Notes on Embrace: Reaching for Air

Embrace is a short browser game by developer Trasevol_Dog, in their tool of choice, PICO-8. This tool is a virtual console that uses a programming language called Lua, and is ideal for making small, straightforward, “retro”-looking games that might make you reminisce about old Atari, NES or arcade games. Embrace brings that element to the table, particularly with it’s looping, upbeat chiptune music, simple controls and chunky graphics that recall games like Bubble Bobble and Ice Climber. But Trasevol_Dog brings a more contemporary sensibility about game design to their game as well, giving it a feel closer to a modern indie game than a classic quarter-eater.

In Embrace, the player must use the the arrow keys on their keyboard (or the joystick on their gamepad) to move an abstract set of arms around an even more abstract, ghostly-looking blob with a face that represents a broad concept: fun, feelings, opinions, failures, success, and so on. The two-tone bubble letters spelling out the word EMBRACE bounce at the top of the screen as diagonal lines scroll upward in the background. When the player succeeds in wrapping the disembodied arms around the concept-blob by matching each relevant arm to their demarcated spots, the blob’s soft, pleasant expression melts into pure joy, and the stage wipes away to a new one, with a new happy blob waiting to be hugged.  

As the developer describes it in their summary of the game, their “goal was to make something meaningful”, and I assume this is as opposed to their previous entries, which mostly include humorous one-offs based on internet memes and more conventional fare inspired by better-known titles. I’m not sure Embrace is any more “meaningful” than these other games—and in fairness Trasevol_Dog admits in their summary that the game is “imperfect”—but I think the distinction is that it was made with an explicit moral in mind. That moral, as the title suggests, is to embrace basically everything, good or bad, that life throws your way. I don’t know that this is that useful or profound as messages go—I think it’s at best kind of sappy and potentially problematic at worst to suggest one happily take in everything that life throws with them, without any sort of resistance. It’s also nothing novel as far as “indie games that are about something” go, following in a long line of games that flail helplessly in the direction of “depth” but, in the interest of avoiding negativity or the aggression and competition usually associated with videogames, end up being too skittish to really be about anything at all.

That said, I will give credit to the developer for trying something new, and for trying to use this simple game-making tool to express a personally-held conviction, even if it’s not one I happen to fully agree with. One of the more compelling things about this medium is its ability to concretize difficult-to-describe things, like complicated feelings and behaviours and abstract ideas, through play. I think when put to good use, game design can produce some really thought-provoking dynamics between players and systems, but it can also have the effect of literalizing things too much. Too blunt of a touch can drag up all the subtext, reducing it to text, and hitting the player over the head with it. I don’t think it’s always bad to literalize things—being willfully obtuse for no reason can also come off as smug and obnoxious—but having a lighter touch with one’s themes and ideas can demonstrate confidence in the player’s reading comprehension skills, and can result in a far more affecting experience without explicitly telling the player what they ought to think.

I hope that Travesol_Dog continues in their quest to produce games that mean a little bit more to them, because there are some elements in Embrace that I really enjoy—the visual style and music are very cute, and the instinct to think in more emotional terms about how they approach game design is a good one. I just think it needs some sharpening up, which is a skill that will come with time. Embrace, meanwhile, can be played for free, and can be completed in minutes. It’s an interesting use of a tool that doesn’t obviously lend itself to this approach to game design, and a good demonstration of PICO-8’s potential in the hands of a thoughtful developer.