Don't Read This Article!
Terry Cavanagh, the pioneering independent developer behind smash hit VVVVVV, confused and bewildered the Eurogamer crowds with his new experimental project. At A Distance turned legions of players away after a few frustrating minutes of bashing their heads behind the inexplicable, impenetrable experience... but those who lingered by its two monitors eventually discovered a gaming masterpiece that's frankly beyond comparison. Cavanagh was loathe to give anything away, but discovering exactly what At A Distance actually is proves to be just as rewarding as playing the game itself.
In fact, calling it a "game" is a bit of a misnomer. At A Distance is a piece of interactive art that's primarily designed as an installation for expos, galleries and exhibitions. Frankly, it deserves to stand tall next to the old masters in any art gallery as a testament to the fact that examples of our medium are capable, nay, deserving of being considered as fine art - and it's the Indie scene who will deliver it. Unfortunately, this also means that it's uniquely unsuitable to ever be released at retail.
So here's the problem. At A Distance is all about discovery; all about working out exactly what you're supposed to be doing as well as how to do it. Knowing anything about it will ruin it forever. Those of you comitted to gaming evolution and excellence should make a beeline for it at this year's Eurogamer Expo, and I'll keep you posted about where you can find it over the coming months. For those who want to know - who must know - then read on... in the certainty that your knowledge will destroy an indie gem.
At A Distance consists of two controllers and two monitors that display a crude and colourful wireframe first-person representation of a 3D environment. The player on the left appears to be confined within in a cavernous cubic space, while the player on the right monitor has the run of a small museum or gallery that contains a number of brightly coloured boxes that can be linked together in seemingly random combinations. No clues are given, no hints about how exactly players are supposed to succeed. Most testers simply walked away after a couple of infuriating minutes... but after a while, two persistent players gradually realise that they're actually both playing together in the same game.
The enigmatic cubes in the museum are actually enormous rooms that the player on the left is entombed within. The Right Player needs to bolt them together so that his comrade can access them efficiently... and guide them closely to ensure that they don't choose an incorrect exit and plummet into the ether. In return, the Left Player can collect a number of pulsing, glowing orbs that rewards his fellow with a coloured key.
Key in hand, the right player has absolutely no idea what to do next. The museum itself doesn't seem to offer anything in the way of exploration... but the bottomless pit over which the structure inexplicably hovers rewards a leap of faith with a new area. A few jumps reveal a sequence of locked rooms that can be accessed with the coloured keys, which in turn contain new wireframe cubes. Which, in turn, will glean more keys. Both players are forced, encouraged rather, to closely talk to each other and observe each other's progress; doling out friendly advice and excitingly jabbing at where they need to go next. Two random strangers can bond closer than old friends for the duration of the game, with their discoveries and progress being a profound shared achievement.
Symbolism is rife and rampant. The closer the Left Player gets to his objective, the more nightmarish graveyard imagery he discovers. Is this the story of two people - separated by geography, moving throughout their lives and helping each other remotely without ever meeting? Is it an allegory to how people can influence each other despite being in entirely different worlds? Timelines? The implications are immense and deeply personal, affecting each player differently and allowing them to explore their own conclusions.
After a while, the exit unlocks and the Left Player gets to embark on a final hovering platforming section. Both screens fade to yellow and red... and the experience ends with a hug, firm handshake and the warmest of wishes. At A Distance isn't the right name for Cavanagh's masterpiece at all - since it's designed to draw strangers together and allow them to share not only an imaginative platformer, but the thrill of discovery and revelation.
And now it's ruined. Sorry.