There are these magic moments in life when a work of art seems as if it’s sent to you by the gods. It hits you in just the right way at just the right time, and usually when you need it the most – Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye – and it’s cathartic, it’s life-altering. After you see them or hear them or read them, you look at things differently. You change. It happens most often to me with music or books, but in games it’s rare. Yet it did happen. Twice.
The first time was in 1992 and that moment is tattooed on my brain. I remember it so clearly. It was a little-known adventure game called Out of This World, from a French studio named Delphine. It came on five floppies. There was no manual and no tutorial. The box was cryptic and offered little in the way of assistance to my understanding of game-play or plot. I had no idea what I was about to play. I was taking a chance. Little did I know I was pulling the cover off a masterpiece.
The opening sequence was brilliantly rendered in a simple and elegant 2D animation style reminiscent of something you might see today done in Flash. The main character, a tiny man seen only in silhouette, falls through a hole in the earth and is thrust into a strange subterranean world where he’s quickly attacked by a large, panther-like beast. I learned fast how to use my arrow keys to run, jump and grab onto a hanging vine that carried me over this beast to a ledge on the other side of a crevasse, but as soon as I got there I was instantly captured and knocked unconscious by a Troglodyte-inspired race of creatures who wielded powerful blasters in this mysterious cavernous world. Fade to black.
Out of This World was the watershed moment of my gaming career. Every puzzle, every quandary, every tight fix in that game required you to think, not like a gamer, but like a real person in the real world. The puzzles were organically integrated into the game environment and all you had to work with were your wits. I was sucked into a vortex so compelling and so delightfully surprising that I sat riveted at my desk for hours.
When I ‘woke’ I found my character lying at the bottom of a cage suspended from the roof of a cave by a rope. I had no inventory or instructions. I could move within my cage but had no way to get out. I was trapped, or so it seemed. But what I did to get out of that cage not only blew my mind, it changed me as a game designer. From that day on I would never look at games the same way again. I understood for the first time that games didn’t have to be violent or pander to the lowest common denominator. Games could be smart and treat people as if they were smart too. The earth shook and the sky fell. I was greatly moved. But over the years I’ve often wondered, could a game move me like that again? Could a game stick with me in the real world long after it was over? Could it even change the way I think about the world itself? The answer is of course, yes. I found such a game again.
Snapshot Adventures: The Secret of Bird Island (developed by Large Animal published by iWin) is one of those magical games that works on every level. But before I tell you about it, I must disclose that while I was at iWin I was Snapshot’s producer. Now, I have no financial stake in the game, or in iWin, so I have nothing to gain from this other than the pure joy of turning you onto to something truly special, and also to make a point. Games can impact our non-gaming lives.
In Snapshot Adventures, you play a bird photographer on the trail of your missing Grandfather. In his journal you find cryptic allusions to strange, undiscovered bird species, so armed with nothing more than a 35mm camera, you set off to unravel the mystery. His trail leads to various bird watchers, researchers and editors of bird magazines who help you and who give you assignments requiring you to take pictures of birds. The environments are peaceful, soothing and lush. Populated with lifelike 3D birds and real birdsong from the famous Cornell Ornithology lab, Snapshot sucks you into its world and thrusts you into nature itself. The wind blows, the leaves rustle, light slowly changes from day to night and back to day again. But perhaps the coolest feature is an in-game editor that lets you create and name your own bird species which you can share with other players via a server link that passes small data files between individual games.
As a game Snapshot is a lot of fun. It’s pleasing to simply take photographs as you’re scanning the forest canopy in an almost iSpy like quest to locate Flycatchers, Warblers, Orioles, Chickadees and Wrens. And the more you play Snapshot the more you begin to appreciate the miracles of birds themselves. It’s easy to overlook birds, but as the ice-caps shrink and the ozone layer thins it’s also easy to imagine that one day they may simply be gone. And what Snapshot does is shift our focus away from the computer while we’re at the computer and then reinforce our connection to nature when we encounter it. When’s the last time a game did that?
After playing Snapshot I’ve begun to notice birds. I’ve always appreciated them, but now they seem to stand out as something special. I can now name many common species on sight, and have even begun to take my own pictures of them. Birds – these tiny marvels of evolution, these beautiful links to dinosaurs, these fascinating, wild creatures that live in our own backyards – are powerful reminders of how precious and how fragile nature is, and if a small group of developers from New York City of all places can steer my mind and soul back to nature with a game, then just imagine what we could do if we used our skills as developers and publishers to make more games like it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Games not only can change the world, they might even be able to save it, and wouldn’t that be ironic?