“Drift by a star, absorb it, and leave tourists porous.
My galaxy’s gorgeous.
Quantum jump, I’m right at your doorstep…”
There’s a lot of discussion in the game community about value and content. As gamers we have only a finite amount of time in this meager life to absorb all of the sights, sounds, and sensations that this universe holds for us while trapped in hopeless relative immobility on this cosmically insignificant ball of rock, water, and atmosphere.
Video games are one way we have of vicariously experiencing things digitally that we will just never get to do in real life. But with so much to choose from, how do we decide what to play? That brings us back to the question of value. With only so much time and money, do we measure a game’s worth by it’s depth, width, and length or by its quality? And when we say “quality”, what are we even talking about? Fun factor? Artistry? Emotional impact? The answer varies from person to person.
While playing through the extremely brief and largely bereft of gameplay indie game OPUS: The Day We Found Earth, I found myself seriously considering this once again. You can clear this game in the time it takes you to watch an episode of Game of Thrones, and it’s not one of those games you play through again and again to get different endings. But it’s not quite a precedent setter in that regard either.
In the past, amazing works of fiction like The Killing Joke and Voices of a Distant Star (do yourself a massive favor and watch that on Crunchyroll) have proven themselves to be brief experiences well worth their cost in spite of their premium price tags, and OPUS carries that obscure tradition into gaming like Journey and many indie titles before it. As with all works of art, the experience of the journey far outweighs the destination and I’ve seldom seen so much packed into so little.
In OPUS, you play as Emeth, a lone chibi robot awakened after an indeterminate amount of time offline on the titular space station with one mission: find planet Earth. After traveling across the galaxy, mankind has lost track of their homeworld as their gene pool has degraded, putting their future in doubt. A single scientist, Lisa, and her gruff partner, Makoto, were the only people who volunteered for this insane dream of locating the planetary needle in a cosmic haystack and perhaps recovering a sample of our original DNA.
As Emeth, you can explore the station and the cosmos (using a telescope) along with the onboard AI (a digital duplicate of Lisa). Each newly discovered star system is one infinitesimal step closer to Earth, but OPUS is on the verge of shutdown and the scientists are nowhere to be found. Still, the universe awaits…
Gameplaywise, most of your time is spent following directions to locate potential Earth candidates. It’s quite simple and not particularly challenging, but the main purpose it serves is to advance the story, as each valuable discovery is accompanied by a furthering of the plot back on OPUS. Emeth’s child-like single-minded determination to locate “Doctor” and the AI Lisa’s existential crisis make up the bulk of the characterization, but by unlocking rooms and exploring the station in classic point-and-click fashion, a truly tragic narrative builds towards a climax that can make even a machine cry.
The mood is intensified by a truly stellar (pun intended) soundtrack and, of course, the awe-inspiring beauty that is our universe. I also found some fun in naming each heavenly body I discovered, doing my best to further expand mankind’s mythological roots from all religious pantheons across the galaxy. Maybe a little too late in the game as my knowledge of ancient deities waned I figured I should have named them after video game characters to spread geekology throughout the stars, but them’s the breaks.
The well-paced story picks up a surprisingly urgent velocity as you approach the end with the system on shutdown and the monitor (YOUR monitor) distorting as the station loses power. It’s a very nice touch. The implications of what you learn from exploring the various leaving of the scientists leave as many questions as answers and forces you to look stark reality in the eye and question whether your mission has any worth whatsoever. But like Emeth himself, you’ve been given a task as a gamer and you must see it through at all costs, even if only to honor the memory of a loved one or to remind yourself that even out in the infinite, indifferent void of space with nobody else there to see it, there is still beauty to be experienced.
Under an hour’s worth of gameplay -most of it spent stargazing- and yet I feel as though OPUS: The Day We Found Earth is an experience I will carry with me for a long time, even with the minimalist graphics and lack of voice acting or meaningful gameplay. This game is exactly what I mean when I talk about the power and potential of interactive fiction. No other medium could have provided this experience.
A story well told molds itself to any format and this one was made with care to successfully convey a breadth of emotions from melancholy loneliness to humor to despair and hope. It’s in the music, it’s in the character designs and cutscenes, it’s in the text notes and files left around the station and in the original Lisa’s comments that accompany her past discoveries.
It may be tiny by video game standards, but OPUS: The Day We Found Earth manages to encompass not only the vast wonder of exploring the infinite universe, but the trials, tribulations, and fortitude of the human spirit (even with no humans around) in an hour’s time. That’s an amazing accomplishment no matter how you look at it and it’s one I’m happy to have experienced.