I let Softelevision load in my browser in another tab. I’m listening to some soothing, ambient Jon Hopkins tune and I know that when the bar underneath the Unity logo has filled in the sound of ocean waves will crash through my speakers, a soft white-blue static fading in and out in a gentle rhythm against a twinkling of computer-generated harmonies.
I turn off my music.
I go back to the tab containing the itch.io page for James Shasha’s “small game and mixtape.” Shasha’s customized the page so that the background is a serene, dark teal—the same colour as the sea in Softelevision. I look into the middle of my screen at the embedded game and the camera’s turned to a god’s eye view, down at my little avatar. The placid, robin’s egg blue television screen it has for a face appears to be smiling but I might be projecting. When I hit WASD to move it, there’s no animation—no gesture of any kind. There’s no walking animation, no shoulder shifting, no change in expression. It just changes the little hero’s coordinates so far as I can tell.
The sprite retains a kind of two-dimensionality, a paper-like quality as it moves through the the low-poly 3D space. That texture is even more strongly suggested when it clips through the set pieces of the little islands that populate the expanse of the virtual sea. Unity’s geometry can often imply an architecture that’s angular, smooth-faced with sharp, defined edges. It’s running one’s hand across the plexiglass corner of a skyscraper window. But in Softelevision, the edges feel slightly blunted, less aggressive. This is, I think, a result of the colour palette consisting mainly of cool, breezy greens and blues punctuated by hot shocks of red, pink, and a mild yellow. Even the sprite exemplifies this contrast, a blue CRT head sitting atop a yellow unitard and red cape. But I also feel like this gentleness comes from a feeling of expansiveness of the landscape. It’s corrupted, though. The landscape is blotted by hot shocks of electric light—the islands glimmer not because of dew in the moonlight but because of the abrasive fluorescence of suspended billboards for Mountain Dew and GTAV. The sky isn’t dotted with stars but with packs of Marlboros. The Pepsi logo winks as it sticks idly to the sky like a sticker label.
bzzzZZZzzz z z zt
st st st
I move my mouse to change the camera position from the belittling perspective on which the game loaded and see this blighted yet oddly calm panorama. The wind blows over the solid blue mass of the water indifferently. The spray of brine and the concentric rhythm of waves are suggested by sound effects and slight animation as I move through the water on a raft left waiting just for me. On the raft there’s what appears to be a console with eight half-spheres protruding from it. I’m the only one in the world. It’s me and the wind and the blunt breadth of the expanse and the crass, vapid consumerism.
st st st hhhhhHHhhhhhhh bzzt
I alight on an island and take in the naturalistic and surrealistic aspect of the topography. These brown and green clusters are half-forest, half-building. Before me are trees and voxelated, dark bushes and what look like tiled ramps. I walk up these structures, but I walk through them just as much. The collision is barely holding me inside the world. I could attribute that to the quickness with which Softelevision was made but I can’t help but notice how it buttresses the uncanny ethereality of the world. Everything is a little bit perverted, but pleasantly so.
I walk to the center, as far as I can tell, of the island, and there’s an orb in the ground. A mild scoop of yellow. I walk over it and it floats up from its earthy prison, liberated to hang suspended in the air. It changes to a hot shock of pink. Suddenly, gracefully, gently, the billboards that blared white light, beckoning me to the shore, descend into the floor of the sea and disappear forever. A song fades in. Otis Redding. I’m overcome with a simple but profound delight. I leave the little television head figure on the island for a minute to dwell with me in my enchantment. It’s me and the avatar and the wind and the sea and the song.
aahhhhhh . . .
Things are a little darker than before, on this one island. But it’s a warm darkness, a comforting darkness. It feels like a moment’s peace.
And in a moment, I take my raft and sail on to new lands. I noticed that one half-orb on my little wooden console has lit up. It’s here that the world begins to feel smaller. It doesn’t take long to travel from island to island, node to node, and when I do, I find my orbs, and the billboards fall, and the trees rise to take their place, and a different melody swells, and I dwell for a few minutes in my green bed of virtual flora until the song loops and everything begins to feel too claustrophobic.
As I move away from the dark clusters—not the cosmopolitan illumination of publicity but the engulfing void of the unadulterated dark wood—the music fades away. Each island a melody unto itself, each tied to a simple spatial harmony of Softelevision’s uncomplicated statement. I take it in and I move on. Seven orbs afire, little moons dimly glowing in the shady cushions of their forests.
The final orb isn’t to be found on land but at sea, floating in the center like a lost, weightless buoy. I push my raft over it. It rises up into the air. A wash of pink comes over it like a mood ring and with it turns the sky. The soda moon and cigarette-pack stars are washed away, falling under the horizon, replaced by a clean, dark blue panorama of brimming stars. The mass of the water reflects nothing. Television head reflects nothing. At a distance, purplish land masses blot the green gradient of the horizon. The music loops, fading in as I approach, fading out as I leave, forever. Everything is separated and contained.
Softelevision is part pop art, part music mixtape, part virtual photomontage of a landscape painting. It presents the artifacts of global capitalism—of their inflection into gamer culture particularly—as garish, absurd, out of place, and loud. Like beacons they connect all islands by giving them a flat, but brightly lit, universalism. They’re so loud, they drown out the music.
st st st STTBZZTbt zstttt t tt ttt zbbzbbzbzbbSSHHHhhhhhh
When that music swells, it’s treasure dug out of a long and lonely suppression. Softelevision is incapable, by its nature as a virtual world, of coherently rejecting the concept of a “media landscape.” So instead it proposes a different sort of one, with intimate expression and art to be found in the excavation and a restoration of its soul. I worry this might lean too forcefully into a sort of natural fallacy, or a naturalistic essentialism. I don’t know what the “correct” natural condition of self-expression is. But the world itself is so uncanny and full of striking contrasts, the set pieces so disjointed and strange and solitary, that I don’t think Softelevision rejects one universalism in favour of another. It stops just short, embedding the hot shocks of expression in the dark, rustling wood of distinct selves, held up by the percussive waters beneath them, loosely tethered by the crude conveyance of someone who will travel between silences and hold them harmoniously together.