The Marriage was developed expressly to be Art. It isn’t fun, exactly, though like any work of art there’s some pleasure in experiencing it and discovering what it means to you, as well as guessing at the intention of the artist.
There’s a lot to say about it, but I’m not going to be able to say it any better than the developer does on the game’s web page. Read it and give it a try, it’s not a long game.
I will say something about the circumstances surrounding the game though: the idea of an “art game” might seem boring now, what with plenty of well publicized games having taken the concept and driven it into the dirt, but back when this was released in 2007 the idea that video games were an expressive medium had spent the last several years being challenged over and over again in court by a number of grandstanding individuals, and in particular by a lawyer from Florida named Jack Thompson. Many people who play and work with games saw this as a preposterous situation – how do you prove that water is wet?
Rod Humble, who developed The Marriage, took this in another direction though: what is it about games which makes them uniquely expressive? The Marriage takes the assumption that games are an art form and explores it by trying to express something using only that which is unique to games – interactivity. In other words, the rules of the game are themselves art.
Thompson was disbarred in 2008 and the public controversy surrounding games has died down a lot since then, and there have been a ton of artsy fartsy games released since that time (a few of which are pretty good) so this doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore. The Marriage had some modest significance when it was released though, and it continues to be interesting as an exploration of the medium. Most games still emphasize fancy graphics or moody audio when they’re trying to make a point, a reductivist game like this one shows us what it is that makes games special.
I don’t like to be too negative, but Braid pissed me off. It was a decent enough puzzle platformer, using some time-based mechanics which were new then, but in addition to that it was a media darling. Every gaming site was going on and on about this thing, and a lot of their attention was spent on the… “plot.” And there’s reason for that, the game really pushed it – hinting at something profound, keeping you going to the end with the expectation of some insightful revelation. And when you reached the end what you got was really just more hints. It never came together and actually said anything, it just made the suggestion over and over again that there was something meaningful there beneath the surface. After you finished the game you’d spend a little while thinking to yourself that you weren’t getting it, that you just need to to find that thread – the thing which brings together a bunch of jumbled ideas and phrases into something insightful or at least cohesive… There’s no thread. Fucking Braid.
There are plenty of bad games and there are plenty of pretentious games (which are bad), but they usually don’t get the kind of attention that Braid got. That was the big thing, it felt like betrayal in a way. The game made you feel dumb for not understanding an idea that wasn’t there, but you were sure there must have been something there… the critics wouldn’t be fawning all over this if it was just about dicking you around… right?
Well they did and it made lots of money, so now that’s a thing: puzzle platformers with levels tied together by deep thoughts. Fortunately for us, most other developers haven’t latched on to the idea that deep thoughts become even deeper when they don’t make any sense. As a result, despite my snark, some of these are actually pretty decent. I don’t know if Braid was the direct inspiration for One Step Back, there are plenty of similar games, but I am confident that somewhere down the line Braid was influential.
All right, this is too much talking for such a short game. One Step Back is a decent little platformer that’s a little too moody for its own good, but the time-clone mechanic is fun and doesn’t overstay its welcome. The message isn’t a bad one, at least it makes sense, it’s just a little out of place.