The scene: a train station. A young man stands in the open doorway of a departing train. His girlfriend stands opposite him, on the platform. They are in the middle of a heart-wrenching goodbye.
Wait. Cut. Let's go back to that one. Let's click over here.
The interior of a house, shown from above in a simple floor plan. Loud music blares. The same young man is trying to study. He has a test the next morning. His frustration mounts as he flits from room to room.
Computer games have long been a place to escape from reality. But a new game, designed and built by a 25-year-old Italian, pulls players back into the everyday, back to places funny, sad and, ultimately, very familiar.
It's titled "Memoir En Code," a strangely stark, almost beautifully minimalist game in which players step straight into creator Alex Camilleri's life. It is, as proclaimed on the opening slate, "an autobiographical game album," with eight mini-chapters that players click through to discover more secrets about its developer.
"Memoir En Code" is not the first autobiographical computer game. For example, there's "dys4ia" by Anna Anthropy, which chronicles her experience with hormone replacement therapy, or "The Curse," by Lizzie Stark, which centers on hereditary breast cancer. But the concept is still largely untapped. Given the choice between blasting the Death Star to bits or getting to know an introspective, freshly minted game designer, most players instinctively reach for the blaster.
In fact, that's a central question about "Memoir En Code" and games like it: Why would anyone care about the developer in the first place?
Camilleri understands completely.
"I almost believe that I don't have a story to tell. I think my life is not that interesting," he says from his home in Sweden. "But I think that you can make something small, as long as people resonate with it. It might not be a great autobiography, but it can still be something very personal."
So it is with "Memoir En Code." From the first stop, "Stories from my desk," players gently roll over depictions of coins (euros, Swedish kronor and Danish kroner), photographs (his family in Sicily, he and his girlfriend, the couple's dogs Jojo and Boogie) and his camera ("Not sure I can afford this hobby any more," says one caption) that offer insights into Camilleri's life.
There are chapters that take place at a beach in Sicily, in the Netherlands (where he moved to study game design), at a house in Italy and at the train station. They're all very personal, yet universal. "Even though the game is about me, the game experience is mostly about simple life events that can resonate," Camilleri says.
The train station, for example. When he lived in the Netherlands, Camilleri and his girlfriend carried on a long-distance relationship. Saying goodbye was hard. The music in the game, the dialogue between the two characters — depicted in stark '70s era typeface by their figures — the silences and the plain graphics invoke the sadness and the difficulty of the moment.
"The game is not necessarily about me and my girlfriend having a long-distance relationship. It's about the solitude that you can feel with long-distance relationships, and with saying goodbye," Camilleri says. "Which is something that many people can share."
The scene in the house, for another example. It is almost Pac-Man-like in its simplicity, purposefully so, with a circle representing Camilleri and a dotted line showing his travels. The scene is based on his home in Sicily.
"It was impossible to study in the house," Camilleri says. "I developed this thinking like, 'OK, this is a game about avoiding noise,' when the truth is that it was about me not having my own space. And my need for independence. Which is something that emerged while developing it."
Camilleri learned plenty about himself in the six months or so it took for him to design and build "Memoir En Code." "I thought I would just take a bunch of memories and make them interactive. It became a lot deeper than I thought," he says. "I got so attached to the project that it was really, honestly, very difficult to release this game. Because then you're so afraid that people would judge."
The game came out a few weeks ago and has been well-received, Camilleri says. The whole experience has been important for a designer just opening his own studio. (The game is the first released under Camilleri's one-man company, Kalopsia.) He's working now with some friends on another game, POKU.
Releasing "Memoir En Code" has been a huge relief, too. Secrets and all.
In addition to the train scene, Camilleri was most nervous about sharing a part of the game titled "Otoloop," in which the main character — the young man, Camilleri — gazes into a mirror and sees himself with ears that are too large (that's the image at the top of the article). The player, using arrows on a keyboard, can grow the character's hair over his ears, then cut the hair later in what turns out to be an endless loop.
It's based on a self-image Camilleri had as a boy. And because life loops sometimes, too, Camilleri still wears his dark hair long and over his ears. "It's one of those silly things that gets stuck in your head when you're young," he says, "when you're so obsessed with people judging you."
That, like much of "Memoir En Code," turns out to be something that everyone can relate to.