“Deru: The Art of Cooperation”

So my partner and I recently bought the game, “Deru: The Art of Cooperation” for the Nintendo Switch. At first glance the game is just a series of puzzles using shapes, colors and patterns. But as you go through the game it turns out it is trying to say something. That something makes it an interesting, if sometimes clunky example of cultural exchange, New Age spirituality, narrative storytelling in video games, and the intersections of these things in a global media landscape.

Developed by Ink Kit Studio, “Deru” guides you through levels organized under certain themes like, “Abundance” and “Fear”. You can choose to play alone or with another person to solve puzzles where you navigate through patterns and currents of black and white energy beams as different shapes. You first play as triangles that can simply move in eight directions around obstacles to fit into a goal. But in later levels, you play different shapes that allow you to shrink or expand, or place down smaller forms of your own shape to block currents. These are introduced with different challenges that, depending on who you’re playing with, can really test your communication and abilities, for there are certain puzzles that can only be solved if you time your maneuvers just right or by making seemingly sacrificial decisions to push through to the goal.

Layered on top of these puzzles and strategies are the aesthetics and theming that goes throughout the game. Said theming is communicated by the association between the names of the levels themselves under different chapters, and the movement of the shapes and patterns within the levels. Sometimes this theming is more successful than others. There’s are baffling moments in the first part of the game that are meant to communicate the player(s) as being part of a large community, under a series of levels listed under, naturally, “Worldstate”. But what you are supposed to do in the last levels of this chapter is unclear, for they involve other shapes that suddenly appear on the screen as you approach your goal, with flowing currents obliterating them. You win, sure, and the game doesn’t suddenly punish you for not saving all of the shapes, but what is the meaning of it all?

Over time, the game gets much better at communicating its themes, and even the rough parts of the earlier levels feel justified over time. The collection of levels under, “Fear” are particularly memorable for incorporating all of the elements of the game thus far while providing you with challenges that ask you to make some risky maneuvers. This portion of the game contains some of the most confounding and also most exciting puzzles of the game, and it is that the level design, player agency and narrative ambitions are matched, instead of clashing uncomfortably like in the earlier game.

But of course, this all leads to a bigger message. The aesthetic choices of the game recalls design philosophies that Tetsuya Mizuguchi would elaborate on after his career with Sega in games like Lumines, Meteos and the recent Tetris Effect. As he said in an article with The Verge about the game Lumines: Remastered:

“I don’t know if Luminesis a good game or not, but I think good games have simple mechanics,” Mizuguchi says. “We got rid of other elements, and played with simple sounds, and felt like, ‘Oh, this feels good.’ Then I thought we could make it feel more gorgeous if we added the musical elements and visual elements.”

Deru follows a similar idea, where everything is boiled down to simple shapes, but is combined with music and certain visual flourishes to communicate..a westerner’s idea of Zen. Basically, the game’s contrasting languages and colors suggests a narrative about dealing with all of the highs and lows of existence. But sometimes the results are akin to walking inside that one store full of stones, jars of herbal teas and scented candles with labels explaining how you can, “expand your chakras” or, “open your mind’s eye” (with purchase, of course). If you’re inclined to give such stuff a sharp side-eye, the early portions of this game are not going to change your mind. But as you go further and the puzzles become more intense and elaborate, I would be lying if I said I didn’t think the theming became more potent. At one point my partner said out loud that everything about the game almost made them cry. That’s more than can be said for other New Age-y cruft like The Secret and What The Bleep Do We Know at least.

For all of this, the game is pretty brisk. You can complete it in a short amount of time, and depending on what kind of a player you are, you may not pick up the game again. This is meant to be a journey, one taken with another person, at your own pace (save for the Fear levels where you have to be quick AND think ahead all at once) And there is beauty to be found in this journey once you get past the initial impression of a bunch of westerners coming back to sell the word of God after vacationing in India for a few months. At its low points, the game is a few steps removed from the movie What the Bleep Do We Know, but further on it matures a little, gets more elaborate, and really gives your brain (and teamwork skills) a workout. Definitely play this with a friend or family member.

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