Is this what we wake up to when we die?
AENTITY by ARQUOIA is a tool for the aspiring artist — or for the artist in need of inspiration — but also a game with rules to learn and secrets to discover. It’s loosely based on a poem sent by John Keats to his brother, in trying to comfort him as he lies sick in tuberculosis and eventually dying from it — just like John himself a few years later (at age 25). You might find him in here somewhere, because this is the afterlife¹ and you are the paint brush on the canvas of death². The game lands somewhere between being an art generator and a tool for self expression, but it’s also an art piece in itself and something to meditate over.
Your mere existence in this world changes it, so what you see depends on your own movement as you look around and explore. The world is in 3D and you move around in the usual fashion, but there are a number of filters applied to create all those glitches you would normally want to avoid (like not erasing a game character as it moves, resulting in constant duplication), so the underlying shape of the landscape is one of the great unknowns, but you might get glimpses of it as you delve deeper.
Even if the game might sound like a simple generator or automaton, there is still a certain degree of artistic expression and freedom involved: It takes time and dedication to find scenery to call your own (and something you can understand or feel for). You can also control what’s happening on-screen to make things more personal, and afterwards there’s the process of critical selection: I took a little over 200 screenshots while preparing for this review and then cut them down to 20 (discarding the rest). There is a lot to find, but everything might not be what you are looking for.
The main mechanic is to create, but that’s not the only one: the art space you’re visiting, as shown in scene select mode, is divided into several smaller, room-like spaces, with one painting per each. At the start, each painting is empty, but by learning the rules of the game, you can travel from canvas to canvas and fill them in. Scene select is the gallery³ you’re in, but it only works as a container or for when you want to fast-travel to an already visited painting.
You are all alone, except for the worlds you are painting and filling the gallery with. These worlds are sometimes inhabited by thin, long-legged creatures (almost Giacometti-like, but smoother), others reminding me of something out of a painting by Francis Bacon⁴, melting in the harsh light from an oblong-shaped red dwarf⁵, or something you might see on the cover of an Autechre album. The art style differs from room to room, but with one common denominator: it’s all more abstract than life-like, but you can get the latter too if you look hard enough. Emotions range from fear to bliss. The soundtrack is mostly a low, drone-like ambient, but there are exceptions.
I was sceptical at first, trying to make sense of things and failing (as one would perhaps the afterlife), but in the end I found this to be quite fascinating. It made me feel like I was creating something of my own and I liked what I could do with it — even if I wouldn’t trust any of it to ever hang in a gallery (as is).
One could compare it to Raymond Queneau’s machine for making sonnets: the underlying forms are the same, but the combination of them will differ. On the other hand, AENTITY can produce a huge or even infinite number of paintings instead of only a hundred thousand billion, so, in theory, no two paintings will ever be the same, but, since they come from the same game, there might still be plenty that are similar in style — even the motives might be similar, just from other angles, in other colours, or with a personal twist.
I haven’t compared my own pieces with what others have produced, so it’s hard to say how much a result of personal expression they actually are. There will be a website where users can upload their images, judge and be judged, or just look at what others have done, but this is not yet active (at the time of writing this review).
That looks like a shoe, but now it doesn’t.
I have been able to travel to several new paintings, but I found it hard to generalize whatever I was able to learn from those transitions and apply it to the paintings I haven’t yet been able to enter. Except for first-time achievements, the feedback felt a little vague. You are also travelling in an abstract ever-changing world without any immediately recognizable landmarks, so it’s easy to get lost, although there is a way to rescue yourself in those situations, which helped me more than once, so that in itself is not an issue, but might make the learning (and the application) of the rules harder. I did at times wish for more feedback, but, on the other hand, I think the point really is to lose yourself in there and spend important time in each place, before you find your way and move on (“you cannot find your way without first being lost“).
I didn’t want my mind to be distracted by anything else while playing, so it took me a couple of days to get in the mood, and, still, once I did get started I wasn’t immediately convinced, but eventually I was won over as my mind slowly merged with the game. The best way to enjoy AENTITY is to give it time.
I enjoyed both playing AENTITY and the images I was able to create with it, and you will probably like it too if you happily spend a day at your local art museum — without constantly uttering the phrase “but it doesn’t look like anything!” (you might like it even if you are known to utter that phrase, because here’s your chance to make it look like anything… 😛 ), or just want to try something new. I’m also excited to see what comes of the promised website (where anyone can look at what others have created even if they haven’t played the game themselves).
A word of advice: if you find a set of stairs in the gallery, don’t go down them without first knowing where they lead…
¹Nice transition there, wasn’t it!? 😉
²Best read in a dramatic voice.
³It’s all white of course and I’m half-expecting a guy in a black turtleneck to show up, drinking cheap wine out of a plastic mug while saying things like “yes, there is a definite translation here between floor and mouth”, but he never does.
⁴Who in their right mind wouldn’t love a guy with a last name of Bacon!?
⁵Maybe I’m the guy in the black turtleneck!? Uh-oh.