It feels like a bit of a cop-out to open a discussion about a modern game with “when I was a child, I played videogames and it made me feel x.” Its been done to death, and usually comes up as a way for the writer to secretly make it All About Them. But Minkomora, and by extension Soft Chambers, feels like such a specific reaction to some of the ideas we carry about “universal shared experiences” in “videogame culture” that it doesn’t seem possible to talk about it without exploring one’s own version of those experiences and culture.
So when I was a child, I played videogames and sometimes it made me feel scared.
The world is a chaotic, confusing place with no inherent meaning or value. Despite that, its not hard for us to make sense of it and find hidden, but consistent logic behind the chaos. This is particularly true when you’re a little kid who is perhaps a little too clever for their own good and with enough fears and unknowns in your life already. With, among other issues, a childhood defined by tourettes at a time when tourettes was almost never even properly identified, much less treated, I had a vested interest in removing possible unknown terrors. Classmates and family looked out at a deep forest, a seemingly bottomless ocean, or an unknown form in the dark and feared the unknown. As for me, I memorized and cataloged everything I could about the natural world so that it didn’t matter if I couldn’t see the bottom of the lake, I knew every possible thing that could be down there. When stomping through the woods and bumping into a snake, a skunk, a snapping turtle, a coyote, or a rabid cat, I knew exactly what to do, how to behave and what behavior to watch for. I could swim with stingrays, alien-looking crabs and sharks that lived off shore because I knew they were harmless unless provoked and I knew how not to provoke them. Even when civilization was confusing and its inability to understand my brain led to misdiagnosis, incompatible medication and sleepless nights, I could go out into nature, gaze into the unknown and know there would be no surprises.
At least that’s how it seemed to the mind of a child a little too clever and a little too eager to not face any more unknowns unless necessary.
Some videogames mirror the world in this way. They feature logical systems that can be understood. Even when they’re hard and stressful and punishing, they make sense. They teach you their rules while you play, or they communicate the rules effectively (or at least exhaustively) through tutorials. Then there are games, especially old games before the days of professional localizations, that don’t. I don’t mean bad games that make no sense, but games with their own logic that isn’t overt. The games without giant full-color spreads in old game magazines, leaving you with only the blurry photographs from the off-brand magazines decorated with unrelated art and the poorly-written manuals that came with the game, both raising more questions than they answered. You’d pour over charts and descriptions of bizarre creatures like Deathpigor, Romsarb, Torororo and DemoLoad. Some of those names were cultural touchstones presented without context, and others were just as alien as they sounded. The games would switch genres and styles seemingly at random, because we hadn’t yet decided that every commercial game should follow a specific template of whatever the previous year’s most popular games had been. I’m not simply talking about bad games, as most bad games follow logical systems of bland badness. I’m talking about games that, intentionally or not, hid their logic and gave you a glimpse into the unknown. These games rejected attempts at forcing logic out of them, instead asking you to wander and explore them with no promise of reward.
As a kid, sometimes I’d stumble upon magical, hidden worlds that did reward my willingness to abandon feelings of stability and safety. Sometimes I’d run away and hide in the closet because the monsters in the first part of Out Of This World were just too terrifying and the rental copy I played didn’t include any instructions. In both situations, there was a strange sense of fear that I didn’t have when exploring the significantly more dangerous real forests, cliffs and oceans of my childhood. It was certainly not the same fear that came from civilization either, like not knowing why my body was moving without command, or the fear when a classmate would disappear and every adult said they were fine but refused to answer questions and avoided eye contact, or finding out that random chance had kept you from a predator, or the fear that your parents were talking to you differently because the Freudian hack they took you to didn’t “believe” in things like ADHD or tourettes and told them you were broken in fascinatingly out-of-date and misdiagnosed ways. Those were fears that were compounded by the fear of what acknowledging those fears would mean. The fear that came from being lost in a fascinatingly confusing game was a safe kind of fear. A space you could willingly choose to enter or disengage with. A place it was ok to admit and experience, even experiment, with fear.
merritt kopas’ Soft Chambers offers a way of looking at, and creating, games and play spaces that is sometimes challenging, sometimes contradictory, and sometimes nostalgic. Soft Chambers are about emotion, but tempered with awareness. It is about acknowledging the use of spaces intended for videogame violence and action for other kinds of feelings and experiences, without forgetting that this is a subversion of the game’s intended purpose. It is about experiencing the personal, the warm, and the safe without escaping from reality. Minkomora is a game informed by this philosophy. There is no danger, no purpose beyond experiencing and feeling, and plenty of room to define how you feel about its various spaces. Minkomora borrows a lot of the aesthetics of those classic mysterious games, especially in its brilliantly designed and written manual. This manual evokes those bizarrely mistranslated and unlocalized worlds, right down to the Soft Chambers Seal of Quality echoing the famous Nintendo Seal of Same. However, Minkomora doesn’t simply evoke the past out of shallow nostalgia, but actively seeks to use the unknown in a different way. From the start, it informs you that you are safe here. No matter how enthusiastically you throw yourself into the unknown here, you can’t even get lost, as pressing the ENTER key will always show you the route home. While those previous games unintentionally provided a safe space to play with fear, Minkomora intentionally uses those same tools for playing with other emotions. In this way Minkomora, despite its abstract forms and designs, is closer to the real world nature I explored and felt comfortable in than the digital nature that tantalized and frightened me.
You can play Minkomora as a you would a classic Zelda game. You can explore the world, taking in its sights, trying to learn its secrets. The nameless thing you control has no pockets for items, has no quest beyond deciding for themselves how they fit into the world, and can only interact with the world by walking and sitting, but there are still things you can learn and uncover. Different experiences change your temperature, making you warmer or cooler. These temperatures change how you perceive other experiences, and can even unlock new spaces to explore. This is a very “traditional” but in no way incorrect or invalid way to play. However, by combining the game with the manual, another way to play is offered which connects that mysterious-classic-game aesthetic with another game about the unknown and defining our emotions: the tarot.
As you maneuver your nameless character through the world of Minkomora, you may be drawn to different objects, spaces and creatures. Certain things may resonate with you more than others, and that may also change depending on how warm or cool you wish to feel. When you then turn to the manual and look up the creature or place that resonated with you, you will find not only a description placing that creature or place in the context of Minkomora’s world, but also inviting questions and self reflection. “You were drawn to this, this is the meaning I placed within it, this is what other people might see, what do you think?” Playing with Minkomora in this way turns it into a tool of divination, giving us archetypes and symbols we then decide how to connect to our own thoughts and future.
Of course, the irony there is that despite being an unapologetically safe space, asking yourself the questions Minkomora suggests can be quite frightening. In one sense, our ideas of “safe” can be illusionary and shifting. Just as we might transform a confusing, violent game into a safe place to chill and relax, or think we know everything about a forest and feel secure never realizing we were being stalked by coyotes until we get back home, we can use a guaranteed safe space to probe terrifying ideas and ask difficult questions with no clear answer. To me, that is what Soft Chambers really evokes. Not the idea that we have these platonic, defined spaces, but that we must constantly define our spaces, and be aware of how we do so. The nameless being of Minkomora begins each adventure with nothing other than a desire to fit into their world, and no matter who is playing, it is not something to discover. It is something to decide.
Minkomora is by Joni Kittaka and merritt kopas.