The Angel Looking Backward–On Gardens of Vextro

Gardens of Vextro is a project by multiple developers in the Vextro community. It is made up of 8 games, developed in sequence, each game responses to the past entries. It’s a limited, but sprawling set of minuscule projects.

I thought the best way to approach this would be to take its structure: one mini-essay per game, written in sequence. Each entry has a loose hundred word limit, so they tend to be brief evocations rather than real summaries or analysis. I think this is in the spirit of the project; this is yet another addition, just in my own language.

Full disclosure: My friend Lotus made one game in this collection, Labyrinths. So feel free to make any judgements you wish about my biases.

Buried Flower

Text from a twine game which reads: You think they're roots at first. You look closer, Tiny white veins criss-cross the entire surface of the light brown rock wall. You look at the ceiling – they're there too.

The text "turn off your headlamp" is hyperlinked.

Take, take, take. It’s all yours anyway. Make one choice over and over again until its too late to make a different one. There is no place except the earth. There is no body that is not yours. That’s why you can crawl through this cavity, where the seeds of the dead share with the worms and surround the world. It’s your body. So why couldn’t you plunge your hand into your chest, and pull out your beating heart?


A blurred image of a part with the accompanying text: before long. I'm back in that heady feeling. Like I've lost some blood. Like my grip is loosening.

Video game as intercessor, as the bridge between you and some forgotten recollection. Video game as memoir, a story you tell others about yourself. Video game as theft, time you steal from whoever plays it. Video game as hallucinogen, physical, ingested, mad. Video game as letter, from a far distant shore to your hard drive. Video game as disappearance, something you do alone, brought to life by arcane processes. Video game as filing cabinet, information tucked away in metal. Video game as stock photo, visual ephemera of a forgotten life. Video game as memory, a bleeping melody in a lonely, dark room.

The Aelph Hustle

A drawn pixel art of a green building in a grass field. The build has a triangle door with what looks like purple sparks or starts floating in it. Accompanying text reads: Password ignition: Rail Britannia.

So bare that it becomes sprawling. Video games are obsessed with noise, with gestures at grand universes that also make those places feel small. Hustle’s occupations are downright minuscule comparatively, just a handful of people, a labyrinth, winding down to a single hallway. But with these bare tools, it creates something bigger, stranger, more alien. Words and images are a kind of magic and they can mean something on their own. Evocation can be more powerful than mystery.

Make Like A Tree

A pixel image of judge's bench in a courthouse. Below, an image of a Zaku from Mobile Suit Gundam with the accompanying text: Life's hard for a Zaku II High Mobility Type from Zeonic Company these days...

It’s nice to play something that feels improvisational and silly but also actually funny. It’s easy to be arch, but it’s hard to give that archness sincerity and bite. Plenty of games are meta, far fewer feel earnest. Despite the absurdity of the situations, the game (mostly) plays them straight. Even the frequent pop culture references and quotations feel like genuine texture.

another reverie

An image of a sun at sunset, cresting over orange clouds. Accompanying text reads "Forgive me, senpai. Forgive me for being... such a twisted woman."

We tend to think of digital media as permanent, but it can be all too fleeting. Even when we recognize its impermanence, we tend to think of objects. Long lost articles, video games, art, and music, all the things people make on the internet. We don’t really think of people. The things we are on social media, on forums, on dating apps, in MMOs. They are us, but not us. We can wear new bodies, be new selves, and strip away all the things in have to act like in real life. But in that bareness, that authenticity, there is still plenty of potential loss.

Wet Cemetery

A grid with various silhouettes of unknown objects, a map of an apartment, a list of locations within that apartment and a blank list of objects. Accompanying text reads: "You climb out of the five year noose around your neck. Your friend's cat looks up at you patiently. There is no cure for this disease on your skin, the sear around your neck and waist, kraken-scabbed, crags and scars. You feel your chest, practically passing through - your body needs help.

The absolute terror of a mirror’s recognition, ointment on skin to prevent pain you know will return, the way “home” transforms at night, wandering through the hall of your apartment as if it is a unknown place, the hum of old video games soundtracks ringing in rhythm with the aches of your body, endless cold rituals that feel like death and life at the same time, another dead friend, another ghost.

Wellness Related Time

An image of a yellow text with text superimposed over it: I jumped back just in time to dodge a cluster of explosive seeds fired at me. "That is not the insult you think it is, you pompous weed!" Goddammit, I absolutely do not have the time for this asshole tonight. "Her Mistress is already onto you, you simpering sapiens."

It’s thoroughly striking how the themes and ideas move through each of these entries. They clearly respond to each other while also making something obviously personal. Abstract labyrinths turn into tunnels under a college campus. Deadly flowers become something that was once human, representative of life that will twist and outlive us. Bitter exes rather than lost lovers/friends or connections yet to be formed. I’m making this sound tropey, but it isn’t. It’s more like yelling to a dark cavern, your voice echoing across the obscured walls, then you hear a reply. Something new.

Pangea’s Error

An overworld map, featuring mountains, a river, forests, a castle, and various smaller buildings. In the center is a charmander-looking humanoid creature. On the borders are wooden cut outs of human characters.

Something many of these projects bring out, but especially this one, is how much potential there is in slices of systems. This is nothing but a overworld map, but unlike Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, there is no up. You can only move forward, hitting left or right changes the direction you are facing. The result is a map that feels strangely alive and impassable. Houses, towns, and cathedrals are real obstacles, only the wild seems free. I had never thought about the fact, though it is obvious, that world maps as being tied to imperial ideas inherent in north or south or west or east. Pangea’s Error quietly reveals those assumptions.

Gardens of Vextro

The principle thing that ties all these games together is a desire for less homages and more conversations. Games obviously have shared lineages and influences, but the way that is shown and discussed can be shallow. The close proximity and friendship of these artists shows something deeper, illustrates the ways that responses or re-appropriation can be original and daring. We can treat each other’s ideas with dignity and humanness, because someone else made this, someone we know, someone we love. Tending to a mutual garden.

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