Pain distilled in a few short minutes
Thing-in-Itself is a short exploration of the agony of a relationship that falls to pieces – of that sense of confusion you feel when you felt someone cared about you, but they don’t. It’s pain distilled in a few short minutes, capturing a sense of loss, anger, and sadness in a very short amount of time.
Ted and Molly share an evening together, talking about German philosophy over pizza, wine, and sexy Waldo shirts. In the opening moments of the game, Molly shares Kant’s idea of thing-in-itself – basically that you can only know something through the lens of yourself. You can’t know what a chair is in-and-of-itself because you only know what a chair is to you.
This idea gets explored through what happens next in their relationship, following Ted on his miserable journey for the next few minutes. And you get to join him!
The game puts you through several actions. First, you have to clean up your room, picking up trash and discarded clothing because that’s what you assume will make Molly happy when she comes over. Then, you’ll be navigating dialogue options with Molly as you struggle to say something that, as the player, you feel Molly wants to hear. Then you’ll try to do things that will make Ted happy, eventually failing at all of them until the game ends.
It doesn’t sound like a lot to do, and it isn’t, but given the nature of how people play games, it’s an interesting look at the Thing-in-Itself concept. As a player, we do things to progress through a game, which is tied to pleasing characters. In visual novels, we often say what we think the character wants to hear in order to get to a chosen relationship. In a shooter, we just try to keep the character from being shot full of holes. It’s not a concrete rule, but generally, we’re doing what we feel a character wants, and that becomes what we want.
So, we want Ted to be happy, so we tell Molly things. We say what we think she will respond to. We want them to both be happy. Or maybe we say something mean to Molly because we want Ted to be vindicated – happy through verbal vengeance. In both instances, we’re projecting ourselves onto the code. We’re making assumptions of what the game character wants based on our views and life experiences. We act how we feel is appropriate in that situation if we were in it.
But it’s wrong. All wrong. The game is on a set course, and little we do has an effect. You can’t make Molly happy or hurt, no matter what you want. Molly is herself, and Ted is himself, regardless of what you do.
“A clever look at a philosophical concept, done in a way that only games can pull off”
It’s a sharp look at the concept, distilling it to a few minutes and a single room. The dialogue helps, with both actors giving pained performances. It’s a little subdued, but it suits the personal, private nature of what they talk about. It feels intimate and close, despite being about two characters we’ve never met.
It also does a few more things with the single room and the game’s emotional moments. Each object has a description that changes depending on the events happening, showing Ted’s ever-changing thoughts on what’s going on. It’s a nice touch, but combined with being trapped in the room, it becomes powerful. You feel stuck alongside Ted, pacing in a room that used to make him happy but is now filled with memories of someone who hurt him. You can’t leave, and everything in here is driving you into whatever emotions you’re feeling about it all. It’s powerful in its simplicity.
Thing-in-Itself can be a bit too bare bones in places, though. Objects you need to interact with are two-dimensional in a three-dimensional world, which means things can disappear if you look at them from the wrong direction. The rest of the visuals are quite plain, and while serviceable for the story, feel like they could have used a bit of flourish. They serve their purpose, but that’s all that can be said about how it looks.
Thing-in-Itself is a clever look at a philosophical concept, done in a way that only games can pull off. The interactivity between the player and the game is what makes it work and work well, helping players feel that helplessness at discovering that their expectations of the world, and how they hope to change it to suit them, are not always what’s actually real. That the world, no matter how we see it, is its own entity outside of ourselves, and that regardless of what we say or do, we may not be able to change it.