‘Promesa’: Video game? Interactive art? Why not both?

Abby McGanney Nolan

THE WASHINGTON POST – Promesa is a short, experimental work deeply informed by revered Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986), much of whose work is structured around evocative environments meant to draw one into a contemplative mood.

Promesa’s compact story unfolds through paragraph-sized intertiles that appear at the beginning and in between the game’s short segments. From these, we come to eavesdrop on a conversation between a grandfather and his grandchild. Their conversation touches on the vagaries of memory, regrets, and nostalgia. This is representative of their ruminations: “You know that I keep forgetting the names of streets? By not wanting to remember all the bad that happened, I forgot a lot of things … Look, the only thing I will always regret, is not having learned Russian. One should be born again, what can we do … There are things that I did not learn and that I’ll never get to learn.”

Playing through Promesa prompted me to recall a memorable passage in Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time, the book in which he lays out his aesthetic principles: “Art is born and takes hold whenever there is a timeless and insatiable longing for the spiritual, for the ideal: that longing is what draws people to art. Modern art has taken a wrong turn in abandoning the search for the meaning of existence to affirm the value of the individual for its own sake.”

Whether Promesa is best described as a video game or a piece of interactive art is debatable. (Personally, I’ve never seen a reason one can’t encompass the other.) Unfortunately, those who measure video games solely by the range and quality of the interactivity will find meager reason to give Promesa a try as its playable sections amount to nothing more than passing through different environments at varying speeds.

The areas themselves vary from the mundane to the surreal. One moment, players may find themselves wandering through an apartment that looks either recently moved into or soon to be abandoned. Soon after, they are trekking across a snow-covered field until they find a TV tuned to a pixelated image. (The order of the scenes change with different playthroughs.)

What is interesting about these incidents is the manner in which the environments are juxtaposed and suggestive details are highlighted. From a curtain billowing into a kitchen, which calls to mind simple domesticity, to a multitiered panopticon structure, evoking endless days of tedious confinement, the game is steeped in mnemonic talismans.

Sometimes the environments warp and twist as you move through them so that a photograph seen from a distance acquires a skewed form of depth up close, or a television screen becomes a portal to a cave that opens to a nocturnal kitchen that leads to a tiny cave which contains a desk and a computer. Dislocated from chronological time and naturalistic space, the events depicted in”Promesa exist in a state of open-ended subjectivity that beckons its audience to overlay its own impressions.

With a running time a little short of an hour, Promesa is meant to be played in a single sitting.

For those intrigued by the more artistic side of gaming, it is a dream worth having.

A scene from ‘Promesa’. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST