Welcome to Play This, a regular series in which we recommend games that we think is worthy of your time and attention. Games are chosen for either their outstanding design, their narrative intrigue, their originality, their social importance or a combination of all of these and more.
The fact that many question whether experimental game designer Ian MacLarty’s The Catacombs of Solaris is even a game highlights the tunnel vision that pervades much of the observation and appreciation centred on this medium. Given that MacLarty’s work communicates through the presentation of a literal tunnel, the questioning of whether Catacombs is a game could be read as an act of pre-designed satire by its creator.
Much of what has led to the questioning of whether this is a game at all comes down to the limited means of interaction provided to you, restricted to walking and looking around in first-person. The tunnels that you’re traversing through are horribly gaudy in their construction, the visual centres of your brain coming under further attack given the constantly changing nature of the shapes and colours surrounding you.
It’s an eye-breaking visual onslaught that, even once you’ve worked out how the shapes are changing and how you can control them, needs to be experienced first-hand to be appreciated.
Given its reliance on player observation and interpretation, multiple readings of Catacombs exist and are informed by your own bias, expectation and imagination. As such, it follows the traditions held by conceptual art in that the creator delivers part of the whole but it's up to each individual audience member to complete it and, in doing so, build a meaning that is personal to them.
The game’s greatest strength is that it promotes different readings through not only its conceptual nature but also through the ease of interaction. Removing much of the abstraction and complexity associated with typical mouse/keyboard and gamepad controls means all kinds of players can engage, removing the barriers of entry inherent to more mainstream games and, therefore, allowing everyone of every gaming experience level, gender, age and race to come to a conclusion regarding MacLarty’s work.
If desired, and once you've worked out how to manipulate the image in front of you, you can even use Catacombs as a canvass to paint your own shapes. The form of 'painting' that can be achieved is performed in unison with the game in front of you, creating something akin to a cyborg as you and machine combine into one to produce an end result.
When looked through the lens of the ‘gamer’, then, Catacombs seems impenetrable and there doesn’t exist the language to talk about it through typical means of critique. Widen the lens and what is revealed is a game more accessible, on an interaction level, to more people and one that challenges you to collaborate and form a symbiotic relationship with the artist to define a meaning.