In Somnio – by Jan ‘Jam’ Malitschek

There’s something really exciting about experimental titles in the indie scene that pull on lessons from film, even as it becomes increasingly difficult to classify their genre in terms of gameplay. Most would probably consider a release like In Somnio to fall under the ‘walking simulator’ or exploratory adventure category, but simplistic vernacular that reduces an experience to such crude classification fails the artistic significance of the work.

In few other mediums do we define their genre by their basic building blocks the way we do with games, it would be absurd to refer to the notion of ‘moviefeel’ or to ground our expectations of a radio show’s content by the particular microphone they used. There are exceptions to this, the found footage genre brings to mind handheld cameras or go-pros as a storytelling method, but this is comparable to how we would think about a painting: is it a watercolor, oil based? Both of these examples serve as framing for the audience, but we judge the artwork itself by its thematic substance and stylistic intent. In Somnio is an example of a game that continues to push the edges of the medium, blurring the line between interactive media and film-making, leaving us in critical territory where we find ourselves unprepared despite years of traditional games analysis.

We begin our journey through In Somnio via the lens of an unnamed protagonist aboard a moving train, leaving us to walk down to the end of the car we find ourselves within and take a seat across from a stranger. A moment passes in silence, his voice eventually piercing the reprieve, a simple remark “I can control where this train is headed, you know?” as if to imply we may be merely bearing witness to someone else’s lucid dream. The game then cuts to a new scene under the canopy of a dark and lonely forest.

Each sequence is preceded by an interstitial card with a numeral along with a short, seemingly descriptive, title. It becomes clear that Malitschek is employing a sort of montage, taking us from one place to the next in a seemingly unrelated order, leaving us with few clues with which to glean the narrative subtext. In cinema critique this would be akin to the Kuleshov effect, a psychological phenomena documented by Soviet Filmmaker Lev Kuleshov where audiences were subjected to sequences shown in a different orders to see if the audience’s interpretations of the narrative was changed. By juxtaposing a recording of a man eating soup against varied imagery, Kuleshov shaped the viewer’s speculation on the film’s meaning.

In games, we have a tendency to liken this effect to ‘dream-like’ logic, often erroneously attributed solely to the directorial stylings of David Lynch. When it comes to describing characteristics of interactive media, we too often fall back on whatever analytical terms we have gained from surface readings of pop culture. Not only do we deprive ourselves of effective terminology through our lack of film education, we subsequently find ourselves hamstrung by our inability to derive our own terminology in game-development due to a reliance on trade publications that value pragmatic factors such as value or “fun” derived from the product rather than the art.

Here, however, Malitschek’s usage of montage editing would constitute an appropriate application of dream-like logic. This intent is clear, encapsulated in the title card of “QUID SIGNIFICAT?” (or, “What does it mean?” in Latin) appearing later in the game. The author is taunting us with this, encouraging us to fully engage the Kuleshov effect to our own ends, it is an open challenge to the audience to find meaning within the jumbled scenery, to suss out if this is merely a dream or something far greater.

The latent ambiguity of the entire production is exactly where the tension lies. Anxiety climbs as meaning continues to slip out of our grasp, are we being hunted or are we merely unraveling a mystery? An ominous malaise hangs lazily above the fog banks of the dam scene, illuminated by flickering lights failing within the halls of the abandoned motel, we are left without any rational anchoring to subdue our primitive fear of the unknown, instilling the sense that we are alone, not only in what we experience during the game, but isolated even within our own bespoke interpretations thereof.

Despite In Somnio‘s simple construction, we are able to witness a demonstration of visual media’s greatest strength: the ability to shape the internal perception of our audience’s imagination, to weaponize their patterns of thought for the sake of dramatic flourish, or to cater to them for a sense of comfort and reward.

In taking the time to understand just how movie magic unfolds, or the dynamic literary structure of experimental novels and poetry, we will, in time, learn how to manifest our own terminology unique to our medium the way that those who trod this path before us once did. This is in part the mission of critical analysis, to establish the foundation for future art-work and to help broaden the horizons of the next creative generation, to yearn for an idealistic era in which we put the thematic content or presentation of the work above the importance of monetary significance.

Malitschek and their experimental indie contemporaries, alongside new games media, are helping to pave the way for a new kind of game, one that has been with us for many years but will continue to yield wonders beyond our imaginations. With media like Virtual Reality disrupting everything we thought we already knew about interactive design, things are gearing up to be far more intricate and expansive than anyone could have predicted.

We’ve yet to see what our medium’s gilded age will look like, because it’s becoming exceptionally clear that we’re just getting started. Tomorrow in part will always be defined by what we achieve today..

.. So let’s keep dreaming.

Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice