Small Talk

It’s your party and you’ll cry if you want to

EDGE - - GAMES - De­vel­oper/pub­lisher For­mat Ori­gin Re­lease Pale Room PC USA 2019

PC

Par­ties are strange, oth­er­worldly places. In a room filled with booze and strangers, em­bold­ened by the para­dox­i­cal pri­vacy af­forded by chat­ter and thump­ing mu­sic, peo­ple trans­form. “Once, I went to this party,” artist and game de­signer Gabrielle Genevieve says. “There was this guy there who I’d never met be­fore. He’s sit­ting next to me, and he just starts go­ing off about his part­ner of seven years. He doesn’t know if he loves them any more – and they’re across the room, talk­ing to some­body else, and he’s like, com­pletely let­ting his whole soul out onto me. It was kind of in­tense, and I was like, ‘Oh, god’. He looked at me at the end and he said, ‘I can’t be­lieve I told you all of that’. And I said, ‘No, it’s okay – some­times you need to get it out’.”

This was the first seed of Small Talk, a game set dur­ing a party at the end of the world. The condo is pop­u­lated with cu­ri­ous guests, from a dis­em­bod­ied head to a gi­ant gun­dam stand­ing awk­wardly with a party cup. It’s al­most in­tim­i­dat­ing: we shuf­fle around the room’s edges, try­ing not to gawp, study­ing the sur­real an­i­mated paint­ings hung on the walls while we work up the courage to ap­proach some­one. “It’s in­ter­est­ing hear­ing how peo­ple’s playthroughs go, be­cause it’s some­times in­dica­tive of how peo­ple ac­tu­ally go to a party,” Genevieve says.

In­deed, there’s a not un­fa­mil­iar sense of feel­ing out of place. Eyes and faces fol­low you: a Doom- style bill­board­ing ef­fect on the char­ac­ters aug­ments self-con­scious­ness, the mix of 2D peo­ple in a 3D world un­canny. “I think part of the ‘out­sider­ness’ is want­ing to ex­plore the things that peo­ple don’t feel com­fort­able about,” pro­gram­mer Chris

Chap­pe­lear says. “Find­ing a set­ting that can cre­ate a level of com­fort around that, as much as is pos­si­ble. A lot of the time that doesn’t ex­ist in re­al­ity, and so hav­ing it be at the end of the world helps with this idea that, okay, I might as well let it all out at this point.”

In­deed, one minute we’re mak­ing po­lite chit-chat with an onion as gold­fish swim around in its trousers; the next, lis­ten­ing to a man with a plate of eggs and ba­con for a face rem­i­nisce about his child­hood. We pre­sume we’ve hit it off with Break­fast Head when we’re trans­ported into his mind palace, where a mother bird nests peace­fully with sen­tient eggs be­fore pre­sent­ing us with one filled with ‘Eg­gman’s Ba­con Bits’.

It gets weirder – and steadily more heart­felt. A girl split be­tween di­men­sions is hav­ing trou­ble rec­on­cil­ing the dif­fer­ent parts of her­self with the over­whelm­ing choices avail­able to her: we hop up plat­forms in her head to­wards a starry sky to meet the pieces of her per­son­al­ity. An­other guest pulls us into a maze of book­shelves. At the end stands a strange, in­con­solable crea­ture lament­ing a lost re­la­tion­ship – it’s slightly silly, but with a tinge of pain. Some spa­ces are com­fort­ing, oth­ers un­set­tling; some­times they are both. Puz­zles are nar­ra­tive rid­dles rather than brain­teasers, a way to phys­i­cally work though what­ever ab­stract, of­ten mun­dane dif­fi­culty the char­ac­ter is try­ing to nav­i­gate.

And some of the guests at the party even ask about our life: the hopes, dreams and in­se­cu­ri­ties we may have. We find our­selves look­ing in­ward, prompted by these Bar­num ef­fect con­ver­sa­tions with friendly sym­bols. “If you look at the way the writ­ing is struc­tured, it’s am­bigu­ous,” Genevieve says. “It’s worded in such a way where it’s like, ‘This can ap­ply to me, too.’ It’s a very aes­thetic-heavy game, so it draws peo­ple in with its strange char­ac­ters and crea­tures, and it kind of does this bait and switch. It’s bright and hap­py­look­ing, and then it’s like, oh shit, it’s sad!” she laughs. “That’s ex­actly what we want – now you’re think­ing about your­self.”

This is a qui­etly rev­e­la­tory game for the mod­ern age, both en­ter­tain­ing and oddly ther­a­peu­tic. With so many games de­signed with es­cape in mind, Small Talk makes a case – and a space – for gen­tly con­fronting your­self. “We’ve had peo­ple say they’re about to cry in some spa­ces,” Genevieve says. “It’s just kind of open­ing that valve, and let­ting your­self take what you need out of it, which is def­i­nitely one of our big goals.”

“It’s bright and happy-look­ing, then it’s like, oh shit, it’s sad! That’s ex­actly what we want”

This chap is quite ter­ri­fy­ing – we’re pretty sure he’s hid­ing a set of teeth in his midriff. He does have some nice things to say about the in­her­ent value of life on Earth, how­ever, and his jokes are quite good

From top: pro­gram­mer Chris Chap­pe­lear; artist and game de­signer Gabrielle Genevieve

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