I have a confession: I’m a bit of a control freak. You wouldn’t know it from my apartment where I organize with strategically placed piles, but I freak out when faced with unpredictable situations or unexpected behavior from others. At five years old I had my first existential crisis when a kid at daycare took away the stick I had been happily using to stir a bucket of mud. He claimed that our babysitter had told him to do it. Maybe she was worried I would injure myself? Whatever the reason, my five-year-old world crumbled. Why was I being punished for having harmless fun? Why was an adult I trusted suddenly turning on me? I have never recovered.
I’d like to think I’m a little more resilient than I was at five, but I still spend a large amount of mental energy constructing narratives to explain the world around me. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I enjoy video games: they provide me with an alternate reality that is clearly ordered and where the rules of interaction are easy to learn. However, many of my absolute favorite games are ones that use this expectation of control against me in clever and amusing ways. Naya’s Quest, an isometric puzzle-platformer by Terry Cavanagh (VVVVVV, Super Hexagon) is one of these games.
The game starts out simply enough. In the first few screens, you learn that Naya’s world is disappearing, being swallowed by something called “the Edge”. The town you begin in is abandoned, she says, “just like all the other towns out here.” Naya is not intimidated. She is filled with curiosity about the Edge and travels to see it for herself. She is armed only with the stories she has heard, and a strange device called a “scanner”, left to her by a monk she met fleeing in the other direction.
The scanner turns out to be the key to navigating Cavanagh’s puzzle world. The path appears to be straightforward, until you take your first misstep, sending you falling to your doom for reasons that are initially unclear. Using the scanner reveals that all is not as it seems, and if you want to survive your explorations you will need to watch where you walk. And be ready to die a lot, if you’re anything like me. Even with the scanner revealing the hidden path to safety, I found myself seeing the black screen of death time and time again.
Eventually I began to get the hang of it, and so does Naya. ““I feel like I understand better, the closer I get,” she says. “The way the world is.”
And that is when Cavanagh turns the tables again. “Wait, I…” Naya begins to say, and you quickly learn that the rules of navigation you have been adjusting to no longer all apply. This is the point where I realized that Cavanagh had been toying with me, building up my trust only to remind me forcefully that he has the control in this world, not I.
In a recent sermon, my pastor claimed that the opposite of faith is not disbelief, but control. Naya’s Quest reminded me that any sense of control I have over my life is merely an illusion, and that when I am presented with unexpected circumstances, I have a choice. I can react by attempting to tighten my control, refusing to face the situation for what it is and fleeing in fear like the monk. Or, I can respond with an attitude of curiosity like Naya, trusting that in the midst of uncertainty, there is still a greater order. I may not be able to see it at first, but I can have faith that it is there.
You can play Naya’s Quest for free here.