Utopias, the latest art game by the wryly-named AAA collective, arrives at a particularly resonant moment. As millions, potentially even billions of us enter a period of isolation to halt COVID-19’s spread, the Berlin-oriented group has created a work which asks what utopias we conceive of alone and what happens when these visions are thrust together. As you might imagine, Utopias is a surreal and often deliberately conflicting game but it’s also beautiful and surprisingly hopeful.
The action begins on a spherical hub world as an alien-looking avatar gets to its feet. Scroll in using a mouse wheel and the screen fills with their golden body. Zoom out and the figure quickly becomes a speck as a constellation of planets is revealed. Each has a name seemingly unrelated to the other. “Bio Force U.T.O.P.I.A.” and “Read The Map With Your Hands” glow against the surrounding universe. We direct our avatar across the bumpy terrain towards a portal which will transport us to one of the mysteriously named worlds.
One planet towards the game’s end encapsulates what’s great about Utopias. “The Ritual of Manhara” begins with a barren landscape viewed from an isometric perspective, one littered with objects, including a bicycle, chair, and gravestone. As a robotic voice over recalls a “perfectly harmonious, self-sustained society,” we swivel our mouse around to illuminate different parts of the map, ruminating on whatever fictional tragedy occurred. Suddenly, the game jump cuts to one of its creators, Gabriel Helfenstein, who launches into a monologue about its creation, backed by videos of himself in everyday situations. His speech, peppered with references to his own personal failings, is intimate and honest—charged with the kind of humanity video games often lack. From there, the game accelerates to its finale, jump cutting again to another world whose sparse topography is signposted by the game’s other utopias, a reminder that collectivism underpins the often restless work.
In a series of blog posts, members of the AAA collective explained the ideas underpinning the game. Jira Duguid lays bare the deeply unequal economics of video games, including the atomization of labor in their development. It’s structural injustices such as this—those which go far beyond the games industry—the collective positions itself against, and why Utopias’ actual process of creation is just as important as the finished game. “Each of us worked on each other’s world, helping one another to realise them,” reads the accompanying release note. “This is our attempt to role play our way to utopia.”
Clearly, the world is a tough place at the moment. To cope, maybe you’re enjoying Animal Crossing: New Horizons, or just watching videos of other people playing it. But if you’ve got the bandwidth for a daring, occasionally challenging (in terms of presentation and ideas) game, Utopias is a galvanizing experience. Trust me, its ending will leave you gasping for breath and filled with hunger for a new world.