Thing-in-Itself

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Explore how emotions influence the perception of objects.

PC Release: January 5, 2017

By Ian Coppock

This kick of fluid, surreal games has been quite enjoyable, and continues today with a review of Thing-in-Itself. There’s been a noticeable slowdown in video games that focus on philosophy, so hopefully Thing-in-Itself‘s focus on the work of Immanuel Kant marks that subgenre’s return to the forefront. With the player at the heart of the experience, video games present a sorely underappreciated platform for presenting philosophy. And though Thing-in-Itself‘s examination of Kant is hardly extensive, players can still be at the heart of that presentation, and so the game is worth a close examination.

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Thing-in-Itself is the debut of a delightfully named indie studio called Party for Introverts, and seeks to explore how relationships impact perceptions of the world. Specifically, Thing-in-Itself focuses on how people perceive objects. As noted in the game’s intro, one person might perceive a guitar as a means of self-expression, while another might see it as just a piece of junk. The idea at the heart of Thing-in-Itself is that all our prior associations with tangible objects paint our view of them, and therefore their true, “unpainted” nature remains unknown. This idea is also called thing-in-itself, and it’s one of Kant’s best-known ideas.

Anyway, Thing-in-Itself stars a British millennial named Ted, who receives an explanation on all this philosophy hullabaloo from his American girlfriend Molly. After a little intro in which Molly spells out Kant’s philosophy, the game begins in earnest with Ted in his room, awaiting a visit from her.

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This is getting meta.

The main focus in Thing-in-Itself is how Ted’s relationship with Molly affects how he sees his apartment. As Ted, it’s up to players to interact with Molly in a few possible ways, from texting to calling to even glancing at a dating app. Molly will phone in with a new piece of information in each scene, and Ted’s response will change how he sees his living space. For example, a great conversation with Molly might result in Ted’s bed being relabeled, say, “happy place”. However, a negative or mixed conversation might result in “dusty old bed” or something along those lines. It’s a novel way to present emotions in a game.

The emotional presentation of Thing-in-Itself is further rounded out by the game’s excellent voice acting. Both Ted and Molly’s voice actors give believable performances in acting out a young couple, and their emotion resonates in each twist and turn of the story. Indeed, believable voice acting is key to this game overall, because though objects may change in response to Ted and Molly, their dialogue is what gets the player to those changes.

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Object labels will change depending on Ted’s mood.

Unfortunately for this love story, things start to go downhill for Ted. The first inklings of despair seep in when Molly cancels on a date. As she begins to grow distant, Ted’s doubts about their relationship begin to color perceptions of his apartment. True to form, the objects in his bedroom will take more negative names, “lamp” being swapped out with “dusty old lamp”, for example.

The intimacy of romantic emotions make them an ideal candidate for a game about object perception. Just as a video game presents an unparalleled platform for emotional intimacy, so too do these emotions make ideal subject matter. Relationships are difficult. Love can be difficult. It can be among people’s most potent emotional matrices, and can color our perceptions of life, work… everything, really. The combination of first-person adventuring and relationship subject matter are a winning team in Thing-in-Itself.

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Anybody else just get a quick dash of butterflies?

Although Ted and Molly’s back-and-forth makes for good listening, the game’s short length and relative lack of promised endings limits replay value. For a start, one round of Thing-in-Itself only lasts about 15-20 minutes. Additionally, try as players might to get Molly to stay, there’s only one way this story’s really going to end. Games don’t have to have happy endings to have an impact, by any means. But, the different story choices only really tweak the journey, not change the outcome. As such, players will have little reason to play Thing-in-Itself more than once.

That said, everyone should play Thing-in-Itself at least that one time. Because unlike The Graveyard, that five-minute twilight years simulator reviewed here last week, Thing-in-Itself is deeply powerful. It actually has well-voiced dialogue and a discernible point. It has a story that everyone can relate to. Its brief presentation of a faltering relationship may be brief, but its profundity is not to be underestimated. Its focus on how emotions cloud judgment and change perception makes it much more novel than other short love stories.

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If I ask she’s okay she’ll get annoyed but if I say nothing she’ll think I’m distant but oh God what do I say (dies inside).

Thing-in-Itself backs up its story with a decent presentation. The game’s small world is very brightly colored, with sharp textures and clearly defined objects. Most objects in the game are 2D, but they look so crisp that this is hardly cause for concern. The sound design is also quite decent, packing a few ambient sound effects and snippets of calm music into Ted’s apartment.

The gameplay in Thing-in-Itself is a simple mix of walking, talking, and picking stuff up. Ted can play on his phone to get in touch with Molly (hopefully she calls back), and interact with a few objects around his apartment. Luckily, he’s got a pet fish for company, so he’s not, like forever alone. Fish make great therapists. Right?

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Good boy, Henry.

Thing-in-Itself does have a few dents in its production that players would be well-advised to heed. For a start, like everything else reviewed on here recently, this game’s option menu is… primeval. The only option players can adjust is the resolution. Nothing else, including graphics quality, is open for players to fidget around with. To be fair, Thing-in-Itself is not a visually complicated game, but it’s nice to be able to make adjustments to the game as needed. Everyone’s machine is different, and resolution is hardly the only guarantor of visual fidelity.

The other little issue with Thing-in-Itself is yet another problem seen cropping up in games recently, and that’s spelling and grammar errors. Nothing is better at breaking a game’s sense of immersion than a misspelled word. That’s pretty much all that needs to be said, but hopefully game developers will start hiring a few more copy editors. A second pair of eyes works wonders for good writing.

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Ohhhhhh boy…

If The Graveyard was evidence that short length can kill a game, Thing-in-Itself is evidence that games can still thrive within it. Comparing the two is a bit unfair, but their similar lengths make for an ideal study in what makes a good short game. A good short game gets to its point quickly. It has a deeply emotional narrative that will resonate with the player after 15 minutes is up and the game ends. It has a novel concept that, while not requiring hand-holding, is at least somewhat intuitive. Thing-in-Itself has these things, and does them well. It’s a touching human story that remains potent despite its short length. Just don’t get paranoid about labeling possessions after playing it. Or spend an hour Googling Kant.

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You can buy Thing-in-Itself here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

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