/ Leigh Alexander / 8 am Mon, May 18 2015
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  • How four keys can create a spectrum of feelings

    How four keys can create a spectrum of feelings

    Arielle Grimes' What Now? uses constraint and glitch aesthetics to explore emotional overwhelm, care for oneself and others

    We often call games 'interactive entertainment,' but like any other medium, there's so much more interactivity can provide than just fun. Arielle Grimes' What Now? is a small but complex thought space about processing anxiety, and about how we care for ourselves and others.

    The game (which Grimes warns may be triggering for players with sensitivity to themes of anxiety and depression, as well as to visual overwhelm or loud noise) is set in a single room with a narrow frame of view. You only need the arrow keys to play, but a surprisingly complicated and resonant experience emerges from the combination of these simple things.

    As Grimes often creates personal works on themes of mental health, life experience and queerness, you can assume you're playing as her, or some version of her, tasked with exploring her space. As you walk around the room, you see aspects of her life, narrated through her on-screen journal: A mirror where she wonders if she'll ever recognize the person in it; a toy sword that makes her feel strong, and a heap of clothes that serves as a reminder of the perpetual "shit" she'll never have together.

    Except as you stride through this small but impactful space, glitch effects begin to occur: swelling static crunching sounds, dissonant bright colors, dead pixels. Too much thoughtless movement and the overwhelm surges, your field of view becomes tiny, with the walls closing in, and Arielle herself becomes indistinct, a scrambled and unsettled shape at the center. She says she feels cold. whatnow44 "I’ve always been attached to games in one form or another. It began as a coping mechanism for myself, when I was young," Grimes tells me. "As a child I faced a lot of bullying and discrimination, on account of being very shy, against the expectations forced upon me & generally unable to vocalize & communicate at the level of my peers."

    "Games have always sort of just been there for me, not purely as escapism but also in a very productive way. They helped me deal with my struggles, and understand and prioritize goals."

    Grimes also talked about What Now? at IndieGames.com recently, and the ways in which it communicates the experience of anxiety and sensory overload. Whether you've experienced mental health issues or not, the sense of friction with the world around you is relatable: You can't see very far around you and you can only do so much to change that, lest you put your own well-being at risk.

    Even your own room can feel like 'too much'—that there's no way out of the What Now? bedroom is a constraint that feels ambivalent. On one hand, you're glad; it's hard enough to navigate that one space, to see and 'manage' all of it. On the other, you know for certain you're trapped.

    The combination of the movement constraints, the narrow field of view and the evocative glitching makes What Now? effective at communicating precise things about the experience of emotional distress and panic, the awful 'white noise' feeling of unreality that comes with an anxious peak, or even the very knowing that anxiety can peak. Past a certain point, even if you take your hands off the keys Arielle and her world continue to spiral away from you, a fitting metaphor for the surrender to fear that people experience in moments like those. whatnow55

    But what I like best about What Now? is that it offers something of an evolution on many games with similar goals—this is what it's like to experience mental health challenges—and works on a second level for processing your relationships with friends who may be suffering in ways you cannot reach them.

    The character on the screen is relatable, but is distinctly not "you"; she's her own person, with a distinct asymmetrical haircut and chipper pink socks. As her navigator, as custodian of her arrow keys, you aren't merely open to understanding her experience, but are also her caregiver, in a sense.

    As the player you have a natural curiosity about the room, a natural urge to "see" everything in it, to have it explained to you. And as a player you may be habituated to a certain sense of fluid movement, of mastery. It's admittedly frustrating that you must move carefully through the space on Arielle's terms, at her pace rather than yours, experience her friction patiently.

    Those long, slow beats of careful steps leave lots of room for reflection on how you treat those who aren't as strong as you are, or on how stronger people have treated you. "YOU LEFT ME TO ROT", screams Arielle's journal when her glitching reaches peak, because you wouldn't stop pushing. What 'helps' people, and what doesn't? Can you deal with the discomfort of simply existing with someone who's hurting, without pressing too hard to 'fix'? whatnow1

    What's more, the normal "player rewards" of discovery in the space—you know, how if you're patient you will get to "see" every object in the room, finally know its perimeter—are nothing more or less grand than Arielle's own feelings, some of them complicated and painful. There's no reward or relief or empowerment for you; simply the fact you've chosen to be there for her.

    The only object in the room that gives unambiguous joy is Arielle's computer and work desk, the hub where she creates and expresses herself. It's a nice moment of connection; the game teaches you that just by playing it, you're interacting with one of her means of relief.

    "What Now? was created as an outcry, a way to process something far too big for my mind to process on its own," says Grimes. "It being a very personal and direct experience, I hope that both individuals who have been through similar experiences can play it and feel they aren't alone, and also that individuals outside those circles can experience it and start to understand what is unknown to them.

    "I’ve seen so many different reactions to the game, and it all depends on where the player is in their lives, emotionally and mentally," she continues. "I wish that I could sit down and talk with every individual who experiences What Now—what they take from it is far more important than the game itself."

    It's amazing how much creators can evoke through just a few mechanics and constraints. What Now? is no great pleasure to play, but it's one of many important signs that pleasure and escape may not be the only, nor even the highest calling of our medium.

    What Now? is free to play in your browser, but all of Arielle Grimes' works are funded by donors via Patreon. You can support her ongoing game development by becoming a Patreon backer, or offer a donation per individual games via pay-what-you-want on her digital storefront.

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