Finding Comfort

cw: this piece contains some discussion of grief, depression and suicidality.


I started out by playing comfort zone, but as it turned out I had started in the middle. Or, at least I think that’s where I started.

Developer spacepuppy has, over the last couple of months, released 4 games. In chronological order, they are: the phone rings, comfort zone, night thoughts and tip-toeing around my empty house. They’re all presented in exactly the same style—a pastiche of doodles drawn with markers and animated to give each game enough life—and can all be played in a matter of minutes. They all seem to follow along the same handful of themes—loss, heartbreak, grief, loneliness, escape—oscillating between them over the course of the four games.

In the first game, the phone rings, a man is all alone in a room with a ringing telephone. He dreads picking up the receiver, because of a lingering hope that he may hear the voice of his dead lover on the other end. He fears having his illusion dashed by reality.

In the other games, night thoughts and tip-toeing around my empty house respectively, spacepuppy once again engages with death, grief and coping. night thoughts deals poetically and forcefully with the minutiae of depression, including not being able to get out of bed, feelings of emptiness, and idly dark thoughts up to and including suicidal ideation. tip-toeing around my empty house, meanwhile, is similar to the phone rings in that it explicitly deals with death, but this time it confirms the existence of an afterlife: this time, the game takes place from the perspective of the deceased. Now, a ghost—a doodle of the classic sheet-with-the-eyes-cut-out variety of spectre—wanders around what we can assume is their former property. Outside is a dog, oblivious and happy. Inside is a woman, sobbing on the couch. One can surmise from the packing boxes strewn around the place that she is moving.

the phone rings and tip-toeing around my empty house create palpable tension using limited space: in the phone rings, the grieving man and his telephone are trapped in this room, a cube suspended literally in outer space. It’s oppressive and stark and white and it shakes periodically. It is inescapable, but it also implies an endless, unknowable realm of possibility, much like a self-delusion born from all-consuming grief. tip-toeing is planted on earth, limiting itself to a yard and the single floor of a home—the only otherworldly element being your avatar, which can’t actually interact with anything. It reaches at something hinted at in the the phone rings, a concept of multiple planes of existence which can never meet, a frustration of the desire for communion with a loved one. the phone rings creates that frustration by torturing its protagonist with a phone that can never be answered; tip-toeing around my empty house creates that frustration by putting us on the other end of the line: fully real, but incapable of making our existence known. We must bear witness to suffering that may be ended if not for that incapacity.

night thoughts goes even further, limiting both movement and space, making manifest the mental and physical constriction of depression by creating very few scenes in which the player can actually play at all. Much of the game is like an animated montage underscored with sparse text. The beautiful, like gorgeously animated snapdragons, are juxtaposed with the jarring and visceral, like an abrupt scene where the protagonist wonders out loud if anyone pisses as much as they do. Life, in this game, is something that passes the player by. It moves whether or not you do.

comfort zone is a little different. Unlike the other games, which constrain movement much more strictly one way or the other, comfort zone creates an illusion of movement by having the player side-scroll through transitional spaces: on a path through a forest, then across a vast sea. There are doe in the woods that skitter when approached and a log cabin with a roaring fireplace and not much else. There’s a particularly inspired bit of animation during the sea crossing where the player must scroll from left to right along the water (previous scenes allowed four-directional movement but only one critical path), and in doing so the sun moves with them, lowering itself to the horizon and gently fading beneath the water, giving way to night. It’s a simple and lovely depiction of the passage of time, signaling the climax of the game before it cuts to a seagulls flying through the clouded sky. An antiquated title card then reads, “…Goodnight!”, and the game ends.

I don’t know if it’s fair to say that I began “in media res”, because I can’t say for sure that all the games are related. There is, however, an undeniable continuity threaded throughout all four of them, both thematically and aesthetically, and the fact that they were released relatively close together suggests that they form at least some part of a whole. comfort zone, in particular, literally denotes the act of being in transit—the player-character moves from left to right but never actually arrives anywhere specific. The game cuts to a black title card before that secret can be revealed.

The game’s brief description, “spaces that exist for the sake of existing”, adds another wrinkle to comfort zone as conceptual of transition, particularly in terms of moving between phases in one’s life. comfort zone could, on the one hand, be illustrative of the process of lateral growth, perhaps of the kind that takes place after a traumatic event. It could, on the other, be deliberately conflating this idea of transition with escape, especially from pain. Ambling in the quiet, peaceful woods where butterflies flutter and deer skip, and then sailing on a great open sea into oblivion may be less about bridging two experiences, and more about momentarily pausing and removing oneself from harsh reality altogether.

It’s worth noting that comfort zone was released directly before night thoughts, which is very much evocative of the experience of being in the throes of grief and lonesomeness. night thoughts, along with the phone rings, uses a combination of simple, hand-drawn animation and snippets of prose (usually represented as one-line vignettes to accompany specific visuals). The prose is beautiful and affecting in its stark matter-of-factness. A man alone in a house with a ringing telephone is enigmatic but signifies nothing in particular. Knowing that that man longs to hear the voice of his dead loved one makes the walls feel closer together, the endless ringing more mocking and oppressive. It begins to take on an emotional dimension similar to Poe’s The Raven, to reach for an obvious comparison.

comfort zone doesn’t have much use for words. Neither does tip-toeing around my empty house, for that matter. Both these games rely more on visuals and simple game design techniques in order to convey their meanings. But, as compared to the other two, much louder games, their silence is even more pointed. comfort zone, if read as an attempt to clear one’s head, would be marred by giving voice to too many thoughts.

Another obvious comparison is to Jason Rohrer’s Passage, in that it’s using side-scrolling as a metaphor for larger ideas about the stages of a person’s life. That said, I think comfort zone’s metaphor isn’t quite as direct, and I believe that having the other games as reference points gives us additional context for understanding the game’s imagery, and its strange tonal detachment from those other works. By contrast with Passage, comfort zone is conspicuously uncluttered. It’s brighter, happier, calmer, cuter—and with the other games as my guide, I’m left feeling a thrumming desperation deep inside comfort zone inflecting all of those qualities.

These games, put together, remind me somewhat of game series’ like Matt Aldridge’s La La Land series or Austin Jorgensen’s Lisa series, although in this case the thread connecting these games is even less explicit. It’s not clear that the events depicted in any of these games have any literal, direct relationship with one another. They all appear to feature different characters and settings. What’s consistent across all four of them are a shared aesthetic, and a threading of thematic and conceptual preoccupations that seems to suggest that on some level, they are bound to one another. I wonder if more of these little games are coming, and to what extent they’ll echo the ideas presented in the previous four games. As it stands, spacepuppy has already created a thoughtful, affecting and original collection of games that are absolutely worth sparing a few minutes to play.