Playing English Country Tune

The larvae are weightless. They simulate gravity as a camouflage technique.
English Country Tune
If I could go back in time, I would probably have told myself to not make the game, to wait and try to think of something that I’m really passionate about to work on, rather than something as conventional as English Country Tune.
— Stephen Lavelle1
I had a night in which everything was revealed to me. How can I sleep again?
— Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis2

I. Space

Probably the worst thing we can imagine about most puzzle games is that they don’t allow us to inhabit anywhere.3 Often one turns up on Level One as some kind of garish signifier in a world forfeit of sense (if our presence in the game world is manifested at all), and we stalk among rigid, computational flat shapes and arcs, all relevant game information abstracted into an advanced digital doodle. Or we’re a hero who lives in a world where everything we see – candles, crates, and doors, maybe – are just relevant puzzle elements that have been painted over with the veneer of the recognizeable, which turns out to be disassociating anyway. And if the mechanical-aesthetic palette of the game commits to anything less than that, then the game is merely a distraction, a glittering jigsaw puzzle.

Not so with English Country Tune. Nothing about where we are is nonspecific or illusory in that way. We are a thin square “ship” that moves about a geometric asteroid afloat in an immense, pale void that’s suffused with an ambient light and sound appropriate for an extremity of scale, something on the order of the microscopic or the galactic. We rest on the surface of a mote in the ether, or we’ve been sucked into the gravitational well of an interstellar body. The arrangement of these worlds is called the “universe”, but the spatial menu that we use to select the next puzzle could as easily be the structure of a molecule. Indeed, the unusual forces at play in each puzzle could be what imagination makes of the universe’s rules when they operate at the level of atoms. The background of this space is blemished with particulates in exactly the same way as a microscope slide, as suitable here as anywhere we train ourselves to examine minute movements and details. In a parallel dimension, we could be freed from this gravity, and be a TIE Fighter pilot in an old LucasArts space combat game or the aquatic worm in flOw. That’s how infinite and weightless our game container is. No direction is up: the gravity of our tinny square and the bodies that surround it is dependent on perspective and the logistics of pulling, whacking, and nudging that are the scope of our movements.

What of it? This game was made by increpare, who is Stephen Lavelle: the same man who manages a prodigious output of small games year-round on his weird, off-putting website. For every humorous or pithy design that he produces (salome, Puppy Shelter), there is also a game that plumbs disassociation, violence, cruelty, alienation, and despair (The Terrible Whiteness of Appalachian Nights, Oiche Mhaith, Cities of Day and Night), and another game that features an ingenious mechanic polished to the lustre of a diamond (MMMMMM, his riff on Cavanagh’s VVVVVV; The Rose Garden). An attentive player starts to notice that Lavelle has a startling knack for the uncanny, and that in his hands, video games can demand an uncomfortable level of uncertainty, exploration, and violence from their players. It’s for that reason, perhaps, that the ambient ringing in the background of English Country Tune is supplanted in one level by the roar of a jet engine and in another by a quiet choir. His brain-stretching game is not one of those dementia-warding exercise for the aging adult. From the start we suspect that something else is at play, even if we’ll spend our waking ours away from the game only wondering at what it is. It also could be why he can credibly call certain cubes in his game “whales” in need of freedom, or he can address moveable, luminous spheres as “larvae” whose function in the puzzle world is equally convincingly ascribed to some ephemeral personal intent (see the first item in this article’s epigram). Our subtext as the only active participant here is brought out by these surrealist details, where we have the suspicion of a synesthete: this or that seemingly abstract arrangment of forms has a personality, or, more properly, an agenda. Much like the rest of his games, English Country Tune isn’t openly sinister, and it doesn’t really mine the tropical symbols of malevolence. Yet, in the isolation of a barren expanse, we often find a kind of danger-malice or an uneasiness or an internal tension that populates both the rendered world and our own mental landscape as it submerges itself in the game. Living in and solving these puzzles requires much more emotional commitment than the crossword puzzle in the Sunday Times. The stakes are high. What more could we expect from the mind that made The Good Sister? That game found violence within us using incredibly spare tools, moreso far than whatever multi-million-dollar first-person killing-gun escape fantasy you care to name right now. This game too is looking for something inside our hidden places. Sitting down to play English Country Tune is like taking a step in a direction orthagonal to reality. It surrounds us with new rules that force patterns on our actions, drawing out something that its lurking alien brain can affix with its own awful eye of scrutiny.

II. Time

Flipping the little square “ship” around these levels is stupidly joyous. The camera tracks so evenly and the landscape is so interesting that we often feel like an acrobat whose decades spent mastering his technique now allow him to fly endlessly among the trapezes. A good testament to how fun this really is lies in how awesome a version of English Country Tune would be where puzzles didn’t exist in isolation, but were just barriers of access to further and more remote reaches of an infinite playing space (with guns, maybe, to take advantage of the ability to switch perspectives and side of an object so quickly (it’s a good thing we don’t design video games)).4

Accompanying the manipulation of this world by our shiny, flat avatar are a multitude of beeps, scratches, pops, and thumps that give solving the puzzles a rare texture in their expression of movement. However, as the levels get bigger and harder and we are afforded more space, these small symphonies become divided into two parts. The dominant melody of the first movement is only the rhythmic thumping of the square against the surface of the asteroid. A particularly baffling puzzle means more time to move about, trying here and there the small hypotheses that may eventually lead us to a solution. After a while, we start to hear something from that tinny smack of square hitting cube that’s like a cross between a bass drum and a heart’s beat. Thum thum thum thum. Thum. Thum thum thum. There’s a maximum speed at which the square can travel, and that speed is more or less exactly how fast a human being can think through a puzzle he already knows how to do, if the player were sitting down to the game for the third or fourth time and just diligently putting the world in order. In English Country Tune, certainty has a particular tempo. If someone had sat with me in the room while I played the game for the first time, and if that someone were unable to see the screen, they’d hear a series of sets of thumps as I explored the level. Then would come an irregular series of thumps as different experiments were tried, cut short where I hit a dead end and lengthened when I repeated already-solved areas. Sometimes the thump would cease for whole minutes, with only the distant ringing of the ambient soundtrack in the background. Eventually, there’s epiphany, and the thump gathers speed and confidence as it pulses to its climax, which is the moment when a chirp recognizes success and brings the player back to the larger constellation of problems.

There’s no traditional timer counting up or down in English Country Tune, and there are no condescending tips delivered after the player flounders helplessly for some predetermined length of time. The tempo of the music never quickens in impatience. These affectations are the neuroses of a game that only has so much time to waste playing here with you before it has to leave to make it down the road before the bars close. Yet still we race to find solutions. Our minds work overtime asleep and awake on bits of puzzles. Where does this haste come from? Urgency in English Country Tune is the result of not wanting to be moored in the oppressive drone of the space, which is the rhythmless void of not knowing. The act of sitting still, with ever more time elapsing since the pulse of movement last escaped your headphones (play this game with headphones), gradually presses the weight and scale of the void around the level onto the mind of the player. The thum thum thum releases the burden. In this way, English Country Tune is a flight from the loneliness of ignorance, and therefore is the first puzzle game we’ve played with the real risk of meaningful failure. Consider that, and consider also that the game features infinite use of the undo key and allows infinite retries. You can even undo a retry. Tension persists because knowledge isn’t an accident; it’s a beautiful construction whose forms are joined by careful, tested action.

III. Light

The player’s ship is held fast to the cubes, only able to occupy one of their exposed faces. Therefore, the “skeleton” of each level – a given arrangement of cubes stripped of obstacles and puzzle pieces – is both a discrete volume and a map that charts everywhere in space your ship is capable of being. It also therefore charts where in space your ship can interact with a game piece. The cubic whales, each with six infinite columns of light shining from their six faces that we push to position them remotely, may be manipulated so long as exactly two of their three axes corresponds to a reachable position on the map (if all three, the whale sits in your way; they may not be moved by direct contact). Larvae must occupy some position on the map to be moved (that’s all three axes corresponding with a map position). In the world of “Freezer”, the player can prevent the manipulation of larvae and whales and thereby turn them into part of the map, which is functionally switching between two maps that are mutable via larva and whale placement. In others, such as “Cutting” and “Portrait”, the player must take care to enter some part of the map in a particular way, and he learns to use the map to not only interpret his position, but also orientation (the vector of our movement across the map) and polarity (the square flips; one side or the other may be visible).

The attention to space and time that Lavelle has given his game allows us to think about these things in unconscious terms. Much like the theater, where actors make physical decisions yet experience their inner lives, English Country Tune allows us to make mechanical choices that have an emotional impact on the narrative we’re living. A whale is a stubborn cube, a mind that desires freedom but that we use as a tool to move about. A larva is a shiny bauble that shifts uneasily within its globe. The practice in “Cutting” of moving over nodules that puncture the ship, changing its shape, is self-violence; first grievous, and later in “Portrait”, reflective and healing. When we select a level, it’s initially only a bright silhouette floating in a chain of circles. Then we drop in and find that the silhouette describes something huge that fills us with fear, wonder, and something else in the heart. It’s imposing like a monument or an alien temple; a haughtiness looks down over these angular peaks, as if to say, “we know you struggle for understanding.” After each triumph, ever stranger mechanics confront us with impossibility after apparent impossibility. We endure an ordeal: some rite where our narrative is abolished so that a new one may begin. We ask ourselves continually, “Why is this world” – of smooth surfaces and ambient tones (no thorns or abrasions here) – “working so hard against me?” Why do we continue on? Is the designer motivated perversely to frustrate and rebuke us? Does he know? Lavelle himself, once asked why he makes his games (if not for excitement, passion, or fun, all three of which he disavows as reasons), responded only that “There are some things that I am unable to put name to.” Is our desire, like his, similarly nameless? The game never absolves us of our failures for making the effort. There is no coddling in the early stages, only trial-by-fire lessons about the fundamental nature of wherever it is we are. ECT dares us to attempt this journey, and it dares us to complete it.

At times, its opposition is overwhelming. In one level, the game presents us with a wireframe drafting area, and demands (without explanation – even this must be figured out) that we design the puzzle that we are to solve. To find even one plausible answer to that question was for us preposterously difficult, to say nothing of finding the most elegant or compact design. That feeling recurs throughout the game. To have apparent madness thrust upon oneself, and to be able to unravel the strands and find an answer through one’s own deducing will produces a feeling sometimes even of triumphant anger and exaltation that is delicious in its clarity. It is an emotion so rare in video games as to be practically unique. So we play on, we stay awake, we pile our epiphanies high like a tower to find the end.

  1. See this interview [back]

  2. I put the Sarah Kane quote in there because in the first place, it’s relevant (you’ll see) and because in the second place, it tickles me, in an article about Stephen Lavelle’s major opus, to quote another queer Brit who’s obsessed with alienation, destitution, and destruction. [back]

  3. Enigmo 2 came pretty close. Do they have it on a system whose screen is larger than a pack of cigarettes yet? If yes, play it. [back]

  4. In fact, after writing that, I found this in an interview with Lavelle while doing research for this article:

    “I wanted for a time to have a large continuous world with the puzzles being self contained but still seamlessly connected to some adventuring space, perhaps giving room for a meta-game. However, this was before I started designing levels in earnest. Once I got into making levels properly, all of the levels I could come up with were these super-compact affairs, requiring total isolation, the exact opposite of what I had hoped for.” [back]