Avatar in Waiting

I played an Indie game called Narthex today. And by “play” I mean “waited around”. In Narthex you are in a waiting room with a countdown timer which tells you when the door will open. The door is to an oracle who can answer your question. The countdown timer is in an alien sign system (though conveniently operates according to hours, minutes, seconds). To play, you wait until the timer runs out and walk through the door. Or, alternatively, you can just walk away. Neither option is particularly rewarding, but the average gamer will, presumably, end up getting them both – that’s how we are.

It’s interesting that Narthex makes us wait – it’s the kind of ballsy, “fuck you” thing an indie game can afford to do. After all, there’s no money staked on it. Other games, not so much. In GTA IV there’s a couple of instances in which you have to wait for a particular time (for a date or a job interview), but by and large waiting is anathema to players. Please correct me if I’m badly wrong here.

In fact, the thing that Narthex reminds me of is that the opposite situation normally applies – games tend to wait for us, the players. This is extremely noticeable in quest based games, such as Fallout 3. In these games, the entire world waits until you go and talk to the right person and agree to do whatever thing it is. Only then can the large scale fight against the enemy army begin – when you’re good and ready. Until then you can wander around kicking cans for as long as you like.

Presumably waiting isn’t a big feature of games for the same reason it doesn’t feature terribly much in other forms of media. We don’t like waiting. Waiting is a boring activity to be regarded with hatred. People don’t so much as go to the bathroom in most movies – god forbid they should have to wait for the movement of their bowels. When we’re made to “wait” in other media it’s almost always part of an examination of something that you have to “be waiting” in order to experience, and it’s almost always rather avant garde. John Cage’s 4’33” is about silence and about how we feel about waiting in a particular context. Andy Warhol’s amazingly boring films like Eat and Empire (sorry, Andy) make us wait in order that we might examine with great specificity the single thing we observe. (And probably in order to mildly piss us off.)

Narthex of fails as a “waiting game” in that it doesn’t lead me to consider anything much, beyond my vague annoyance and boredom (hardly an accomplishment). The graphics are plain and uninspired – such minimalism works in the context of taking action, but doesn’t do much while waiting. You can talk to other characters, also waiting, but they’re very uninteresting. And, of course, in the context of a game specifically, waiting is a denial of interactivity, the golden rule.

Waiting can be a beautiful and important game mechanic, I imagine, but the waiting needs to form the background for a deeper examination, appreciation, consideration of something else – likely other than the experience of waiting itself. Waiting, then, feels like it ought to be a context in games, rather than an object in itself, a non-mechanic.

In which case, I’m still waiting for a decent waiting game. Ha!

12 August 2010
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