I was out with friends once and a person who was a mutual aquaintance with a pal, and who did something or other in theatre, looked at a couple of us with sad eyes and asked “What have you been doing recently to give your life meaning?”
I think your reaction to the idea of someone asking you that will predict your response to Glitchhikers: The Spaces Between, a self-described “surreal journey through the spaces between places”. Do you think “what have you been doing to give your life meaning?” is a cool way to start a conversation? A better prompt than you’d normally encounter? A big question, rather than small talk? Then you will probably be more open to the delights of Glitchhikers, a game where where you talk about choice and predetermination to what appears to be sentient windchimes while driving along a one-way motorway. Where you take a nighttime walk around a park peopled with meditating animals who have opinions about magic.
As you might be able to tell from the way I framed the conversation, I immediately disliked the aforementioned person. First of all, that question isn’t actually going to get a deep or introspective answer from anyone, especially in the context of a pub where we’re having to shout to be heard and we’re all sharing a packet of cheese and onion McCoys. It seemed very insincere. I assumed what they were actually trying to do was sound more cool and interesting than your average rube – suckers who would just say “how’s it going?”. This leads to point two, which is that I refuse to be cowed or ashamed that what I’ve been doing recently is watching Netflix and reading cheap paperbacks, rather than considering life and the universe and my place within it, you fucking goon.
This despite the fact that on paper I should have liked this person very much.
Alice0 liked the previous incarnation of this game, and the demo of it. I can understand why. I myself really like the idea of Glitchhikers, and I love its presentation. Like biker jackets, bold colours, and vertical stripes, liminal spaces are in this season. Whomst among us has not felt unmoored from existence while waiting out a delay at an airport? And in Glitchhikers they’re very beautiful spaces – the literal spaces between, from one place to another. After each short trip you find yourself at the roadside shop at the end of the universe, staffed by a robot and with strangely empty fridge cabinets. From there you can go on a car ride, a train journey, walk around a park or find yourself in that empty airport, all journeys to nowhere that lead back to that same shop.
Like biker jackets, bold colours, and vertical stripes, liminal spaces are in this season. Whomst among us has not felt unmoored from existence while waiting out a delay at an airport?
In each one you can see the path of the others. The park has a view of the airport and the train track, the motorway goes past the same strange city of pink light you can see from the windows of the train. As you walk through this train sometimes a carriage will be a huge snowy forest or a city street. The park, too, has hidden portals from one side to the other, and is full of strange statues and light installations. You can leap around the airport, slinging yourself over the empty kiosks and escalators. When you blink on the motorway, other cars appear and disappear from the road, and you can never catch up or pass any of them.
This all takes place at night, or maybe early morning, in colours mainly along the themes of purple, blue, pink, sea green. Glitchhikers has a hazy, dreamlike feeling, like you’re half way between waking up and falling asleep. Good liminal vibes. Even the other people you come accross are weird: an alien about to give birth; something wearing tartan that gave me the impression it was a teenager. What you get when you’re dreaming about someone you met once and your brain is trying to fill in the gaps.
The problem is that you are, notionally, supposed to talk to these people. You don’t have to, and can turn off certain topics like grief in the menu, or quit any conversation at any time – and indeed I would have enjoyed the game more if I never had spoken to any of them. But speaking to them is the only thing to do in the game apart from looking, so I had to give it the old college try. An appropriate term, because many conversations in this made me flash back to 19-year-olds who had just done a module on Foucault sitting around talking about self and language. You ever realise that, like, everyone has thoughts and feelings as big as you do, bruh?
Each character you meet will be concerned about different things – loss, creativity, magic, technology, and so on – but despite an obvious amount of effort that’s gone into this, they’re concerned about things in almost exactly the same tone of voice. It feels like you’re just listening to someone else’s carefully prepared opinions, and they want to give the impression they’re smart and introspective. Worse is that this all fights against the surreal presentation. It’s not like when weird stuff happens in dreams and you sort of buy it at the time because you’re dreaming. It just made me aware I was awake, and also that I thought everyone I was talking to was kind of a dick.
You can steer these chats a little with your repsonses, but whoever you’re talking to will always be able to work that back into their whole thing, so it begins to feel smug and suffocating. Every answer you give is the right one. It’s trying to be meditative and soothing, and I am certain that the affirming platitudes will be exactly what some people need, but to me it was absolutely frictionless. I started picking the most blunt reponses possible just to be mean. When I told the meditating dog that magic isn’t real it said something like “ah but maybe science is magic”, or whatever. I further insisted until it said ah well, nevermind, and it hoped I still got something out of the conversation. Stop it! That’s not real! Nobody feels like that! It’s dishonest!
It seemed so hollow and artificial. A pre-fab construction of meaning something without actually laying anything bare. There’s no risk. Nothing feels genuine. And because I got annoyed at the tone of voice Glitchhikers has, and it threw me out of the atmosphere, other things started to retroactively annoy me. Why do game devs want to talk to strangers so much? I and many others have had to deal with the opposite problem on the reg i.e. strangers who won’t stop talking to us. How would walking around a park a). on my own b). at night c). with headphones in, and stopping to talk to randomers, be anything other than an anxiety-inducing experience?
Without all that stuff, Glitchhikers is an interesting place to explore, a suspended cat’s cradle with weird art and angles that are more effective prompts for thoughts than any of the voice overs about place and meaning. When it’s silent you have to have strange ideas to fill it up. But Glitchhikers as a whole feels less like a series of dreamy conversations and more a series of lectures being delivered at you by a self-conscious writer.