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Giving Meaning To Art, December 4, 2009
On the surface, Galatea is a relatively simple game. You are an art critic, and you are standing in one room of a gallery observing a piece of art. The piece of art and its podium are the only things in the room, and you can’t leave the room or the game ends. So there is really only one thing you can do: interact with the piece of art. Fortunately, the piece of art is Galatea, the statue come to life of the Cypriot sculptor Pygmalion from Greek myth. In the game, Pygmalion is gone now, for reasons not initially clear, but Galatea has a lot to say about him and herself if you choose to ask.
The game’s simple structure belies its careful construction (much like the eponymous statue herself). Nearly all of the gameplay involves asking Galatea questions and turning her answers into more questions to ask. Through discussion, you learn about Galatea’s past, how she was created, and, depending on what chain of dialog you choose to follow, what might be in her future. There is not a singular solution, but dozens, and most are distinct from each other, rather than variations on a theme.
I enjoyed the game thoroughly, though I did have to turn to a walkthrough to get more than a handful of endings. Ultimately, who Galatea is and why she exists is not predetermined. As you play the game, and approach certain paths, her responses change and she starts to more firmly manifest a single form. But the next time you play the game, she’ll be back to a blank slate again and your questions may push her destiny in another direction.
In concept, I find this style of gameplay intriguing. The idea that a character is nobody until she is interacted with; it definitely has potential as a metaphor for human existence and bears similarity to the idea of tabula rasa, first posited by Aristotle, another Grecian historical figure. Unfortunately, the concept is not directly embodied in the game very much – at least to my recollection – and is more of a meta-concept than a deliberate one. I would love to see a game use this idea more overtly, where a series of blank forms are given purpose and even history by the player through their interactions with them.
In any case, the execution of this idea is entertaining for a while but starts to lose its novelty the longer you play and start to see the seams at the edges. Once you start to understand how certain discussions lead to certain endings, you can see more clearly where Galatea’s purpose seems to shift dramatically from one question to the next if you don’t follow the preferred line of inquiry. So, in the end, the game glows with the wonder of possibility at first... then rapidly fades the longer you play with her.
Which is a shame, really, because that is the exact opposite of the progression of the player character – the art critic – in the game. It seems his initial reaction is one of boredom, but the longer he talks with Galatea, the more his interest grows and he begins to realize how much more she is than the simple plaque beside her podium states. I’m almost envious of the critic by the end, because in the endings where his life seems to progress alongside Galatea’s, it’s clear his eyes have been opened to possibilities that were never there before. It makes my growing awareness of the limitation of the game feel depressing in contrast.
But, then again, I cared what happened to Galatea, and that’s really the goal of any artist, right? To get me to care about their creation? Regardless of the ending you reach, Galatea has a strong voice that I really took to. I just wish we could both have reached a satisfying end.