The Virtual Frame | Gorogoa

In The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft, scholar Anne Friedberg writes that people understand the world through what they see — “through a window, in a frame, on a screen.” A virtual window forces perspective through its framing, both limiting and highlightings its contents. In the same way that a physical window is “a component piece of architecture” which opens a building up to the world, a virtual window challenges “the materiality of built space” and alters our conception of time and space.

Gorogoa, a game by artist and developer Jason Roberts, uses windows and frames to create and solve puzzles. The game—which is played in a virtual window itself—starts with just one frame, a boy looking through a window. A fantastical creature passes like waves over the city it frames, present in one instance and then gone the next. This single panel evolves into a two-by-two grid, and Gorogoa begins. Tiles change as the player clicks, slides, and drags images across this grid. The player arranges the frames to move the narrative forward through the framing and reframing of the game’s pieces.

Friedberg’s virtual windows are not only framing space, but time as well. A virtual window is architectural in that it’s a framed space, but it also serves as a metaphor for how modern life is framed—behind a computer, phone, or movie screen. She uses 15th century Italian artist Leon Battista Alberti’s De Pictura as an entrance into her theory on virtual framing, as it’s within his 1435 writings where Alberti asked painters to consider their canvases as open windows.

Perspective in Gorogoa is not based within reality

In a similar way, Friedberg’s The Virtual Window acts as a starting point for viewing Gorogoa’s many, many windows and the obscuring of their perspectives. Gorogoa’s puzzles take place in a four-grid space where players separate windows from their panes to bring forth changes in the environment. Windows stack on top of either often shifting views, each begging to be moved and to unearth what’s underneath. Clues are hidden within each window or frame for players to decipher what fits between its lines.

Roberts explained his insistence on this sort of framing in a December interview with The Washington Post. “The layouts on the page are so huge and elaborate that it becomes sort of the work in itself [which] transcends the sequential and chronological structure of traditional comic book panels and becomes a broader, multi-dimensional collage,” Roberts told The Washington Post in December. “I wanted that [for Gorogoa] but with moving parts.”

And that is, indeed, what Roberts created. A comic book’s frames work more traditionally as windows in Alberti’s theory of paintings as windows—a fixed perspective that highlights a moment in a world. Gorogoa is a virtual window in that perspective shifts at will of the player, though it’s not “sequentially and within a fixed frame,” as Friedberg describes movies and television shows.

Perspective in Gorogoa is not based within reality. Paintings are literal open windows; clicking on a painting of an apple dangling from a tree limb transports a player through the window and into the actuality of the image. Puzzle solving relies on the player to fix the perspective of the panels to match that of the transcended painting to move Gorogoa’s story forward. The apple on its tree is recontextualized as an actual tree—one that’s continued in an already existing frame. From the doorway the boy now stands outside with his blue bowl, asking players to slide panels and change his view to find the solution: The apple needs to fall into the bowl.

Gorogoa’s frames exist with multiple perspectives deeply layered on top of each other, much like that of Friedberg’s virtual windows on a computer screen. Indeed, as I write this, I’ve stacked layer after layer of Google Chrome—my notes on one page, a video of Gorogoa playing underneath, obscuring by a tab in front of it. Somewhere, an auto-played ad begins and I must search through a mess of tabs to stop it.

There is nothing sequential about Gorogoa’s windows, as with TV shows or movies—it has more in common with my cluttered desktop. Roberts used the screens in Gorogoa to subvert the idea of a window or frame so much the player finds her perspective obliterated. It’s a puzzle to untangle Gorogoa’s story and solutions as the layers get deeper, as the player gets lost within the game’s different worlds. The framing of Gorogoa is what makes the puzzles complex, but it’s the player’s understanding of how windows work—their connections to another perspective—that makes Gorogoa’s puzzles compelling and solvable.

a piece of the world that must be analyzed and obscured to find its structure

Roberts made this intention clear in an earlier interview with Kotaku. “What do I like about puzzles? I think it has to do with the idea that there is hidden structure or meaning in the world,” Roberts told Kotaku in December. “That if you can look at an ordinary piece of the world and rearrange the parts of it in just the right way, you would discover some hidden structure. And if you look out in the world and you don’t see that meaning there, that means that there has to be some challenge to finding it, to explain why you haven’t found it yet.” The windows in Gorogoa almost operate as a language to solving its puzzles. They’re the ordinary piece of a world, a piece of the world that must be analyzed and obscured to find its structure.

Gorogoa’s multiple screens encourage a player to experiment; there’s no harm in sliding a frame into the wrong position. They encourage multitasking, much like the tabs I’ve spread like breadcrumbs across my computer screen. Click the painting to enter and shift the doors to change screen. Do all of this while creating a virtual Rube Goldberg machine, watching a ball drop down from frame to frame until it makes its satisfying clink on a glass bell jar caging a moth.

Gorogoa is a game about abstraction and discovery, but it’s through the frames and windows of the game where its connections are made—like the connection of two tree branches that create enough of a vibration to wiggle an apple off a tree.

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