To know you’re alone

The Legacy game criticism

[Spoilers follow for The Legacy, a small game from developer Swofl. You can download and play through this link. It’s completely free and will take you maybe six minutes to play, so consider giving it a whirl before reading on.]

My custom for these articles is to sit myself down and look inside, deep inside, to try to find out what way I feel about a game and why it is I feel that way. As a general rule I try to seek out its value to me—often this turns into criticism, when I learn more about myself or about the medium through the game’s failure to evoke this or that sensation within me. And I end up feeling like a horrible bastard. I wish I could be kinder, especially to wee indie games, but I can’t will myself into believing the false praise I’d rather be giving.

With The Legacy, I knew straight away how I felt. I think I knew what it was going for, as if its conveyances of meaning just naturally resonated with my instincts. What this image is supposed to represent. What this void of empty space means to me, here, now. It’s such a wonderful feeling when you get a game like that, you feel as if there’s this emotional barrier between you and the text that just fizzles away, leaving both of you honest with each other. It’s also reassuring to find that weird camaraderie! To know you’re not alone.

The Legacy was made for Ludlum Dare 25 where the theme for submissions seems to have been “you are the villain”. Your villainy, in this case, is eclipsed by the effect you have had on others. There’s no story here exactly; it’s not a game “about” villainy, or about anything, really. I might say, it’s more of a showcase of emotions through this simple, subtle narrative: you play it, interpret what happens, measure that against how it makes you feel, mix stir and pour.

So now I’m in the difficult position of figuring out how to talk about it. I suppose I’ll give you a rundown of what happens in the game, to loosen my tongue and make this article accessible to any reader who decided, whatever, they didn’t care about it being spoiled. Pure recklessness is what that is.

You begin in a clearing of a sparsely populated wood, standing on a dotted line that terminates behind you at an odd structure. It’s almost like the stunted tower of a castle, but with spikes jutting out from the top as if home to a cheesy baddie from an old Final Fantasy game. The dotted path extends from it a few feet and then stops, like a darkened finger pointing you onwards, out into the weald. You can do little else but follow it.

You trod through the woods. Your pace is even enough, there’s no problem in that, but the thinness of the trees gives you line of sight of the horizon far in front of you. You’d think this might be a blessing but it soon becomes clear that this place is empty, and your clarity as the world spreads out around you only confirms your loneliness. The blackened trees are so destitute with their stocky, leafless branches, they themselves seem dead to your sight. No earth. No sky. All about you just a white void, with but these black sentinels to separate up from down. If you ever looked around once the castle was out of view, you probably couldn’t relocate your bearings.

Your footsteps take you farther and farther from where you began. Crunch. Crunch. Against the ambient, reverberating inhalation and exhalation of the void, this becomes your anthem. Crunch. Crunch.

Then, through the white mist of the horizon, a thicket appears on the treeline. A few steps closer until you can properly make it out—it’s a group of people! Then another group, twenty yards to their side. And a smaller couple just beyond. People, finally! You’re not alone.

As you further approach a tune kicks in, a nice, flighty, slow-paced jingle. It sounds optimistic compared to the long, low hum of the void. First the promise of companionship of other people, and now an accompaniment of music punctuate the void.

But as you near the group, its members don’t fan out to welcome you. They stay encircling one another like penguins keeping warmth, like friends engaged in an exciting conversation. Worse—as soon as you enter their line of sight, they bow and turn their heads to avoid eye contact. Try flanking the group and like a Mexican wave they’ll crane their necks to miss seeing you. This group wants nothing to do with you. You walk over to the next group but they’ll not have you either. The couple on their own a little afield likewise hurriedly bend their necks to dodge your gaze. No-one wants you here.

What can you do? Some more groups appear as a haze on the horizon along the treeline, but they’ll probably only reject your presence like this lot. The wood offered you nothing; you’d never be able to find your way back to the castle again even if you wanted to. The only thing left is, beyond the treeline and its turrets of huddled people, a desert of white as far as the eye can see.

The void.

You start walking.

Crunch. Crunch.

And you walk.

Crunch. Crunch.

Until nothing surrounds you.

Crunch. Crunch.

And the emptiness terrifies you.

Crunch. Crunch.

This cold, lifeless world.

Crunch. Crunch.

And suddenly, a thicket of people clear the horizon. With them before you, there’s now a point to centre yourself so you can now look around—and you see to either side, more groups of people, huddled together in their two’s and five’s and ten’s, stretching out to infinity. Thank Christ! So you make a beeline for the nearest congregation and…

But as you near them, they twist their necks and lower their eyes under your stare. Just like the groups from before, they can’t bear to look at you. No, that’s not it. They can’t bear to make contact with you. It’s not that you’re hideous to behold, it’s that to meet your eyes would establish a link between you and them, an invitation to your presence. To forge that mutual recognition of one another as people, as living creatures, might constitute the foundations of a social relationship, and they cannot bear to risk that for fear of how you might treat them. They don’t even flee in case you’d give chase. Like how a wild animal sees eye contact as a sign of aggression, so they avoid your stare to not antagonize you. God, you must have done something barbaric to warrant such a reception. They just want you to be gone, to leave them alone and leave them be.

But they’re not alone, they have one another, and their rejection of you grows infuriating. It’s not fair, you just came out of a desert and all you want is their company, but they refuse it! You didn’t do anything wrong and still they hate you and fear you! For an instant my indignancy flared. I muscled up to the group and snapped at each of the keys on my laptop. I wanted to do anything to trigger an interaction: prod someone over, talk, shout, jump on them. I have a head of height over them, I could strongarm them to recognize me. They sought to fear me, let them have a reason!

As quick as that, the moment subsided. What good would it do to bully them into facing me—such a foolish, selfish response. Becoming that sort of person would do nothing more than warrant the treatment I wanted them to discard. They’d be justified. Well, if they won’t have me, I can do nothing for it.

So I continue walking.

Beyond this string of groups is another white desert, followed shortly by a field of gravestones. Hundreds and thousands of black stone crosses jut out of the ground in rows, stretching on and on in every direction, forming a pattern onto the floor of the void.

In most videogames, a cemetery is where skeletons live. It’s the place where something will jump out and say “boo”, or more likely “uuugggh”, or even “bark”. Dead people, ahh! Isn’t it scary!

In reality, I’ve always found cemeteries to be more melancholic than that, for obvious reasons. I’ve never fully copped that they might represent something… not quite happy, but positive. Benevolent. At the back of my mind I think I knew this, as an undercurrent to my personal experience with them.

A gravestone is a wonderful thing—it proves not just that someone died and lies here under the earth, but that someone else cared enough about them to bury them and mark the spot. Burial ceremonies overflow with this affection for the deceased, so they may depart from this world with their soul intact, so they may find reconciliation, so they may rejoin the aether. Even with nasty old bastards who no-one ever liked, more often than not they are still put through the rites and shown that measure of respect in recognition of their humanity.

Expand that thought and a cemetery becomes a symbol of community, in the passing of life and history into the hands of our ancestors’ successors, on and on through time. In a way, a gravestone represents the reverence held for a departed soul’s dignity. It’s a cultural item of this affection, deserved or not, in some cases, with respect to the value of the social plane that’s embedded within our various societies. The bare consideration of a headstone is a cultural totem proving one’s simplest legacy.

As you walk through the cemetery, the roar of hammering blood rushes to your ears, drowning out the breath of the void and crunch of your feet. The gravestones eventually fall behind and slowly, slowly, your vision starts to darken. A familiar structure breaks through the horizon. With each step the void fades further to black, and you just have enough time before you’re engulfed by darkness to return to where you began.

The game ends here, but the true climax for me was to wander through that infinitely expanding cemetery, to stand in its heart and wonder of my place in this world. At the time, I was smitten by the people’s agonized refusal of my presence, their denial of my need for their comfort and friendship. My knowledge that they were likely justified didn’t salve that lingering selfish pang. Would anyone care enough to even bury me? How cruel it is to be a villain.



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