Debris

tw: anxiety, death, agoraphobia

Listening to drone around friends and family has elicited reactions like, “Do you actually enjoy listening to this?” and “How is this even music?” (Which is a brief reminder that “not an [art]” isn’t necessarily a videogames problem (though in games people have a consistent indignation and a noted immaturity, blah blah etc.)) I understand the absence of immediate appeal. Drone is unmelodic and very slow. Noise music in the first place counters the purpose of pleasurable listening and drone adds a lack of momentum. It’s like a progression and smoothing of fan sounds, a molasses distortion of a motor, a pop and crease of a heater. Sounds that aren’t meant to strictly hold someone’s attention or to entertain. Drone presents a space to subsist in, to bring texture to the frame of mind alongside contexts and processes that result in listening to it. Meditative music, in other words, but especially toward existing in the present and being with machines.

This softening of futurism is of course exactly why one would listen to drone. A music which focuses on a consideration of progress, rather than common expressions of lashing out against, or celebrating, the conditions we’ve found ourselves in. Minimalistic and unharsh, it’s music that beckons in a listener, to allow one to float and feel each slight change. Feel the reverberations of our modern world. I think drone music actually avoids pressing in on our conscious boundaries, avoiding the aggression and overwhelming expression in other styles of recorded noise. Because it’s constructed to hold in slight terror, sensations of being suspended, it effectively cradles modernity. Drone is truthfully gentle music despite what it tends to evoke, allowing someone to expand their feelings with it, instead being held hostage or lectured to.

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Debris is an odd and disparate game, beholden to quirk and tragedy. White pixels are presented and cleared on a black background, space represented by shifts of matter and their absence. A scene plays that moves planets—likely representing space travel—yet feeling like the disintegration of all things, with an accompanied garbled speech, an unfittingly human element among the fading celestials. All graphics are done in a raster black and white style, evoking the past while styling bleak demise. Then a photo, still colored in raster style, but the choice of represented media focuses on the real, as a very chipper woman explains your nonsense mission to clean up space debris. Initially this juxtaposition was confusing. To bleed through space only to end at the face of chipper bureaucracy, then the mission begins.

Space, and there’s no movement, no humanity. Debris shifts from its flashy and extravagant visual blend into absolute minimalism, resembling atari limitations. A slow moving, sparsely rendered microhorror with the objective of… cleaning up garbage. Not to denigrate the importance of cleaning space trash, but there lies the biggest joke: though the NASA images are real this job doesn’t exist. I have no idea how feasible training and sending out space janitors is but I would imagine it’s not very. Consider then the expressionlessness of space, the horror of its vacuum, propped up with propaganda, job structures, and human expectations that would manifest this absurdity of space cleaning. Presenting that somehow, humans have cluttered infinity, and believe they can just pick it all back up.

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All of this framing becomes peripheral. Let out into the void, with only white pixels as my anchors, and an oceanic drone calling out to the depths of space. It’s mesmerizing, overpowering. I theorized that drone music is noise that dresses and textures present time; a wallpaper for thoughts. Debris manages to draw all focus to these background processes by letting me float in the smallest way possible. A continuous, infinite sensation of gliding, accented by a sustained, implied infinite of sound. In that sense Debris is a visual aid, an interactive song. A gentle music transformed into a terrifying confession, a full marriage of very conflicting and dissonant aesthetics. A nothingness that demands the attention. A terrifying experience treated as another day at work. Existing in a place that does not support existence unless it’s artificially engineered. These contradictions build up an ungraspable fascination with space that is often incredibly romanticized; space instead as a metaphor for existential anxiety.

Debris is even explicit that there isn’t a place for humans in the wider universe, there can’t be janitors in space. Flying around and collecting dots is a simple task, but they’re randomly arranged in a compact space, and seem to be floating on their own. The effective space of this objective is much smaller than the amount of space that can be traversed, so I’d say a definite ninety percent of the time a player will get lost. It comes down to chance at the start of the game if the debris can be cleaned or not, though it make take up to ten minutes to grasp the futility of floating around in space, desperately trying to find the little bits of trash. Once the song ends, the situation is fully understoodI am hopelessly, indefinitely, deathly lost in spaceand there’s really no choice but to quit or restart.

Among the trash, which mostly is just actual trash and debris, there are the still floating casualties of the Soyuz 11 accident, the only humans to die in space. That these bodies are picked up just like any other garbage is a morbid joke, while also being a definite association. Space has no sanctity, no affordances for preserving or honoring human life. If these bodies are picked up, finishing the mission is likely. It’ll finish just in time to witness the challenger shuttle exploding, a time compression of two incredible tragedies of space. An unfitting rock song plays over the explosion and credits that’s either funny or cathartic. It feels like both and neither.

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These dark shifts feel like jokes only because they’re sudden and surrounded by absurdity. There was little to prepare myself for confronting death, considering the willful assertion that all there is to do is clean space debris. Though the betrayals give credit to another feeling, my initial feeling, as black spread all around my screen, as I saw the smallness of pixels on pixels, and waves of noise confronted me. To focus on meditation is less of a confrontation, more of a consideration. I felt conscious of myself in the present, in the immediate. I could reflect. I’m cosmically small. I’m not in control and that’s okay. I’m displaced, floating, and it feels fine.

linked the game in essay but a direct link is good too https://topf.itch.io/debris

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