When Jamaican artist Robert Morrison Jnr. talks about waiting he is really talking about faith. It’s not necessarily a religious practice that he refers to either, more of a universal concept, a feature of the human condition. “I think our faith is constantly tested in our daily lives,” Morrison says. “Some tests being more apparent than others; some tests being more easily overcome than others.”
He’s musing on the value of faith to justify it as a game mechanic. For in his upcoming iOS experiment Substance of Things, all that you’ll be able to do is endure and be patient. The title is taken from a well-known passage of scripture that moves towards defining faith:
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1. King James Version)
Following this, faith manifests in the game as an absence—you are tasked only with relaxing, being diligent, and showing patience: in essence, doing absolutely zilch. So nothing will happen at first. Moments later, after there is still no obvious interaction to be had, Morrison hopes that you will ask “what now?” That’s when the test of your faith begins. Do you stay and try to figure it out? Will it be worth it if you do? Or do you leave the experience and never look back?
Despite appearances, Substance of Things isn’t a videogame version of John Cage’s classic and controversial silent musical piece 4’33”; asking you to interpret the game for yourself from its blankness. No, this is closer in its thinking to David O’Reilly’s idle art game Mountain and Ice Water Games’s real-time plant watcher Viridi. In fact, Substance of Things is very similar to the latter, as it is about growing a flower with nothing more than your belief in it happening.
The reason for it being a flower is significant as it is taken from its symbolism in the world’s varied folklore. Across many passed-down tales are “legendary” flowers, according to Morrison, that are given special properties (curing poison, glowing, being extraordinarily beautiful), but are limited in how they appear to us: blooming in a certain place, at a specific time, only for one month of the year, or at a single temperature. Morrison was further encouraged to work with this phenomena upon finding out about its real-life equivalent. The Dutchman’s Pipe Cactus (aka Flower Covered by Dense Cloud) only blooms for a few hours during a single night of the year. If you miss it you have to wait another year to get another chance.
“I thought that that idea very well embodied the theme of the game,” Morrison said. “Growing any kind of flowers are really a test of patience and faith, even more so with any of those ‘legendary’ ones. And so this is closely tied to ‘gameplay’—you have to figure out how to ‘find’ the flowers while being happy with what you have without them.”
Other influences on the design of Substance of Things include Christian beliefs, playing riddle-like games with small groups, and the use of white noise to aid sleeping. In fact, the game’s official description calls it “part living wallpaper collection, musical white noise, and test of endurance.” But the biggest of all enablers is Morrison’s desire to use the game as a way to deal with what he describes as a “trying season in [his] own life.” The project started as a way for him to turn some of his insecurities into a productive effort. Now he also hopes that it can help others in a similar way.
(Teaser trailer for Magna Polaris)
As part of this, Morrison’s original idea was to have a dedicated forum set-up for players of Substance of Things to “discuss what they thought it was all about and how it related to their own experiences, if at all.” Much to his dismay, the forum idea was cut out as the scope and ambition was reeled in to make it manageable. But Morrison hopes it will still have the same effect for some, being the start of a deeper conversation, bringing people together. “We hope people will enjoy the title and are able to interpret and pull away something that in however small a way is a blessing to their lives,” Morrison said. “We believe the many hours spent with all these forms of digital media should affect [people] for better and not worse.“
It seems to have worked in this way for Morrison, at least. It has acted as a primer for himself and Brazilian sound artist Leonardo Magrin—the two halves of creative collaboration Silentrivr—as they look to return to the bigger game they took a break from, Magna Polaris. As with Substance of Things, it postures you in opposition to time while trying to decode a mysterious mountain. And it’s equally as intriguing.
You can expect a lot more from these two in the future. More specifically, prepare to have your faith tested when Substance of Things drops on iOS later this spring.