Notes on Sacramento: Dreaming in Watercolour

Sacramento is a small game by French developer Dziff that, for lack of a better term, I’ll call a walking simulator. For some that reads as pejorative or dismissive of what the game has to offer—whether in its story, atmosphere, general aesthetic, or anything else that might resonate with a player—but I mean it as nothing more than a descriptor. That’s what you do in Sacramento: walk around for a few minutes and take things in. Other than the start menu, the game is wordless, expressing itself only in painterly symbolic imagery. And for only a few minutes of your time, what more could it ask of you? 

Sacramento has a fixed first-person perspective, and rather than walking I often felt like I was floating through space. The best indication the game gave me that I was embodying a human protagonist is a hand and forearm I could raise from offscreen by pressing ALT on my keyboard. I could use this to check the time, as with the clock on the train platform when I arrived at my destination—not that anyone would be served by trying to read the time, what with the hands of the clock spinning wildly in all directions.

The train ride too was weightless and ephemeral, the dreamy animation looping as the game loaded. The world of Sacramento is a calligraphic black outline bathed in bleeding, vibrant watercolours of lavender, violet, bubblegum pink, sunburst orange, canary yellow and sky blue. The world is small and dense, but seems bigger and deeper than it is thanks to distinct regional blocks surrounded on all sides by a vanishing white horizon. I moved forward as terrain came into view, and all of a sudden I was beset by coral and pink flamingos. In one region, a sky full of floating blue fish tucked behind a wall connected by footbridge back to the central square—a valley full of swaying flowers and black streaks of birds flying listlessly over ranges of small hills. In some playthroughs I found a woman reading by herself on a hill and passed right through her, and in another I frightened off some blue dragonflies I found congregated in a rocky nook. The sounds and music by Montreal musician Glass Body are ambient, but rich and deep, giving Sacramento a little bit more of a dangerous, mysterious feel, as if I might be trespassing. Some parts are more blue, others more pink, and the ones closer to the sun in the west are more orange, but they all blur into each other. Time and space, while present in Sacramento, feel liquid, blended like pigment.

Time still passes, and day turns to night. The game will reset back to the train-ride animation, probably multiple times before the player has seen everything there is to see. It’s easy to simply assume that the place is fixed in time, and to stay too long in one area or roam too much in one direction. But that would be a betrayal of the central conceit of Sacramento, which is ephemerality. Dziff’s short description of the game explains that it’s based on a “flashback of moments I gathered on sketchbooks over the years” and that it’s all about “capturing fleeting memories before they fade.” These are warm dreams and memory flashes, lazily connected but still discrete. Like a memory, Sacramento is fluid, unreliable, and is always slightly different each time you experience it. Like a good memory, it’s warmer, brighter and sweeter than real life could ever possibly be.

Pass through the very middle of Sacramento, all the way to the end of the tiny world, and you’ll find three palaces, or maybe temples, but only the middle one will have a door. That might be a little too on the nose—it’s a mind palace in a game about memory, alright, fine—but it is beautiful. Like everything else in Sacramento, it has a delicate stained-glass look, but still stands out as something grand in an otherwise relaxed landscape, like punctuation on the game’s overall point.

In one playthrough, the doors to this palace was closed, forcing me to explore other areas of the map, but all too suddenly the clock reset and, unsatisfied, I decided to replay the game. This time the doors were open! I walked through them, and the pastel watercolours gave way to a totally black space dotted with shining white and orange stars, floating forever upward. Despite the cosmic aesthetic, this area was even more enclosed than other parts of the map, the dark walls totally encircling me. From the other end of the tiny palace, I could still see the white outline of the door. As I approached it, it contrasted with the black, appearing superflat on top of it. This wasn’t in itself different from many of the other assets in the game, which also appear as two-dimensional cutouts with no real concreteness or heft, but I could still walk through the doors, and as soon as I did, I was once again locked out of the palace. 

Sacramento plays with colour, space and dimension to disorient the player, but it’s a charming and pleasant disorientation. The bright, liquid colours mix with the flatness of the objects in the space to make every encounter feel like a little snapshot, and the short span of every individual playthrough makes each one feel like its own flashback to a place that could only exist in someone’s imagination. Many games have attempted to provide us with a vision of a dreamspace, but Sacramento is one of only a few that have captured the hazy, muddled quality of memory in such an artful way. I only wish there was more of it to get lost in.