The Weight of Definition: Balloon Diaspora

Balloon Diaspora is a funny little game that’s weighed heavily on me since I’ve played it. It is ethereal and wonderful like a leaf blowing in through an open window in fall, but at its core it asks a powerful question: how do we define ourselves, and how do we define others?

In nearly every video game, we are defined, like it or not, as questioners. We are eternally detectives, divining information about other parties, developing concrete entities the developer places in the game world, but never developed ourselves. We exist to probe the depths of others’ consciousnesses, to expose their deepest secrets. It’s a joke that in all the big name RPGs that everyone somehow, miraculously, trusts you enough to reveal things they’ve never told others, because otherwise these characters would be reserved and shallow. As it is, it is exploitative. If they didn’t talk to you, then what would they be besides walking clichés? When they talk, they become something more, but they become characters lesser than you.

Balloon Diaspora, an independent adventure game developed by Cardboard Computer (who we’ve talked about before within these very walls!), makes us ask a different question: what if others were the questioners? What if individuals asked questions of us, asked us to define ourselves as well as they were defined, and asked us to play a role in the story? Not a superficial, pick X to stab the man, pick Y to lay his wife, pick Z to steal his money choice, but rather a deep, meaningful definitive choice?

What would the world be like if you could invent it?

Make no mistake, this is a decidedly simple game. The whole thing is a very simple, straightforward puzzle that I solved without even thinking about. That’s not the draw. The draw is creation. It’s something games have tried to offer more of recently, with games like Little Big Planet giving us extensive editing tools, but Balloon Diaspora has a much more entwined creation to offer.

When the game starts, among the first things that happens is an interaction with Silas, one of the principle cast of the game, where he asks you where you’re from. There are three choices, and my first reaction, as a modern gamer, was I don’t know where I’m from! I was scared, frightened by being offered agency. It was the most pathetic thing, really: here I was, being told to craft my own creation myth for myself, frightened I’d make the wrong choice. If I am supposed to be a character, why should I chafe the second freedom is offered me? Isn’t this insane?

More questions come, first from Silas and then from every other character. You tell them where you live, and they ask you other aspects of yourself: are you a scholar? Does it snow where you’re from? How do you feel about industry? These are deep, fundamental questions, the kind we’re used to asking NPCs in Bioware games but not ones that are ever asked of ourselves. They aren’t asked because, the reasoning goes, that it’s either something to decide at character creation or something unimportant for the game to know.

This boggles my mind. I’ve gone to college in New England, in the sticks of Western Massachusetts, and every fall there’s at least a few Southern Californians who have never seen snow, let alone feet of it. Whether or not you’ve grown up somewhere where there is snow has a massive effect on your view of the whitewashed winter world. It is not something that can be glossed over, but a real, fundamental question of character. It is something that can inform our experiences. Whether or not we consider ourselves a scholar or whether we prefer socialization, this is a very important question that is often left to be carried by numbers.

We get the impression from role playing games that playing a role is about numbers. That is the modern mindset; it’s even the mindset of my irregular tabletop gaming group, where we are more defined by our statistics, our strength, our charisma, even our appearance as opposed to our mindsets. Who we are, and where we come from, is nothing compared to having a plus four in a statistic. To add video games back into the equation, Dragon Age 2 is all about the numbers: we are our statistics, and while our choices are not made with numbers they are in themselves invisible ones, choices that either tick or untick a box in a complicated matrix of choices.

This is the question of Balloon Diaspora: is it more important to tick off boxes, to have a choice mechanic, or is it more important to feel like we’re becoming a character, that we’re playing a role? None of my choices in the game mattered in terms of plot, in terms of physical, differential things, but they all Mattered, in that by the end I felt like I was Q, balloon pilot and friend of Silas.

I felt like I made a friend.

When was the last time a game made you feel like you made a friend? Like a person was memorable enough that you’d like to have a drink with them? Because now, out of the game for about three hours, I feel like I’d like to have a drink with Silas. I feel like Q, still. I hadn’t seen snow until I went to the Ice Factory, and now I have. I’ve heard the plight of the residents of the Balloon Archipelago, and my heart aches for them; I want them to find a home, and to rediscover themselves.

I want to look up, and imagine the moon shining down through my skylight, and I want to be there, and I want to gaze up at the stars through a telescope and sit, pondering.