What is the psychological impact of living in a world you know to be a total fabrication? Once a matter for textbooks and drunken, early morning chinwags, the question seems drastically more pressing in an age of virtual reality headsets and sumptuous 3D graphics, of social and professional lives conducted largely or entirely over the internet.
It's also a concern for the would-be creators of extra-terrestrial habitats, such as the architects of the Mars One program, recently feted in the press. A NASA report from 1976 dwells on the risk of widespread "solipsism syndrome" among cosmonauts, a state of mind "in which a person feels that everything is a dream and is not real." It cites the remote town of Lund in Sweden, where days last a mere six hours in winter and residents spend most of their lives bathed in artificial light. "Street corners look like theater stages, detached from one another," the report notes. "There is no connectedness or depth in the universe and it acquires a very unreal quality as though the whole world is imagination." People who reside in wholly created and controlled facilities such as space stations are more at risk, it says, because "there is nothing beyond the theater stage and beyond an individual's control."
Deco Digital's first-person puzzle game Pneuma: Breath of Life is solipsism syndrome taken to a logical extreme—the conviction that since all we know of the universe is what we perceive, and perception is a function of the mind, it follows that we are gods, creating the universe in the act of experiencing it. As it begins, the titular Pneuma awakens to find himself all alone in a radiant, silent world and deduces that he is the world's center and creator.
As you guide him through puzzle chambers wrought of gleaming marble and gold, Pneuma chatters continually about the nature of the reality he has supposedly created—noting, among other things, that the ground courteously moves away from him when he jumps. His conviction of his own divinity is reinforced by the game's key puzzle mechanic: certain objects, such as doors or bridges, move or change depending on whether they're perceived or not.
"If you're a solipsist and a narcissist, you know you're alone in the world and that you're the only real thing, so you treat yourself as a god," explains writer David Jones. "So it's an extrapolation of that, I guess, an exaggeration. What would happen if you were alone for several years of your life? You would start to believe that you are god. And you'd see that this happens to astronauts—when astronauts go into space they can have episodes of 'derealization.' Essentially, with no human contact, you'd become entirely deceived."
'Pneuma: Breath of Life,' gameplay reveal trailer.
Players, of course, are immediately and entirely conscious that Pneuma cannot be the creator of his world. This is a source of both humor and poignancy. "The thought was: he's not crazy," Jones continues. "Pneuma isn't crazy in the story, because his explanations for things are entirely rational. There are no other characters in the game, there's just Pneuma, so to presume he's God, to presume he's creating the world, is kind of the rational inference.
"But as you, as a player, see the game, quite clearly he's not a god. So it becomes quite comedic to you, but it's not actually comedic in and of itself. That's one of the difficult things with the comedy in the game—essentially you're laughing at someone, and it really depends on the kind of person you are, whether you find the game funny."
As a sort of implicit, controlled test for the freak-out potential of a technologically governed environment, Breath of Life is rather fascinating. What makes it all the more interesting, though, is how it relates or doesn't relate to Jones's own Christian faith. He's quick to emphasize that Pneuma isn't evangelical propaganda—it isn't really "about" any particular religion at all, in fact, though there's the odd reference to a concept from Christian thought. "We definitely don't want to come across as a kind of Christian rock band. I'm the only person of practiced faith in the office, so it would be disingenuous, a discredit to the rest of the team to make a huge thing out of that."
If it isn't a game that endorses a particular religion, though, Pneuma might be styled as a game of religious striving. Its protagonist's farcical delusions are an incentive for the player to seek out a more reliable authority about the nature of existence—a deity, in other words, who can guarantee the objective reality of what is perceived.
In the context of a video game, the nearest thing there is to a deity is naturally the game's creator. In Breath of Life, the relationship between the latter, the player and the character of Pneuma becomes increasingly fraught in the course of the narrative. Initially confident of his pre-eminence, Pneuma becomes anxious about the world's failure to behave as desired or expected—he is increasingly troubled to find that not all doors open at a glance, for example.
Players, meanwhile, may grow uneasy about the designer's intentions. Though pleasant, the world is full of disconcerting touches—domestic props such as books and urns that suggest but don't conclusively demonstrate the presence of other living beings. "That was quite an inspiration for the molding of the story," says Jones. "This three-way communication, in that the player thinks that they're communicating with Pneuma, and controlling Pneuma, while perhaps not realizing that there's a developer in there who's controlling them."
In this regard, Breath of Life follows in the footsteps of the BioShock games, all of which build to a shocking (or, depending on your degree of jadedness, contrived and sensationalized) revelation that neither the world nor its creators can be relied upon—that not only certain characters but the very designers are out to get you.
The supreme distrust this breeds is analogous to the uncertainty that leads people to enquire about god and religion, which is perhaps why Jones feels that 2013's BioShock Infinite is one of a handful of genuinely good "religious" games on the market. Again, this isn't because it exalts a particular set of beliefs, but simply because it provides a space for thinking about faith, at the level not just of plot but of mechanics and structure. "I think video games are starting to deal with bigger topics and become more grown-up, more adult in addressing them," he says. "I think there's a lot of hope."
Pneuma will be released for PC and Xbox One on the 27 of February
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