By Rob Walker
What’s the most boring place in the world? Any given airport seems like a good guess. Maybe that makes an airport a good setting for playing smartphone or tablet games. It also makes an airport just about the most perverse setting imaginable for a game, one that is basically about…catching a flight.
Such a game exists: It’s called “Leaving,” and it is, to put it mildly, not a traditional game. I found it boring—fascinatingly boring.
Let me explain. In an interview recently with the Creator’s Project, “Leaving” creator Thomas J. Papa, lead developer of Mimicry Games, makes it pretty clear that his agenda is partly to challenge gaming conventions, which he argues tend to be repetitive and predictable (all that action and those motivating rewards—feh!). Indeed the official description doesn’t even call “Leaving” a game, but rather “a short-form interactive drama for the iPad.”
So, here’s what happens: You show up at an airport with four companions; figure out where your departure gate is; say goodbye; and head for your flight. The end.
This “won't be for everyone,” one reviewer, who practically apologizes for praising “Leaving,” warns (twice) in the course of a seven-paragraph write-up. And it’s certainly true that this will not be the next “Angry Birds.” Frankly I was initially irritated with “Leaving.” Plopped into an alienating setting with a group of undefined characters, I had no idea how to proceed. Finally, I just started poking the screen until I more or less figured it out. What choice did I have? And I was surprised to find that when I eventually reached the anti-climactic ending, I was compelled to play again, immediately.
Why? Partly because the distinct lack of action had made me, gradually, examine the uncanny world I found myself in. The graphic treatment is really engaging and the headphone-friendly sound design is superb. I wondered: Why is the airport so empty? Why do certain employees ignore me—and no one smiles? Why do my companions seem so serious, even when I hug them goodbye? What’s their relationship to each other, and to me? What’s the reason for my “leaving,” anyway?
If you think you might try “Leaving,” skip this paragraph, because here’s the closest thing I can offer to a spoiler alert: At exactly the moment that “Leaving” forces the player to use an annoying degree of precision to navigate a rope-line maze to the boarding gate, the game’s finale involves, of all things, the poetry of Antonio Machado, addressing the vagaries of life’s journeys (and, one might consider, the journeys most games send us on). It’s quite clever.
If in the end it doesn’t feel like you’ve played a game, that’s the point. “Leaving” is more like an evocative short story, or a kind of lyric essay on the idea of the traveler. Obviously other games have played with interactive narrative, and for that matter literary creators for years have experimented with all sorts of digital twists on storytelling strategies. I’m not sure “Leaving” fits either category. But it gave me the most interesting trip to the airport I can recall.