent.

I'm still not completely sure how I feel about all this. Rehearsals and Returns feels intriguing to play through and it's messing with some ideas I appreciate. It leaves a lot to think about. I'm seriously haunted by conversations that will never happen or how inadequate real conversation
ends up being. I have these kinds of encounters in my head every day. Communication is really hard, especially for hermits like me who don't get a lot of opportunities, and have time to obsess over every detail afterwards. But I do disagree with the framework it uses for thinking about communication. It's particularly held back by equating negativity with hate. Sometimes even fairly neutral statements with hate.

And the things I would most like to say to people have nothing to do with either hostility or admiration. I do better with people as people rather than as symbols.