The Light (AKA “Noah & The Quest to Turn the Light On”) is one of those games that’s so perfectly concise and thematically spot-on that it feels almost effortless.
And yet…that’s the trouble with the creative process, isn’t it? The effort that went into a work doesn’t always match appearances, or the work’s degree of artistic success. Or the reactions of external observers. Or one’s own reactions. So the result is a labyrinth of uncertainty, where you fumble around and try to make connections in the dark.
You should play the game rather than my read my half-assed explanation (it only takes like 10 minutes) but I process my reaction to things through writing. So here’s what playing through The Light is like.
You start off in a small room. You look around. There are puzzles on the walls, waiting to be solved. Through the doors, you can see other rooms and other puzzles, but you have no idea how to get to them yet.
So you start by solving the puzzles in front of you. Some are visual puzzles; assembling a picture of a snake, for example. Others are anagrams; trying to unscramble a bunch of letters like “ansek”. The solutions for these puzzles double as non-linear hints for the other puzzles in the room (an elegant microcosm of the design idea that games like Antichamber and The Witness explore at larger scope) and solving all of them constitutes a Big Puzzle (the room itself).
There are three rooms in The Light. In the first room, as you solve puzzles, little people appear. They’re blue. They give you words of encouragement. “This is good!” or “I like this!”. Aw, that’s nice.
When you solve all the puzzles in the first room, the second room opens up. But in the second room, the little people turn red, and mean. Their messages become discouraging—”This isn’t as good as the last thing” or “I hate this”—and you’re forced to watch them after each puzzle. It’s frustrating, and it feels weirdly jarring with the satisfaction you feel upon completing the puzzle. It’s like, “What the hell? Fuck you, little red people; leave me alone.”
Then you get to the third room. And after you solve your first puzzle here, and a red guy appears and does his asshole routine, something else appears beside him:
A switch. But what happens when you activate this switch?
Oh: The door shuts. Now the little people can’t get in. You’ve turned off their voices and their shitty reactions and their little inescapable 3-second cutscenes, and now you’re free to solve your puzzles in peace. How lovely.
(Though it feels somehow like an act of retreat, somehow, doesn’t it? A question left unanswered? Hm…)
So you continue solving puzzles. And after you finish all the puzzles in the third room, you return to the door, but now there are TWO switches. When you mouse over them, text pops up to tell you what they’ll do.
- Open door
- Exit game
You know, of course, that opening that door will let the little people back in the room. Oh, hm, but I wonder if they’ll be red or blue? You know that it doesn’t really matter, because you solved the puzzles already, you figured out the “point” of the game, you got the message it was trying to state, and it’s pretty much over now, isn’t it? You might as well just hit quit.
…you’re curious. How does it end? If I open the door, will the little people who come back in be blue…or red?
I mean, it doesn’t matter, but you might as well see, because it’s a game, so obviously you’re going to try all available actions before you quit. Also, once you quit, the game is over once and for all, and then you’ll never know, and if you want to answer this question again, oh man, ugh, you’d have to start all over!
So hey. What could it hurt? You press the switch.
The door opens.
The little people come flooding back.
And they’re red. Ugh. Fuck. You double-check and yep, yep, all of their responses are negative. Well, that sucks, but it’s also not super surprising.
But then you turn your head and glimpse the other rooms you completed earlier. And now ALL of the little people in ALL of the rooms are red — even the ones that were blue before! No fair! All of the puzzles you solved before, that they congratulated you on, they now spew bile about! Everything sucks, and it was all pointless!
So you press the other switch, and exit the game.
It’s not a complex metaphor, but here it is:
You’re an artist (specifically, a game designer, named Noah, the person who made the thing you’re playing). The puzzles are works of art (specifically, games). You work really hard to figure them out, and when you do, it’s satisfying, and then voices (either self-talk, or external observers) praise or scorn the results of your work.
In the beginning, it’s all praise. As you progress, it’s all scorn. In order to avoid negative stimulus, you shut them out. But you’re curious, so then you let them back in. And they’re negative, and worse, they’re retroactively negative. Not only is everything you make shit, but everything you’ve ever made is shit.
So you quit. (Or, specifically, you stop making games.)
The Light is a game about how art is a dual quest pursued both for the satisfaction of its own achievement, and for the self-validation it brings. It’s about how that validation is simultaneously internal and external, and how that distinction is both totally inconsequential, and also THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS, I HAVE TO KNOW, UGH. It’s about how positive feedback and positive self-perception are really similar; how negative external feedback and negative internal self-talk are basically the same thing (or at least, the former feeds the latter). And it’s about how negativity breeds insecurity and frustration, leading to an eventual exit (creative block — or, more drastically, quitting the whole damn endeavor altogether.)
It’s a metaphor so simple it feels almost transparent. It feels almost effortless. The game is so short and so minimalist and so thematically efficient it feels like the interactive equivalent of a short story, or a crayon drawing; like it must have taken no work at all.
But…is that really true?
Is the game good, or is it bad?
Is your reaction to it (as the artist who created it) positive or negative?
What about as someone who didn’t create it? What’s your reaction if you’re a player? Good, or bad? Positive, or negative? Red or blue? And why oh why does it matter?
Yep. That’s the question.