In this new series, I look at the catalogue of a developer’s work to try to determine their distinctive voice. There will be heavy spoilers so I suggest playing the (short) games linked in the text before reading through this piece.
[TW: Some light discussion of death.]
Playing an Aeryne Wright (a.k.a Lissaring) game is often like wandering through an enchanted forest, discovering the dew and grass and birds, the secret societies that live there, and the substance of your own thoughts. You reflect and the environment is a mirror to hold that reflection. The birds chirp and the wind chimes and the serenity of a wooded landscape gives way to some magic, something fable-like and surreal. A door, an eye, a hooded demon taking a train ride, a glistening talisman. The real twists into the unreal, like a dream space that’s at once familiar and distant, ethereal, supernatural.
Wright is a game designer (or, according to her Twitter profile, a “non-game dev”) with six games currently released on her itchi.io page and three more completed games available at her blog, Cuneicorn. For Wright to call herself a “non-game dev” is a little facetious, to be sure, but I’m going to presume this stems from the fact that her games tend to rely on tools like RenPy and Construct 2 in particular, and tend to focus more on the gamespace as deeply, warmly allegorical and inviting, rather than environmentally hostile skill-tests or other ludocentric, systemic exercises.
That isn’t to say that Wright’s games don’t reveal a preference toward certain ludic qualities, or that she hasn’t broadened and experimented with her approaches over time. Going through her games, it becomes extremely apparent that Wright has developed a very peculiar, very specific voice and style which are discernable throughout the range and totality of her games as works of art.
Wright gives away in her Twitter bio that she’s obsessed with history and linguistics, and these two predilections should help contextualize much of her work, but I think it’s only a stepping stone to the creation of a broader and more refined style. Her first, and what appears to be only RenPy game to date, Process Journey (2013), features a main character NPC named Sehya that refers to herself as a “historical linguist.” She and her brother, Dorval, belong to an alien species of underground dwellers with a culture centered around scholarship. They’ve been dropped on an alien planet, along with you, and serve as informative guides as you search the environment for clues. The point-and-click elements have me, through a fixed camera perspective, inspecting the objects of this relatively flat world. Really, the “objects” I zoom in on—a leaf, a puddle—feel more like figures in a painting, and zooming in means closely investigating their brushstrokes, the palettes of greens and browns and blues. Animation is sparse, and the space feels more confined than other works, limiting me to this two-dimensional, static space. The palette is rich but very dark compared to many of her later works, although it’s still quite colourful considering it’s depicting night-time, with a gradation of red and orange moonlight contrasting against the black sky.
But already we see a tendency toward a certain overall style: the alien natural landscape, both familiar (the trees, the water) and fantastic (the red moonlight) and the story embedded in and discoverable through engagement with that environment. There’s also a branching narrative structure with 10 endings dependent upon choices which don’t immediately reveal their outcomes, but which later come to present a full picture. I’m often given binary dialogue choices or object interaction choices with different immediate outcomes that gradually add up, like choosing to strike Dorval to wake him or placing a pungent leaf under his nose. There’s a sense of interconnectedness between cause and effect, between decisions and outcomes, that creates a sense of fabulous history in a strange place, a place with alien flora and a dead but decipherable language. There’s a feeling of the past as a phenomenon, of the gamespace as an archaeological site, that comes through in this game: we are trapped on an island but more than that, the island contains hints of a long-dead civilization. A note reveals this, which only Sehya can decipher. I simply gather data. I collect. But it is the game, through its characters and objects and mysterious atmosphere, which puts that all into historical context.
And then there’s the other thing: a door. In the middle of the scene, there’s that door. I can go through it at any time to end the game—another design peculiarity that comes up in other Aeryne Wright games—but I’m tempted not to, at first. Not until I’ve exhaustively clicked all over the landscape. Not until I’ve discovered what I can. If we do go in, we can’t come out, and when we do, we discover a piece of that civilization’s technology, complete with a self-destruct button. When Dorval, the technology expert, turns on the machine, a poem is revealed. This is a connection that comes through in later games: this linking of technology and nature through certain portals, like a door. Or like language itself, the thing that makes the observable world articulable but also controllable.
I can’t help but remark that many of Wright’s games were made for various Ludum Dares. Process Journey was made for LD28, while Wright’s previous game, Injured Eternity (2013), was made for LD27. I won’t dwell on this one except to say that, as an RPG Maker game using a more embellished, cartoonish, less painterly art style, and a sci-fi premise (a scientist effectively ripping open a hole in spacetime), it’s one of the least like the rest of Wright’s games. It’s also the least developed: the aesthetic seems really rough around the edges, the script (delivered in monologue by the main character) is less airy and poetic and more didactic, and the game, by sticking all of its responsive objects on the screen, doesn’t really allow for a more slowly-unfolding pace that builds up a sense of mystery and the fantastic. Yet, some early tendencies are apparent: a portal (the time hole) that ends the game at the player’s will; a gamespace like an archaeological dig for reconstructing a story branch; a sense of the magical within the mundane; a player-character whose motives are contextualized and focalized through interaction with the space (although this character talks quite a lot more than later examples); and a preoccupation with the convergence of technological things with natural environments, although this becomes less overt over time.
The value of making so many games for Ludum Dare is that it encourages particular attention to small, focused, detailed pieces richly imbued with thematic depth. The other thing is that it allows us to trace a timeline. Where Gods Sleep (2014), for instance was made for LD29, and Line Crossing (2014) was made for LD30. The Last Room (2014) was made for LD31’s compo portion and Forest Mind (2014) for its jam portion. All of these games gesture toward an overall style that Injured Eternity contained the seeds for and Process Journey began to cultivate. Keep in mind Wright’s creative output spans two years, from 2013 to 2015, and almost all of it comprised of poignant little games made for jams. Wright’s games exist in a context after games like Journey or Dear Esther (2012), but this is also a sliver of time that’s seen a burst of alternative games creation from individual auteurs, many of whom can be said to have really blossomed in the last few years.
For Wright, the game that marked the beginning of a solid and recurring style was Winter’s Lost Heart (2014). Winter’s Lost Heart, first of all, is made in Construct 2, which arguably becomes Wright’s primary creation tool. Because Construct 2, unlike a tool like RenPy, is good for creating 2D spaces that feel continuous and traversable rather than static and nodal, Wright begins using side-scrolling and a third-person perspective—rather than first-person—as ludic and aesthetic techniques. There’s a jump which facilitates a bit of platforming, and so my movement is limited to left, right and up. That being said, an important element is brought over from her first two games: I can traverse the space more or less at will. I’m not really compelled toward one direction or another. If Wright’s previous games had the feel of an archaeological dig, Winter’s Lost Heart has the feeling of a tapestry which, if I follow, implies a history through its images, its figures.
It might be a fair criticism to say that for Wright’s first two releases, the thematic overtones and sensibilities that she contends with are a bit too on-the-nose. That is to say, the ideas about history, discovery, technology and language are told more than they are shown. While Wright never abandons written text, the use of it becomes a little more sparing and poignant, there’s a stronger emphasis on space and visuals as vectors for symbolism and metaphor, and the narrative pacing of her games generally becomes slower and more leisurely.
Winter’s Lost Heart is very much a puzzle platformer in which I’m collecting artifacts which comprise the titular “lost heart”, belonging to the humanoid bust of what I assume to be a winter goddess. Finding these pieces is very much about waiting: the game explicitly tells me to wait at one point by a lake, where an otter appears, and much of the rest of the game implies patience with its slippery platforms and limited amounts of flat space to build momentum for a jump. When I reach the end point of the game—a ledge at the top of a climb—the snow (represented by a solid white platform) becomes so deep that I can no longer jump at all. I’m at winter’s deepest, darkest, coldest point. But, as soon as I have all the necessary pieces to retrieve winter’s lost heart, the statue awakens. The game fades to a new screen, no longer keeping us isolated and static inside permanent winter. The sun rises.
I find myself accidentally falling off the ends of tree branches during a climb, only to fall into a secret burrow and find another piece of the puzzle. The game, much like her next one, Where Gods Sleep (or, for that matter, Process Journey), doesn’t tell me how many of the artifacts I need to find or in what order, which means I find myself rather annoyingly climbing back up to the statue multiple times. Unlike Process Journey, which contains multiple “bad endings” and therefore permits a variety of outcomes, Winter’s Lost Heart requires a specific chain of events to occur in order for the game to reach some kind of climax and for the player to get a sense of completion or closure. On the other hand, progress isn’t constrained to narrowly ordered pattern of discovery; the cause-and-effect of choices, the interrelationship of objects, is still up to the player’s interpretation and literal enactment.
I think this balance between environmental exploration and discovery—the archaeological quality of Wright’s games—is balanced better with the constraints of fairy tale-telling in games like Line Crossing, Forest Mind and most notably Peregrin. Still, in Winter’s Lost Heart we see some important recurring ideas and qualities.
Most immediately remarkable is the change in aesthetics. The comic-book quality of Injured Eternity gives way to a more painterly look in Process Journey, but in Winter’s Lost Heart and in almost every game since Wright begins using this very colourful, very delicate pixel art. The wispily thinness of the sprites recall Sword and Sworcery a bit, but the palette is often vibrant and contrasting colours—blues against oranges, crystalline turquoises splashing out from black borders, white snow popping out beneath foliage of green and purple and pink. It lightens the mood. Even darker, more brooding atmospheres like the nightscape in Where Gods Sleep feels more like mystique than real danger.
It’s arguably not the pixelation that gives Wright’s games all their distinctive tone and texture, but her use of colour contrasts, ghostlike figures, and even the geometry of the spaces. Her games are very delicate-looking: trees are represented as these colourful round ovals propped up on thin, baton-like trunks. They look more like cotton candy than any plant of this world. Birds, deer and other animals have a Disney-like cheeriness, the way they flutter and blink. I think of the forest scene in Snow White right before she gets lost in the menacing, discombobulating wood. We’re allowed to lose ourselves in the lush and beautiful fairylands without ever being in danger of getting lost, scrolling left and right, or up and down. This also means a conceptualization of space which is both continuous and two-dimensional, using horizontal length and a modulation of repeating figures and topographies (trees, birds, snow-capped ledges, water), to create a contained and continuous sense of natural landscape which is also very clearly and meaningfully self-contained. Mysterious and enticing yet safe and welcoming.
Wright’s games are warm, even the ones about winter. They’re inviting, soft play spaces of exploration and introspection. Winter’s Lost Heart, Forest Mind, Where Gods Sleep, Line Crossing, Peregrin and even very stylistically different games like Star Girl, shine bright! (2015) all present the player with a non-hostile, even friendly, yet compelling and evocative atmosphere. Where Gods Sleep, a game where you play an ethereal, glowing white figure that must collect what appear to be magic runes, is eerie and otherworldly but never quite sinister. Or if it is sinister, it has a sly and playful grin. When I hit the down arrow, my avatar enters an upside-down night world of deep blues and elaborate black and white decorations, evoking the feeling of alienation when you can’t quite make out what things are in the dark. But instead of implying something scary or threatening, these things take on a quality of mystery and wonder. When I hit the up arrow, I’m taken to the upright world of daylight, with gradient reds and oranges and soft, round blue tress.
Line Crossing, as well, is a game which combines macabre playfulness with ephemerality and warm enchantment. It arguably goes beyond the naturalistic fabulism of Wright’s other games and enters straight into surrealism. I play a young woman who awakens on a train only to find aliens in ball gowns speaking strange languages, demons in hoods joking about killing me while sitting in a cabin, talking birds in cages that want to offer me a feather, and so on. I enter a room in one carriage and there’s a large, jaundiced dragon’s eye staring at me. Eventually I keep scrolling left—rather than right, it should be noted—and eventually the train starts converging with nature. Roots of trees begin to overtake it. The sound of chugging on tracks gives way to forest bristling. The protagonist, too, begins to change, apparently sprouting goat horns. Eventually I learn the morbid reason for this surreal fever dream, and I learn that the things I’ve picked up via exploration of the train—a bird’s feather, or perhaps a lick of fire—are things which will determine the role of my new life, since my old one had been taken. I’m told this by three Fates that appear like anthropomorphic foxes, again in a forest. Much like Process Journey, this game has multiple endings based on what I collect. Much like Winter’s Lost Heart, I must collect a specific number of things—three—in order to be given my new life (but which I’ve already acquired before reaching the Fates). With items in tow, there’s not really a “bad” ending, and while there’s no explicit guidance for what I must collect and how, Line Crossing does a much better job of synthesizing flat spatial exploration with enigmatic discovery. In a sense, the game’s linearity actually frees me from having to deal with goal-oriented demands and allows me to focus more on the allegorical overtones.
When I receive my new identity—I could be a politician or a musician, for instance, and the game will cut to a paragraph explaining what it is I go on to do—-I understand how my choices on this moving train have culminated in a personal history. I understand how this journey has helped me construct an understanding of self through the accumulation of these meaningful symbols. I can go, up to a point, left or right on the train, in and out of carriages. My movement through, into and out of space all constitutes a set of decisions that will add up to something, but this wisdom is remote until I’m able to see how everything stacks up in retrospect. Previous games implied the slow creation of history as an accumulation of small acts and the traversal of time was represented via the traversal of space, as in the night-and-day switching in Where Gods Sleep. But Line Crossing has taken these ideas and really refined them, in part by shedding off some arbitrary ludic constraints, in part by making powerful use of a distinctive aesthetic (the wispy, ethereal pixelation that makes everything slightly uncanny and unreal), and in part by allowing the lush symbolism and spatial metaphors to speak for themselves.
It’s arguable that after Line Crossing, Wright seriously started to play around with alternative methods of ludic and thematic expression in Forest Mind. While this game has a similar art style to the ones described above, there are some really crucial differences. First of all, you’re in a fixed position: you play a scarecrow, so you can’t actually move. This is to accommodate the LD31 theme for which it was made, “entire game on one screen.” The fixed perspective on one central figure creates a focal point, which means that the background landscapes need to be much closer for the character not to feel isolated. This means no more small, round trees and little birds, but it also means bright colours, large rain drops and big tree trunks that surround and envelop the avatar, their details being overwhelmingly apparent. Wright then compensates for the lack of free movement by allowing the space to change around the character. As the tagline says, “Your mind is free”, so when you hit the arrow keys, the background shifts around the character into something else. The forest becomes a hillside, or a yard near a shack. Sometimes animals appear. Sometimes the palette changes. There’s gentle, chiming music that sounds like a tune from a mobile or a wind-up music box. There’s that typical fabulism and surrealism again, and that feeling of “free” movement of space despite obvious confines. Commentary about language or technology or history aren’t really prominent but this also isn’t a game with a clearly enacted narrative. Rather, it’s a kind of movable landscape painting that implies the inviting and uplifting magic of this fantastical world, and works like a kind of meditation on the ways in which imagination can allow us to envision and embody fantastic contexts despite an inability to literally move beyond our material conditions. Forest Mind, then, safely and sweetly lets us imagine alterity.
By contrast, Peregrin (2014) is a bit of a palate cleanser for all that sweetness. The pixelation is abandoned in favour of smoother contours. The bright colour contrasts give way to an overwhelming use of grey and monochromatics, with some deliberate colouration of meaningful objects. The avatar is still a ghostly tall and thin woman, but she walks slowly and deliberately, with gravity. The soft, round trees are exchanged for grey and black watercolour strokes meant to represent tree trunks against a white background. The repetitive, translucent trunks suggest both depth and breadth while still presenting an essentially flat surface. It’s reminiscent of a ukiyo-e painting with less opaque colours, and a more gossamer sort of texture.
What remains is a left and right side-scrolling through a two-dimensional forest full of diegetic nature sounds, with deer and fluttering, chirping birds and occasional rainfall, and an injection of the surreal and the fantastical represented both visually and in Wright’s application of suggestive, poetic writing. Here, the tagline is “The journey is everything” and while that could easily become trite, Wright’s ability to evoke a gentle, dreamlike atmosphere that actually encourages a desire to familiarize oneself with whatever’s contained within it actually gives that statement some weight.
Wright’s love of linguistics comes through here, since the root word of “peregrine,” off of which the title is based, is a Medieval Latin word meaning “wandering pilgrim”. The word “peregrine” can itself be used to mean both “wandering” and “foreign” or “alien”. These significations are represented by the fact that the avatar of the young woman is following along with a forest pilgrimage, scrolling left, yet she is clearly unlike anyone else participating and is very likely not of the same world. Being the only discernible human, the protagonist is the odd one out among these friendly, eccentric pilgrims with masks covering their angular faces and stick-like legs bobbing their pear-shaped bodies onward. They’re enigmatic, but endearing. When they speak, they speak of an unending pilgrimage, of the journey having no foreseeable end. They sometimes express vigour or excitement and sometimes they lament the drudgery. Sometimes, sentiments meld together strangely, since the phrases in their dialogue boxes generate procedurally. It all sort of blurs together as everyone keeps moving left.
They talk a lot about lore. The mythos of the world is suggested aesthetically and tonally, but it’s also enshrouded in mystery, kept slightly out of the realm of knowability. There’s the jarring procedural pilgrim dialogue (naturally, since the game was made for Procjam 2014), then there’s also the sparing lines of the omniscient narrator who speaks on behalf of the protagonist. While it’s not unusual for Wright’s games to have second-person narration of some kind, both to provide context and to instruct the player, the little bits of exposition here come off as especially existential. I’m told at the beginning that I can use the arrow keys to go left or right, but pressing up will allow me to “find myself”, and I’m not sure what this immediately means since the input apparently does nothing. Then I’m given the odd line about distant memories of this forest, of childhood, and of personal growth. These, too, seem to spawn procedurally. The game’s preoccupation with language doesn’t stop there, however. The game also contains a poem generator in the pause screen, and clicking on it will generate a three-line poem like a lune or a haiku, again made up of jumbled lines, often integrating the Lewis Carroll-like terminology Wright has constructed for this world. Sometimes these poems can be less intelligible than others, and their meaningfulness can be accidental, but they tend to exhibit the same kind of airy, introspective sensibility. Here, unlike Wright’s other games, I’m not gathering enchanted and strange objects and constructing a narrative based on those decisions. Rather, I’m being given words and ideas and themes and tones and, if I listen closely enough, I can figure out what the game is asking me to do.
Because each screen must load procedurally, some of that feeling of continuity in terms of the horizontal space is lost. What Peregrin keeps, from both Line Crossing and her other LD31 title, The Last Room, is this very narrow aspect ratio that’s much longer than it is wide. Whereas Line Crossing is like a tapestry, Peregrin is perhaps more like a slowly-unfolding scroll. It could go on forever, and yet if I choose not to read left or right, but look up, there is a point at which I can always leave. But I keep moving forward. The scenery changes yet it stays the same. The pilgrims say the same things but in a different order. I occasionally pass a stag that I can pat, or what appears to be a caravan for a traveling puppet show that I can’t interact with. And then, eventually, a pilgrim suggests something that I had filed away in the back of my head. A thing that seemed so antithetical to the idea of a journey—of moving forward. The pilgrim suggests the possibility of going backwards instead of forwards. What I learn, doing this, is that every background that loaded when I moved right has remained. Where it rained, it still rains. Where there was a caravan, there still is, and as I go back I see some pilgrims stopped to pay attention to it. I can no longer interact with them, either. I go all the way back to the beginning, and I find who everyone was looking for this whole time.
If other games suggest construction of history as a progressive narrative of cause-and-effect, Peregrin suggests far more about the construction of memory, of how the building of the self can only be done in retrospect. It does this with its references to poetry and the structurality of language, it does this with the conception of space and with visual symbolism. It does this, again, via fabulism and extremely suggestive allegory. It’s a game with a lingering, calm sadness, ending on a poem like the ones in the generator when I finally decide to leave the forest in the one area I know I can. I hit up, finally, and it takes me to a floating, beating red heart—that leitmotif from Winter’s Lost Heart making a more thematically impactful recurrence here. In a way, it’s a game that implies death in that it requires looking back on one’s own life and the choices one was permitted to make. The pilgrims are NPCs, and the dialogue notes this. They’re stuck, playing out a computer program. They can only act in one direction. This difference in, believe it or not, agency, between the protagonist and the pilgrims actually helps contextualize the limitation upon choice and the confining feeling of hindsight. If I go all the way back, I meet this jovial forest god that seems passively bemused by this whole pilgrimage thing, because he was just sort of hanging about all along. But it’s my ability to move forward, then backward, that allows me to perceive what was there, along my way.
While games like Peregrin and Line Crossing are existential and slightly morbid in their themes and subtexts, Wright’s only game with serious horror overtones is the The Last Room. Bright open spaces are replaced by a character encased in darkness, with only a small diameter of the space illuminated by the character’s lantern. The pixel art style is still there, but the palette is much darker, and the side-scrolling through what feels like continuous, flat space is present but that feeling of tracing a tapestry’s stitches with ones fingers or unraveling a scroll is replaced by a brooding and constrictive feeling of going through a dark corridor. Her setting, too, is unusual: instead of an enchanted forest scene we’re given a period piece—affecting perhaps mid-19th century fashion—about a young woman in the “last room” of a home, looking for information about her mother, who is depicted only in portrait form. Instead of runes, we have suggestive and cryptic diary entries. Instead of a magical, symbolic Chekhov’s Gun like a door or a frozen statue, we instead have this portrait which appears to move and change uncomfortably, almost imperceptibly. Instead of a feeling of free traversal, of slow-paced archaeological dig, we have the urgent sensation of claustrophobia and of things being askew. Instead of diegetic nature noises and occasionally gentle chime music, we have silence and squeaky floors. And yet, there’s no mistaking this as an Aeryne Wright game: the telltale signs of her work are all here, they’ve just been subverted for very different tonal and thematic purposes.
Wright’s latest work, Star Girl, shine bright! is probably the least like her other works, deviating from trends even more than The Last Room, Forest Mind or Injured Eternity. Still, I think there are some distinguishing features here that help us understand this as an Aeryne Wright game. Star Girl, shine bright! is a kind of musical arcade game—the most ostensibly “game-like” Wright admits to have tinkered with, having told me on Twitter, “My design sensibilities don’t usually go to typical game conventions so this was an interesting experiment for me”.
The game was made for the Music Video(game) Jam on itch.io, and I think it succeeds very well at capturing both the spirit of a music video and Wright’s choice of song. You play a woman who appears to be lost deeply in the reverie of her music. Rather than diegetic nature noises, Star Girl is overlaid start to finish with the dance track, “Do You Disco”, by Dads on Display. The space is more like a wide arena than a narrow scroll or tapestry or dig site. There’s no word puzzle to solve or objects to collect. Rather, the brightly-coloured space is speckled with large, five-point stars which change colour as I jump on them. Eventually, if I jump on enough of them, the space becomes covered in what appear to be stage lights. There’s a counter for the 250 I’m supposed to jump on before the song ends, but it’s more for a sense of personal challenge. There’s no real penalty for not getting them all, things are just slightly less colourful than they could be.
There’s no metaphor-laden narrative here, and the magic implied is similar to the kind of impossible scenarios found in other games, particularly arcade-style games and mobile games where the figures tend to be a little more abstract. Still, we see the soft, curvaceous lines, the splashes of colour, and the flatness of a space which is laid back, comfortable yet enchanting. A sanctuary that can still excite and surprise.
Aeryne Wright’s games are knowable by their allegory and their symbolism, their opaque foreshadowing, their meditations on language and history and technology and nature as existential contexts through which we construct the self. Wright’s games are knowable through their softness, their cuteness, their inviting warmth with sometimes sinister or morbid subtexts, but always conveyed with a kind of fairytale coyness. They’re a strange dream, the excitement of being a stranger in a new environment, where everything is slightly uncanny but, if you listen and look, the birds chirp. The stars shine.