Radiator: Polaris and Handle with Care (Robert Yang)

I mentioned the Radiator series in the last post, so why not put it into a more proper post?

Robert Yang’s Radiator Vol. 1: “More Matter” contains two experimental narrative Half-Life 2 mods, Polaris and Handle with Care.

Polaris is the shorter of the two – a game about relationships and your experience being an illusion you fabricate. Or at least that was my take on it. I didn’t connect with the story, though I did appreciate the atmosphere.

Handle with Care is a more ambitious beast. Another game about couples – but this time from the perspective of the homunculus. You and your husband are in counseling, but you aren’t exactly sitting on the therapist’s couch.  As the player, you are located located within your own head at the Internal Repression Service (IRS -yes, Yang’s got a sense of humor). As the counseling session progresses, emotions bubble to the surface in the form of explosive crates. You have to carefully place them in the appropriate places on shelves next to already repressed memories. Drop one and you’ve got an emotion outburst that gives you a cut-scene of something that happened between you and your husband.

The most accurate description of the mechanic is one that Yang mentions – a Minotaur in a china shop. You have to hop on top of a wobbly barrel to reach a high shelf. Then you have to hop on top of a wobbly barrel that is on top of a wobbly barrel to reach an even higher shelf. Sometimes you have to move crates through corners tight enough to make me wonder if Yang didn’t just throw a line in the code to randomly make crates explode. The glitchy nature of the physics was frustrating, but it hammers home the message that managing your emotions is an active nine-to-five job.

But what I’ve come to love is that Handle with Care refuses you immediate gratification. You want all your hard work to pay off immediately when the game ends and the screen goes blank. Instead, I had to wait before the message sunk in. The world is messy. Literally, yes – especially once you start blowing up crates. But also messy in that you get mixed signals about what you should do. If you repress a memory successively, the therapist scolds you, but your husband will stick with you and work through the tough patch of your relationship. If you break open a crate, your therapist commends you for your progress, but your internal world falls apart and your husband will eventually want a divorce.

At the end of the game, you get a bit of a montage of those cut-scenes either way the story plays out, so there is a modicum emotion gratification. If you saved your marriage, those scenes might feel like obstacles you have overcome. If you end up with a relationship in shambles, you might feel regret. But the game becomes even more confusing when you end the game in the therapist’s office. You are looking around at all the pieces of the cut-scenes strung together on display as if you are on the set of some strange daytime TV show. The unsettling music track leaves you with a definitive sense that whatever you are seeing, it’s not a happy thing. Maybe it was meant to show you that those scenes of your life don’t change regardless of what you do in the IRS. All you can do is decide how to arrange them. I don’t know what Yang intended, but I definitely know how I felt – conflicted again.

There’s no happy ending. There’s no sad ending. There’s just life, a rough relationship and a money-grubbing therapist. Games are about the feedback you receive as the player. Yang twisted the feedback to unsettle you by rebuking your expectations. It took extra time to digest because a messy world in a game could simply be the mark of an unskilled artist. But if you give the game a little more time, I think you’ll see Yang is far from unskilled. 

I’d like to end the post there, but after reading some comments people have posted about the game, I felt I couldn’t. I dug Handle with Care for the reason above.  The game happens to center around a gay couple, so you – the player – are taking the perspective of a gay man. I say fantastic. We need more diversity of expression in games. But that’s all incidental because the game isn’t about a gay couple.  It’s simply about people and relationships.

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