FJORDS Shows Us a System That’s Built to Be Broken

We’ve got to get better at talking about games like FJORDS. It’s so easy to speak in enthusiastic but unconvincing generalities. It’s so easy to hem and haw about not wanting to spoil anything, then still reveal a bit too much. It’s so easy to come off as hipsterish—if you played it for yourself, then you’d get it—or disdainful of the fact that some people might, maybe, be hesitant to plunk down seven dollars American on some new entertainment object that the Self-Appointed Entertainment Object Describers stubbornly refuse to describe.

As I’ve said before, pretty much everything is better if you go in cold. Some things more than others. And like its kinda-cousin and inevitable point of comparison Starseed Pilgrim, FJORDS genuinely is built around the idea that players will figure out how it works for themselves, and it would be a genuine shame if I messed that up for anybody.

So I won’t. Instead, I’ll show you a couple of screenshots:

2013-11-17_00005       2013-11-17_00003

Lots of articles about FJORDS have used screenshots of this particular moment, and I have a theory as to why. These images neatly demonstrate the game’s overall aesthetic—how it manages to be ersatz and minimal, glitchy and composed—but does so without offering any clear idea of what the player has done to summon that stuttering haze of glitch and apparent chaos. The images are spoiler-free, in that sense, while still being representative.

Look: Starseed Pilgrim and FJORDS are both about looking beneath the surface of systems. They’re both about curiosity. They’re both about discovery as its own reward. But FJORDS is about discovering how to break the system—or about what it looks like when a system accounts for brokenness. It’s about discovering how the game works, sure, but it’s also about changing how the game works.

Anna Anhtropy put it pretty bluntly, as she is wont to do: “fjords feels like the game everyone was trying to convince me that starseed pilgrim was,” she said. But she also offered a more nuanced appraisal, in which she got to the heart of what makes the two games feel so different:

one of the things that has always contributed to the mythic power of the glitch in digital games is how much ritual is involved in summoning them… powerful rituals that can make solid walls as passable as paper, but have to be staged correctly, to be approached with respect, to be understood.

The screenshots above reveal the glitch, but not the ritual attached to it. That’s why a screenshot of the glitch is not the glitch. The screenshot can be an aesthetic object in its own right, but the glitch itself is something different. It’s folklore, tradition: rewarding to describe, but truly meaningful only when it’s performed.

FJORDS is about all of that, but without any trace of pretense or self-seriousness. I haven’t mentioned the plot setup, such as it is. You’re a pizza delivery guy, trying to deliver a pizza to some hungry scientists on Science Mountain. Or something. Something perfunctory and self-consciously nonsensical, a setup that’s only there as an invitation for you to take it apart, reshape it, ritualize its unmaking.

If you’ve ever found yourself getting lost in Starseed Pilgrim, then you’ll very likely enjoy getting lost in FJORDS—but also, if you found Starseed Pilgrim a little slow, a little arch, or a little too much of a one-sided conversation (investigation rather than collaboration), then FJORDS might speak to you with a clearer voice.

Of course, it’s hard to say for sure. Your mileage may vary. Your reaction will be a tremendously personal one, and that’s precisely what makes this style of games (if indeed it can be said to be a style of games) so damn exciting.

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