The Duration of Death: In Ruins
“By protracting life, we do not deduct one jot from the duration of death.”
—Lucretius, “On the Nature of Things,” Book III, line 1087
Back in January I wrote about a story-light but emotion-heavy game called The Snowfield. It was such an oppressive experience (I mean this as a compliment) that I never managed to “finish” it, if such a thing can ever really be finished, even though it nagged at me for days. After eight months, another student project has caught my eye. This time it’s In Ruins from Tom Betts, a haunting twenty-minute expedition that’s both part of his research for his PhD and a prototype for the procedural generation that will be seen in the upcoming Sir, You Are Being Hunted by Big Robot.
I recommend you give it a try before reading on.
If you wouldn’t mind, I’d appreciate you sharing your thoughts below, especially if you felt a change between your initial and your eventual impressions. I’m curious because while I now consider In Ruins to be a successful and fascinating experiment in minimalist storytelling, at first I honestly wasn’t all that enthralled by the experience, and I’m wondering if anyone else went through a transition similar to mine.
Not that I found it dull, because you’d have to be the worst sort of adrenaline junkie to feel that way. It was mysterious, and quite pretty. I liked the music, hidden in the background just enough to inform the experience without intruding on it. And I enjoyed the way the shadows fell across the great stone edifices as the sun crossed the sky and dipped below the horizon. The sole gameplay element (leaping into the pylons of light to gain extra height on your later jumps) took me a few minutes to figure out because I was, for one thing, busy exploring the island, and for another, under the impression that the reward for reaching the pylons was a few words from Lucretius, which for some reason struck me as a suitable bonus for hopping into a shaft of light. Finally reaching the golden light atop the tower and watching the island sink into the sea did nothing for me. The first time.
I felt quite differently after playing around with the editor that unlocks upon completing the game once. I made a ridiculous island composed of hundreds of slender spires, with walls so high I couldn’t even climb out of the water to the first level. After swimming around for a while, I quit to the main menu and tweaked a few values and created something entirely new, an island that was a bit more fantastic than the first, but every bit as beautiful and strange.
And this time, after exploring its pinnacles and its depths, when I watched the island—my island—sink into the sea, something struck me. Suddenly, I was blinking faster, and I realized that I was holding my breath. It was beautiful and terrible all at once.
See, I believe that so much of what we do is about shaping a legacy, about achieving a sort of immortality—relationships, craft, art, etc., are all tools to this end. And here in the middle of the ocean was a city probably built to last, to see the last days of the earth. Instead, I was witnessing its final days.
Now the choice of Lucretius started to make sense. After all, he did say, “What once sprung from the earth sinks back into the earth.” The stuff he was talking about was the very impermanence I was witnessing firsthand.
I’ve now watched five cities sink beneath the gentle waves, and it’s grown more affecting each time. I realize that this might sound profoundly sad, and I suppose at some level it is. But it’s not, at least not completely. The truly sad thought is the prospect of this beautiful gloomy city sitting in the middle of the sea for countless eons, unvisited and unappreciated. In a way, it only matters because it ended.