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Hi this is Two Minute Game Crit, and I’m Stephen Beirne.
What can the act of dying tell us about the afterlife? This is the question underpinning The Absence of Is.
Spoilers, by the way.
You play as one of a team of researchers experimenting with recording the images that fill a mind as it edges towards death. The images come from your colleagues, and them locked in vats in the laboratory. It’s your job to sedate them right to the brink of death so your machines can do their thing.
When you play back the initial footage, it shows a kind of ‘life flashing before your eyes’, highly-symbolic near-death experience story. As the sessions go on, the visions veer farther and farther away from reality and become more abstract and hostile. Objects representing trauma – a door, a monument, a desolate home – recur as motifs and eventually consume each person’s mind.
So they all end up dead but even at that there’s a little trick going on here, because I think this game is actually more cynical than it lets on. It’s much more interested in themes of unknowability than themes of discovery.
Take its use of mechanics – you’ve to flick switches to alternately sedate or revive your teammates. It’s dreadfully cheesy and seems inconsistent with the game’s otherwise sombre tone. Like its just there to introduce the sense of challenge and a failstate.
But when you consider that the game‘s not interested in answering what seems to be the central question and instead leaves everyone else dead and you still no wiser for it until some unrealisable tomorrow, then the possibility of accidentally killing a colleague too early is valuable in highlighting the loss, and your inadequacy, when you hit the inevitable dead end.
It’s a framing device, and sure on a whole, The Absence of Is is framed rather oddly. It’s supposedly based on an unpublished novel of the same name written by one of the developers.
So players who want to look into the game’s underlying message have to pine after this inaccessible, perhaps non-existent source material. It puts them in basically the same place as the research team. Albeit, hopefully, a little bit more alive.