Post-grads: can you remember much about your final thesis? The Arcades Project? Something to do with Kracauer? A quote or two from good old Richard Feynman? It’s probably a bit of a hazy collage to you by now - a few scattered snapshots of short-term loan books and Post-it notes, a jumble of photocopier cards and cups of grainy Maxwell House.
I don’t mean to be rude, but chances are your thesis wasn’t as much fun as the final year project by Robert Yang, Mohini Dutta, and Ben Norskov. These three students, working towards an MFA in design and technology at Parsons, have been building Souvenir, a Unity-based “first-person video game, about growing up and leaving home.” Souvenir’s a bit of a hazy collage, too, coincidentally: an Escher-inspired origami clutter of stairwells, corridors, stages and sidewalks.
On an intellectual level, the whole thing might seem a little trite: this tangled, inwardly-folded environment you’re navigating represents the protagonist’s early memories, and it’s your job to sift through the mess and choose 'souvenirs' to take into adulthood. What’s much easier to admire, though, is the way the landscape sneakily guides you from one seemingly disjointed fragment to the next, mirroring the strange leaps of topsy-turvy logic and back alley connections your own mind might make when you let the past intrude for just a second - and then promptly lose yourself in hours of nostalgic rambling.
Even better, though, is the fact that, even if you ignore all of the prompts towards meaning, Souvenir is simply a fun place to explore. The complex space feels wonderfully tangible, like a vision of purgatory put together by Ikea’s kitchen cabinet people. The central mechanic, which sees you aiming and clicking to zap from one plane to the next, is an ideal way to get around a tricksy 3D game world, as anyone who’s played Gravity Rush will know only too well – after all, it’s another riff on the same basic idea.
It helps that this caved-in memory palace is quietly pretty, too: the simple, stunted forms of the trees and the rich greens of the skybox reminding me, for some reason, of those weird elongated worlds of Remedios Varo (although I can’t quite put my finger on why), while the knotted streets and lawns, as Jim Rossignol noted in his piece over on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, where I first read about the game, bring back all the right memories of one of Psychonauts’ wittiest missions.
Souvenir’s a work-in-progress, by the looks of things, but its unfinished nature might actually be my favourite thing about it. It’s a treat to explore such a pleasing dreamscape before the tidy interpretations become overwhelming; it’s great to be an empty-headed tourist picking through someone else’s past.