I’m a sucker for a video game that explores romance, especially one that deviates from accepted norms of the medium.
Often, we can court characters in games by using conversational choices that please them. Sometimes, love comes from completing tasks or favors that turn other characters into allies. Although there may be some real-life, borderline cynical truths in each of those approaches, it feels a little too much like winning someone over, especially when true romance tends to burrow itself in our minds until we eventually realize it has taken hold of us.
This month, I fell in love with “Arise: A Simple Story,” the debut game from Barcelona, Spain-based Piccolo Studio. While it deals with more than matters of the heart, the core of the game chases the metaphorical sensations present in companionship. Life, it argues, is colored more by what we feel than what we see, even when what “Arise” presents us with are warming, folkloric fairy tale images.
In good times, high on being with another or the anticipation of the next rendezvous, we traverse among towering dandelions or soar in a bioluminescent waterway. But the forest can become imposing, an earth-shaking danger where trees don’t inspire wonder but fear. Thus, “Arise” is a game built for reflection, a look back on our relationships and how they mold us.
There are challenges, but “Arise” keeps tying them back to our emotional state. In moments of celebration, we illuminate a cozy world full of glittery pink skies and glowing flowers. In times of loneliness, the universe closes in on us, forcing us to avoid the shadows or risk becoming one. While we play the same character throughout — a burly man we meet atop a ceremonial pyre in the game’s opening scenes — these contrasts in animation reminded me of “Fantasia,” where distinct and wordless environments combine to capture the full breadth of human experiences.
“Arise,” developed for PlayStation4, Xbox One and PCs, can be a little tricky at times. It brings some light video game puzzles — running, jumping, manipulating environments — to its tone of meditative exploration, but these didn’t distract from the themes. Each of its chapters is relatively short, and each offers a contrast in styles and music. Sometimes, a lone piano accompanies a snowy, overwhelming vista, and other times waltzing symphonic flourishes grace an enchanted water-based world in which we sail among glowing lotus flowers.
Better still: Each chapter requires a slightly tweaked play style. Throughout, the game give us the ability to fast-forward and rewind time — we meet our protagonist when he’s dead and looking back at a lived life, after all. Sometimes, we rearrange mountains and right a fallen tree. Other times, we spin and glide through rivers. And sometimes, we must pause seemingly harsh elements such as lightning to allow them to illuminate a path forward.
It’s a shame I almost skipped “Arise.” The game was released late in 2019, landing when I was frantically trying to play as much as possible before the year ended. The game was met with some criticisms for its fixed camera and occasionally tough traversal elements, which also kept me away. But I ultimately found none of these issues overly punishing or distracting from the game’s underlying message and narrative. Besides, the game is never about controlling and mastering everything.
“Arise” is easier when our character’s mood is up, when the memories we collect — housed throughout the game in glowing orbs — are reminding us of our time with loved ones. In these moments, we ride on the backs of giant snails or use flowers like a slide. They’re instances that never actually occurred while the man was alive, of course, but it’s whom we meet, and whom we play with, that inspire us to dream.
Developer: Piccolo Studio
Publisher: Techland Publishing
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
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