Dioramas: “Existence Games”

Though gaudy for a myriad of reasons, walking simulator is commonly used and to the point. It’s efficient as long as videogames are described ludically. Rather than policing other’s language when it is not harmful, I’m going to endeavor for more exact terminology. Right now for games that go outside genre boundaries, it’s still necessary to say, it’s a walking sim, and; or, it’s a shooter, and; but if new words are more developed and precise, their efficiency will win out. Different presentations and styles of play can be captured immediately, without falling back on old, tired, and unspecific definitions.

Matter for Better is a walking sim, sure. There’s no goals to achieve, nothing specific to do, nowhere to go. It’s just a place to be. I decide when I’m done being and I close the game. That’s unlike the mainstream conception of walking sims where travel does have a purpose and the game ends once the narrative wraps up. Other apparent walking sims like Matter for Better: Serenity and Vestige, don’t have explicit goals or any diegetic narrative. Notice comments on Vestige’s page at how, even for a walking sim, it’s not really complete yet. The level design is good but: what’s there to do? Like travel for the sake of it, living and being for the sake of it, there’s nothing extra but one’s thoughts.

I call games like these dioramas. Maybe not an attractive name, but an efficient one. It’s not that the stages uniquely resemble models, but that their purpose is pure. They exist to be looked at. Needing to close out the game manually to disengage gives something like Matter for Better a physicality. Action is taken to use the software, to go there, but it just goes and goes. It just is. There’s a phantom feeling of it always existing and that the software interface simply allows contact. A bit of a silly feeling that could be stretched for any videogame, but other videogames are so demanding. They ask you to make something of your existence, to be in constant motion. Dioramas are places which ask nothing. Ironically, they offer more agency than games touted for their freedom. The game is disinterested in my engagement, so it all comes down to my pace. I look, I meditate, I interpret. I exist.

A stage can be made in whatever rendering style is popular and that’s it, a new game to be felt and understood. I mean no disrespect because that attitude still ends in very evocative and interesting games, like the aforementioned Vestige. A stage can be for itself. Still though, when “gameplay” is just my own thoughts, my constant self, I think it actually is a great effort for something to assist my thoughts better than laying down in bed or going for a nature walk. Representing naked embodiment is extremely difficult because it’s something that never turns off. I will exist with or without a tool for existing, so for an “existence game” to be effective, it’s competing with an infinite of already effective meditation and relaxation techniques.

Matter for Better communicates its only melancholy through a piano piece I assume is by the developer (the same piano and recording sound is found on Tom Trisdy’s other two games). Otherwise, it’s a very clean, small, quaint city. I love the posted description, though from it I can certainly tell the game is not meant to be tragic, but uplifting or relaxing:

Matter For Better is a calm adventure game that will make you feel better than before. Feeling alone, without friends, people or someone that can bothering you. Sun was rising on you and supporting you from the bad mood that make you looks weird. This game is no story, no task or things you must do but you must do something. You can find out things in the existing city.

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I really like the message and how unperturbed the english is. It’s a declaration for dioramatic games too: there’s no story, no task, nothing to do, but you must do something. You can find out things in the existing city. Matter for Better, despite the name, doesn’t make me feel better. An idealized town places me adjacent to ghostly memories of times in the city. Light colored textures with blocky, minecraft-esque models convey a childish wistfulness, a city as a bastion of beauty and grace. A city without utility or function, without dirt, without evidence of life. I remember seeing Tacoma as a child, thinking of limitless possibilities, but, each future visit a revision of harrowing economic realities.

Matter for Better is a return to innocence. An uncomfortable vastness, a feeling like everyone was translated to a better place. Nobody can come with me when I reminisce. Any better and brighter time in the past, any ideal I strive for, is colored by my own thoughts and perceptions. Memories and better things imagined are beautiful things as they exist, yet they cannot be shared. It’s is a relaxing, feel better game, at a cost of exacerbating loneliness. I can move forward with anyone, but I can only go backwards alone.

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I’d like to compare Matter for Better to Homesickened, but it’s kind of an awful comparison as they’re barely similar. There’s an overwhelming reflection on nostalgia in both games though, returning somewhere as being inherently bittersweet. Homesickened has a calculated homaged aesthetic, with a grudging attitude as returning is something that is done, and resolves with sour catharsis, an anger and regret at multiple layers of the origins of a person. I feel disconnected from Homesickened because of its deliberate invocation of very rustic designs. I’m sure it’s dredging up an idealization of a distant and unlikely past as plain metaphor. Very pointed feeling, a projected uselessness, dashed expectations, images held out to be uglier outside of the mind’s eye. These feelings are justified, but I don’t think the CGA aesthetic can really hold the brunt of this anger. Matter for Better was more effective personally at dredging up that grief and anger, leaving the processing to myself, and holding that expression as precious.

What I want to say though is that Homesickened fits most of the expected tenants from a “walking sim” like Gone Home or Firewatch, a full-fledged drama with things to do and dialogue to wash over. Likewise, Matter for Better, or Vestige, or Serenity do not. Though ironically, there’s really nothing to the aforementioned diorama games besides walking around. Rather than specifying the latter as “true” walking sims, I’m going to formally coin dioramatic games to talk about single stage games as such.

the featured game matter for better is here

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