It’s not really difficult to understand the concept of noumenon, the thing-in-itself. How do we know the world? We experience it primarily through our senses and secondarily through thought. This means that we are necessarily limited in knowing what an entity is.
For example, our eyes can only take in so much light and of a specific spectrum; we can’t see infrared even though it exists. So when you look at a chair, a cat, or another human, you aren’t ‘seeing’ all of them. There is an impossible to penetrate membrane between ourselves and what is. German philosopher Immanuel Kant termed what is noumenon and what we experience phenomenon. Think of it as what is actual (our experience, phenomenon) and what is real (the thing-in-itself, noumenon).
Much of what, why, and how we think and act is devoted to shrinking the distance between noumenon and phenomenon. We know we are, we know things exist, and that actions matter but it always seems no matter how close we get to truly apprehending what is real we are rebuffed. The membrane is maddeningly permeable.
I would contend noumenon isn’t unknowable but is unknown and will remain. This should hardly prevents us from attempting to know what is real. If anything, with every rebuff we come back wiser, more knowledgeable, and ever closer. It isn’t so much Sisyphean as it is Zeno’s paradox lived.
The history of debating, challenging, and just thinking about Kantian concepts is long and varied. It’s definitely worth exploring. But let’s not get sidetracked from our purpose–an indie game called Thing-In-Itself made by Arseniy Klishin and Laura Gray. These two have done a very good job with their first game for their company (Party for Introverts, which is, by the by, a great fucking name).
Over three acts taking just under 15 minutes total to play through, we experience a moment in the life of the characters Ted (voiced by actor Sam Retford) and Molly (voiced by Gray) and Ted’s fish, Henry. The point of view of the game is Ted’s as he and Molly have three conversations. Without revealing too much about the plot, we are acting through Ted’s eyes as he deals with the dissolution of relationships.
Klishin and Gray have made effective use of color and sound to reflect Ted’s emotional state as he attempts to regain his equilibrium. Also, I found (as someone who has lived in a minuscule apartment shunning the contact of others) the flattening of the objects inside Ted’s studio contributed nicely to the narrative tension. There is distance between Ted and the world, between us and the narrative which can’t be overcome.
An undercurrent in the narrative seems to hint at Ted being unable to cope with being denied, which I think is a reflection of his cishet gender. There is more that can be pondered psychologically here than what’s on the surface. We aren’t trying to save Ted, we are trying to understand along with him. As the opening makes clear, this game isn’t about winning. The prologue to the story hints at the relief one can take playing at being isolated or being proactive separating oneself from others. It is, wonderfully, a double-edge sword.
Ted lives alone in a studio apartment; he is, perhaps unsurprisingly, boxed in, hermetically sealed as it were. Molly is his link to the outside, something other than himself. It’s in this way Kantian philosophy can weasel its way into the narrative. How can Ted know Molly?
There is a delightfully inviolate quality to Molly. No matter what path you choose, she remains entirely herself and quite certain about her actions, which makes playing as Ted confusing, frustrating, banal, and, ultimately, profoundly intimate. As an aside, I think this game could benefit from an expansion or update. That is, the same story but told and played from Molly’s point of view. Returning to Ted, players realize they are trying to shepherd the narrative to fit tropes (romance, sex, betrayal, or depression). Yet these are fundamentally unsatisfying because they don’t move us (both emotively and physically) any closer to understanding. That is, to knowledge.
Intimate gaming, if you will, allows for philosophical concepts to be explored in a much more immediate and resonate manner. It’s not that Skyrim, Fallout or Eve Online aren’t mired in serious and interesting philosophical concepts, rather it’s that these games have that experience as a supplement to the primary experience which is often more mindless or at least visceral. Intimate games like Thing-In-Itself allow us to pick up philosophical concepts (or psychological or moral, if you prefer) in a casual manner–the game it cheap, brief, and simple to play (although in no way easy).
Thing-In-Itself perhaps gets too mired in solipistic thinking or, rather, the tension between subjectivity/objectivity leads to easily to making sweeping generalizations actually moving us farther from understanding. But all in all, the brevity of the game and its intensity in the moment make for a lasting, quality experience. For a debut game, Party For Introverts have done well with Thing-In-Itself.
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Nathaniel E. Baker