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Indie | Freedom Bridge

Freedom Bridge

The gap…

Fraser McMillan forages his way through the indie jungles once more, this time discussing the powerful and harrowing FREEDOM BRIDGE.

FREEDOM BRIDGE is amazing. As in, one of the best video games I’ve played all year. It delivers a devastating but ambiguous political message that demands further research on the part of the player, all while stunning them into silent reflection, and achieves both in something under ninety seconds. The journey is a short but desperate one that perfectly illustrates the power of the medium. Before we go any further, play it for yourself.

Done? OK.

See what I mean? Jordan Magnusson’s little game packs some punch, and it’s not hard to see why. Picking through the last of the barbed wire at a snail’s pace before stumbling in agony onto the bridge is more likely to induce a squirm or anguished sigh than any number of shotgun blasts to an alien’s face, and that it represents a real place as well as a problem makes it all the more meaningful. It’s presented in such a stripped down way that empathy is almost easier to project; to all intents and purposes, the tiny square is the player, infinitely more human a protagonist than a floating hand with a gun attached. Moreover, it touches on vulnerability in ways that few others are willing, and the surprise at the end is an intriguing component of this – we weren’t even aware of the threat. Perhaps the border guard had been watching as we crawled painfully through the obstacles and dragged ourselves, bleeding profusely, to the crossing.

The Struggle

Its impact is derived from the very fact of its method of engagement. A non-interactive, animated version would doubtless have been far lesseffective, at least with the minimalist visual style intact. That the player has freedom of movement is key. I was certainly inclined to stop in the barbed wire to rest as well as look for the least arduous point at which to cross it, despite the lack of any tangible systematic repercussion. It’s exhausting just to participate in, and this allows the player to very quickly immerse him or herself in the world. The emotional experience is the game in a sense, and when that connection is cut so brutally it’s exploited in the most incredible way.

There is a slight problem, however. To get the full effect, you have to be video game literate. Obviously, for the majority of people that will even be aware of Freedom Bridge, this isn’t an issue whatsoever. It’s obvious “where to go”, and we’ve been conditioned to just know. There’s little more universal than direct two-dimensional character movement from one side of the screen to the other, but when I forced my parents to try it out this very quickly became something of an obstacle. When non-gamers are exposed to video games, observations that won’t even occur to most seasoned players will arise, and even this, the simplest of conceits in mechanical terms, proved no exception. My mum attempted to move out of the field of play and around the fences, unaware really of what she was doing. Neither did she understand what the barbed wire was at first, but we both marked this down to her not wearing her glasses.

Though she was eventually very impressed and affected, my presence was required. Freedom Bridge’s signposting, I realised, was dreadful. For all it’s brilliance and educational potential it’s not an experience that the average person could properly appreciate, but that’s certainly not the fault of Magnusson or game players. It’s something more fundamental and endemic. Nintendo perhaps have the right idea, employing systems that practically play the game for users in New Super Mario Bros. Wii and help stations in Super Mario Galaxy 2.

But, whether these are effective or not, not everyone is Nintendo. What can we do to make video games – even incredibly simple ones – less confusing to the majority of players? Given our relative blindness to aspects of design that were originally placeholders or are simply technologically if not artistically practical, it might be difficult. We’ll have to reconstruct our entire idea of game design, but taking nothing for granted is incredibly hard. There’s got to be a point at which hand-holding stops and human agency begins. Left to right may seem self evident to us, but to others it isn’t. Certain things may not even occur to designers as problems to be solved, but audiences will never expand without a degree of streamlined help.

Obviously, there are certain games that would be negatively impacted by offering a bit more in the way of help. The general public are alreadyinfuriatingly bad at seeing everything on a digital screen, and trying to make a My First Dragon Age simply wouldn’t be practical or desirable for anyone. Freedom Bridge and its ilk, however, are the kind of games that beg to be shown to friends and family who aren’t necessarily game literate. Fig. 8, which I wrote about last year, is one of the few examples that actually does lay out its straightforward instructions very obviously and right from the off, displayed as they are on the ground at the start of the game. Accessibility in the broadest sense does not diminish the experience, and the use of the word “signposting” in relation to Freedom Bridge was more literal than one may have realised. A diegetic sign with an arrow or some simple text could have helped. On the other hand, it may have opened up other considerations. Do you now have to give the player a choice to not cross the bridge at all?

It and problems like it are ripe for exploration. It may be some time before we know the answers, and what these entail. Resisting the temptation to “dumb down” while making the game as broadly playable as possible is bound to be a tough line to walk, but for something as wonderful as Freedom Bridge to be wasted on just those with the in-built ability to properly proceed through it would be a terrible shame.

8 Comments

    Sorry, but I have a hard time calling this a game. The supposed interaction was so limited as to be meaningless. It took me about five seconds to realise that yes, I was going to have to go straight over the barbed wire and was then entertained for another five, incredibly puerile, seconds by the blood trail. After that, it became an exercise in holding my right arrow key down, like I was watching an animation on a broken DVD player.

    There has to be a reason for interaction. It has to be inherently entertaining, challenging or necessary to progress. Even something as simple as obstacles to navigate would have triggered the engagement necessary for any kind of meaning to be created.

  • @BigJonno
    You know, there are bigger things to be learned from computer games besides how to get a head-shot. Freedom Bridge may not really be a “game” per-se, but it’s a quick, powerful story that the player has to interact with briefly to complete. Things don’t have to overly engage you to create meaning, there are meaningful movies out there that do not require you to be overly engaged to understand the meaning.

    As for Freedom Bridge, it’s great and there should be more games like it.

  • Don’t take my criticism to mean that I don’t see the worth in such things. I do, but I don’t think that Freedom Bridge has enough to it to differentiate it from a simple animation. I have a fairly simple view on games as a medium; for games to be a worthwhile vehicle for messages, meaning and emotion, they need to bring something to the table that movies, books, plays and other media cannot, otherwise someone may as well make an animation. That thing is interactivity. It doesn’t have to be a lot of interactivity, but it has engage the audience more than pressing play on a remote.

    Freedom Bridge requires you to hold down your right cursor key. There are no consequences for inaction, no decision making involved and no reward for doing otherwise, other than the slightly perverse pleasure you may gain from making patterns with your blood.

    So while I agree that Freedom Bridge does a very good job of conveying a message in an incredibly stripped-down form, I don’t believe that it being a game rather than an animation adds anything to it.

  • But you do have control. It’s not the same as pressing the play button because you’re required to drive the experience forward, even if all that involves is holding down one button, which in this case it doesn’t have to. The player is a necessary component of the whole – you’re doing it rather than merely watching it.

    To this end I’ve never really understood the “DVD remote” argument. I wouldn’t care much for Freedom Bridge were it a YouTube video.

  • I think the interaction required does add to the experience. You really feel the resistance when you go over the barbed wire. That said I don’t think it really does anything different from Passage, besides changing the metaphor to be political. And no, I didn’t find it any more emotionally riveting or meaningful than shooting an alien in the face. I did like the questions it doesn’t answer like, “is this a specific place?” and “who is this square?” etc. But I suppose the same could be said about the alien I’m shooting in the face.

    I also felt like I wanted the square to die, the barbed wire made me feel like I was probably a prisoner and maybe I did something horribly wrong to be here, and then the other side of the bridge looked like more of the same horrible barbed wire world. Black square was not a likable character.

  • “My mum attempted to move out of the field of play and around the fences, unaware really of what she was doing.”

    I did the same thing, I don’t think that is just a thing that people do because they don’t understand games. I did it because, “Hey, that looks like barb wire, I’m sure there will be repercussions for crossing it.” Then I realized the play space is bound to what you see, only scrolling side to side. And I knew what the game was going to do next.

    The limits that are placed tell me what this game wants to do right off the bat and in being so transparent, the ending didn’t have a strong affect for me. It could be a matter of perspective, these stories of people climbing over walls, drowning in rivers, getting shot, starving, are almost commonly told in the immigration debate in America. I didn’t have knowledge of the specific location in the game though.

    Still, thank you for sharing it. An interesting exercise for sure.

    Also, to devon, comparing it to Passage. Passage is great not only because of the core idea of living through a person’s entire life but the fact that how you interact with the game is reflected in that telling of a person’s life. (Something I don’t think Freedom Bridge quite captures, interactivity still matters but not to the same degree as Passage) If you just held down the right arrow key for five minutes in Passage (like the other fellow did for this game), think, what does that say about that life you just experienced? If you didn’t even bother holding down a key for five minutes or maybe just meandered around the place you start, you still played the game, and again, what does that say about that life?

    That is where Passage is brilliant.

  • You know, a game doesn’t become good or moving just because a poignant message is flashed at the end. It just means that you’ll read awe and skill into anything that effectively raises a flag telling you to.

    Hey, maybe that’s the message of the game!

  • Just wanted to say thanks a lot for this encouraging write-up Fraser. It’s such a huge motivation-booster to read something like this.

    As far as some of the criticism in the comments here: I don’t mind it. Freedom Bridge was a small experiment, and if it’s not your cup of tea, that’s fine. I appreciate anyone who takes the time to express their views, whether positive or negative.

    Cheers.

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