The Agony is the Ecstasy

Happened to start playing GIRP again this evening and randomly something clicked in my mind and I went shooting up the wall further than I’d managed back when I was playing it a week or so ago. There was a definite sense of some internalised ability to get the “GIRP-dude” (as Rilla calls him) swinging to a good rhythm and when to reach for a grip and so on.

Anyway, I made it to one of the two really epic moments in the game. You climb up the left side of the cliff, then into the centre, but then you have to drop a few meters from that hold to one further below so that you can continue on up the right side. It’s a moment of kind of pure helplessness as you dangle there, looking at the gap between the grip you have in your virtual hand, and the one you need. The contrast between security and risk is so beautifully poised in that moment. You know you have to let go and let yourself fall so you can catch the other grip, but you desperately don’t want to – to this point the absolute core message of the game has been “always make sure you’re holding on to something”.

I don’t feel like you get these moments often in games, moments that actually give you literal pause. Particularly where you know what you’re going to have to do (and it’s no moral quandry), but you’re simply reluctant to “let go” and do it. I suppose the save-and-reload approach most games have now eliminates the sense of risk and so on. In GIRP you know you’ll have to put in the work of climbing all the way up again. But you can’t hold on to safety forever, so I let go…

… and desperately held the key for the grip below. And fell… and fell… and fell past the grip another 50 meters to the water. Splish splash. GIRP-man respawned at the bottom and I let out a strangled cry of despair and clutched my face. (for the technical GIRPers out there, I forgot that he would reach with his other hand and imagined him catch with the same hand he’d released with. Oops.) It was a genuinely great gaming moment and now, separated from the horror of it by enough minutes, I’m really glad that I missed that grip.

Because when I started again, I simply flew back to the same position in the game as if it were nothing (in reality I suppose it took maybe ten minutes or less). The challenge of the path to that important drop had suddenly vanished – I’m not entirely sure why, but I suppose a combination of knowing how and knowing I could. The second time around I made the drop and catch, but it wasn’t nearly as exciting as that first moment of not knowing.

As it happens, I continued from there all the way to the last few grips where there’s the second very challenging move where you have to swing across a (very small) gap and, again, let go for a moment before you catch the next grip. I spent a long time trying to get the swing just so as I dangled beneath the very end of the game. Then I released and, yes, fell all the way down to the bottom. It was kind of intense, but not so much… I know I can get back there easily enough at this point, though it’s pretty punishing to think that I have to get all the way there just to practice that final swinging move.

At any rate, GIRP is a terrific game for the ways it causes us to relate to the avatar on multiple levels. The most obvious and wonderfully achieved aspect is our physical connection to the act of rock climbing, our fingers clambering over the keyboard, trying to coordinate out momentum and so on. But there’s also the fleeting affective connection of that failed release and catch – the moment where you’re truly at one with the avatar’s imagined doubt and fear about letting go.

Count yourself lucky if you fall – it’s better that way.

11 April 2011
← next words previous words →