Gradient Addiction, by indie auteur Jake Clover, is a Unity-based exploration game in which you play, by his own description, “as a half robot guy with a backpack.” You fly around a strange and broken city on the edge of a precipice. The regular rules of physics don’t apply to you: you can fall from dizzying heights into a deep blue miasma, and then, with quick short taps of the space bar, hop infinitely into the sky. There’s hardly a sense of up or down in Gradient Addiction; interior rooms are winding and disorienting while the outer structure of the city is a disjointed, vertical pastiche—like a tall skyscraper assembled from random scrap, built on the edge of a cliff. Walls, buildings and other structures are densely forced together, kluge-like, and unstable, as if a moderate storm might knock the whole thing down.
The main aesthetic feature in Gradient Addiction is, as the name suggests, gradients. The skybox is a swirl of spring greens and light blues that eventually fade into the misty teal sea that surrounds the single, huge skyscraper that constitutes the city. Things blend together, or are mashed together. There’s a clash of textures and styles typical of Clover’s work. The skins stretched to the point of artifacting over the chunky geometry of Unity range from flat gradients to the bumpy, low-poly textures of stone, brick and gravel one might find in a Cicada Marionette game. These are mixed with the soft mist of the blue sea below, the swirl of the sky, and the chicken-scratch MS Paint sketches that punctuate the whole of the city.
The “half robot guy” avatar is a hand-drawn, black-and-white doodle, starkly contrasted against the vibrant background but, like everything else in the Gradient Addiction world, a jumble of scrap parts that feels both haphazard and futuristic. Like many objects in this game, he has no animations, no facial features other than the placid smile he was drawn with. He also, despite inhabiting a game with a 3D engine, has no depth of his own, and is regularly able to pass through various objects like a specter. Just like the pastiche of colours and patterns, Clover also plays with dimension: while the world is overwhelmingly presented in 3D, multiple objects—and especially the various city-dwellers you encounter—appear like cardboard cutouts flitting in the wind.
Our half-robot friend begins in what might be called a house, also a vertically-structured mishmash of polygons, textures and colours, all clashing against and jutting out of each other. Walk down a long, staggered flight of stairs to reach the city street, which soon reveals itself to be as claustrophobically teeming with miscellany as the house you just left.
There are people to meet, things to find and apparently things to do, although there’s no obligation to really do any of it besides jump around and take in the twisted architecture. A blue cube with a question mark on it advises you to find a “sqalllop” on the ground; a grey wheelbarrow atop a thin roof yelps as any collision with another object sends it flying; a hut on the side of an incline reveals itself to be an underground dungeon, and your black-and-white cyborg is replaced by a fat, pastel-gradient clay figure while inside its dank quarters.
There’s no straight explanation for what Gradient Addiction may actually be “about”, if it’s really about anything at all. There’s nothing wrong with treating the game as just an abstract space full of charming virtual junk to play around in while electronic music thumps and drones. But there are some hints that point to overall moods and themes, and maybe even a little bit of commentary. One of the biggest giveaways is the presence of common advertisements on posters and the sides of buildings: McDonald’s ads, for example, plaster the facade of one building. Another is the fact that Clover himself describes the city as a “[sic] starbucks in hand drawn graphics.” These things make it feel significant that the city, built on a precarious cliff side, resembles a skyscraper that got horribly fused with a mall in some godless machine. As with many of Clover’s games, this one has an enigmatic beauty, but it’s a beauty that’s made entirely from repurposed computer trash.
Assets are clearly taken from a hodgepodge of sources, and create a motley of texture. Polygons are awkwardly stuffed into other polygons. Structures, from buildings to sculptures to even trees, are janky and broken, like something from Frank Gehry’s nightmares. Textures are expanded over shapes in ways that utterly distort them. Things are layered in uneven ways and some set pieces look buggy or incomplete. Meshes are left in place. Seams are visible. Graphics flicker. You can really see how the hamburger is made.
The world is terribly alive, shrieking and gibbering, yet almost every “living” thing in it is flat, standing in place with a fixed expression. The city is a busted, aimless, and made of garbage, but there’s still a lot in it to find and love. It’s dystopian in that its flickering hostility absolutely resists being truly inhabited in any coherent way. Whatever plan was there at the beginning of construction has been paved over multiple times, the new being built on top of the remnants of the old.
One things computer games can do well is communicate meaning through space. They can make the impossible seem legible, as actual physical places we can inhabit, explore, navigate, exploit, or break. Whole ideas, moods and themes can reveal themselves in a game architecture, metaphorically but also quite literally containing the limits of the player’s interpretation. This is sometimes referred to as “environmental storytelling”, and thought of as the sole domain of virtual interactive arts, but it bears a strong resemblance both to other, non-game forms of design as well as interactive installation art. The great innovation of the computer game is that now the participant doesn’t have to be limited to real-world physical laws and the questionable durability of the human body. We can now view things from normally impossible vantage points, and the things we see may be normally impossible, though nonetheless chosen with the deliberateness of a poet.
Gradient Addiction is, I think, less a proposal for a new or different reality and more a distorted representation of our current one, as seen through the eyes of Jake Clover. Games like the more narrative-driven One Last Dance For The Capitalist Pigs (GreySunDiaries, 2013) or The Midas Project (eoeoeo344, 2015), use architectural cues to set tone and tell a story about the universe in which the story takes place. Gradient Addiction’s architecture sets tone and mood without actually having any direct narrative about systems of power or the conditions of our existence. It doesn’t ponder any questions because it doesn’t really have time for that. Instead, we’re given an impression of this world that is precarious, irrational, hostile to habitation and overwhelming to the senses, while also providing us with a character who, despite his own eclectic appearance, is basically a ghost made out of tissue paper.
This sort of pastiche uses its subject matter in a way that, while also repurposing it, interrogates it. I’m reminded of Jason Nelson’s 2008 game I Made This. You Play This. We Are Enemies., a challenging browser platformer made entirely out of online ads and brand logos, casino sound effects, short films and a similar kind of chicken-scratch form of illustration to that seen in Clover’s games. Nelson’s game is a bit more straightforward with its intent, but it shares with Gradient Addiction a pastiche composition that creates hostile space out of the signifiers of tech and modern capital. Clover, however, reaches a level of abstraction that might compare better to conceptual artists like Joseph Beuys or Dadaist Hannah Höch.
Gradient Addiction displays some of the more interesting things a videogame can do in terms of representing ideas as though they were physical spaces, without necessarily making any grand statement about those ideas. In one way, this can be interpreted as the game not being very assertive in whatever it’s trying to communicate, falling into obscurantism. But that’s rooted in the idea that it’s actually trying to communicate anything. It can just be understood as an abstract, digital collage, but I do believe if there’s any meaning to be found, it’s in the basic composition of that collage.
The imagery conjured by this game, and the ideas they arouse, are probably not world-shattering revelations, nor is it a new idea to do collage or pastiche out of digital artifacts. That said, Clover has a special talent toward creating these sorts of frenetic, eclectic, densely overcrowded kinds of digital worlds, and is very adept at making things feel overwhelming, claustrophobic, and aggressively disorienting in a way that makes the player feel uncomfortably intimate with places that only exist in the form of software. This kind of discomfort is good and important, especially for those who are unfamiliar with the trick of trying to inhabit a hostile space. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we are, as a matter of fact, the flat, alien cutouts in our own hellish SkyMall world, and sometimes I have my doubts about art which would seem to suggest that. Nonetheless, Gradient Addiction does tap into the real absurdity and cognitive dissonance of demanding the structures of our world make sense when we know that they do not. It’s in this way that Gradient Addiction, in all its shambling chaos, almost feels truer to life than life itself.