At a certain point in everyone’s life, the world starts asking how you plan to justify your existence. For the lucky ones, that sobering interrogation is postponed right up until the moment when you’re handed a shiny college degree. “Congratulations!” the world says on graduation day. “You’ve just completed nearly half a decade of following our instructions. Now go do it yourself. Without instructions. For Money. Oh, and be snappy about it, because the parents are getting pretty tired of your freeloading.”
Armageddon, an interactive poem of sorts, explodes this early moment of existential crisis. The game was created by Brendan Vance, who describes himself as not only a programmer but “a sort of prototype for a new kind of creative professional who understands every facet of new media projects and how they interrelate.” After attending SFU’s School of Interactive Art and Technology and graduating with an “experimental degree,” Vance experienced his graduation almost like a trauma. “On that day when I graduated it felt like the dream was ending,” his blog about the game reads. “In university there had always been time to meet the people I wanted to meet, to realize the personality I coveted in my fantasies and to lead the sort of life I imagined I should lead. Now there was no time, and my body had not done any of these things.”
Like life, the opening screen of Armageddon could very well pass you by in seconds without you even noticing. After receiving instructions that the Spacebar forestalls the inevitable and right click allows you to interact, you reenter Armageddon wiser but no less paralyzed. A watch counts down the seconds, as seven explorable tableaus containing sections of the poem are destroyed by missiles. The phrase “everybody has to do something” looms high over every stanza, the first tableau revealing an avatar falling into a sea of solid blue, while disconnected shapes move around him, indifferent to his impending doom.
The mechanics in Armageddon come across as purposefully messy. At first, you can’t be certain how much actual control you exert over the ticking clock, as it speeds and slows without clear catalysts. Some tableaus are destroyed before you can get to them, others destroyed while you’re still in them, so that the scene dissolves into nothing but falling missiles, before erasing entirely into blankness. Constantly, Armageddon forces you to scramble and chase after something, but you have no way of knowing what it is until you’ve already caught it.
The self-induced annihilation comes through not only in the design, but in each section of the poem. “Everybody has to do something,” many of them begin. “Me, I disassociate.” Once you’ve exhausted the clickable object in the tableau, which can be anything from an avatar to a window, the object blacks out. Without disappearing entirely, the objects are erased from the space, becoming unrecognizable from what they were before. “When I look back at my graduation photo I don’t recognize myself in the face,” Vance says on his blog. “I see the glassy half-sneer my muscles make each time they force a smile; I see the silly robes my university afforded me, and the silver medallion my parents had me present to the camera. But that was just my body. I don’t live in my body.”
Armageddon keeps you at a distance. Once you manage to fully explore each tableau, the sparse white space quietly implodes. In the final shot, all the objects evaporate into black outer space—leaving only the avatar to float aimlessly in his stasis. “Everybody has to do something,” the game insists one final time. But the phrase means something different here. Failing and succeeding or figuring out who your are and how you’re going to be something—well, that’s something only bodies do. But here in space, you are weightless. And while you might still be a body, its only inconsequential matter free-falling through the vastness.