Even if you’re a fan of pre-NES homebrew video games, such as those available from AtariAge and Intellivision Revolution, you may not be aware of one independently-developed Atari 2600 game from back in 2010 titled A Slow Year, one of the most unique video games I’ve ever seen. Not to reignite the “games as art” debate, but on the sliding scale with “Game” at one end and and “Art” at the other, A Slow Year easily lands farther toward the “Art” end than any other game — yes, much farther than Ico or Journey — causing one to wonder if it even qualifies as a “Game” at all. It does, I think, but as with all the most interesting things in art, entertainment, and life itself, the lines are blurred and the decision is up for individual interpretation.
A Slow Year was created by Dr. Ian Bogost, a professor at Georgia Tech, independent game developer, and author of numerous books about video games and how we play them. The most concise way to describe A Slow Year — at least, how Bogost usually tells it — is as a collection of playable “video game poems.” The quickest way to familiarize yourself with it is just to check the game’s site, which is still up and running, at A Slow Year. Please, take your time. Watch the video and linger over the photos. I’ll wait for you back here.
The site’s description may or may not make things more clear, and I only say that not to be disparaging, but because this game really has to be experienced to be fully understood (which makes me start to wonder if my own writing about it is worth anything at all — but I feel that any awareness this game receives is well-deserved, so onward we go.)
Perhaps reflective of the game’s theme of allowing events to take their time to unfold naturally and the user choosing when to act, it took me 9 years to finally get around to playing A Slow Year. I first became aware of the game probably right around the time it was released, probably through a couple of writeups on Kotaku. (What If A Video Game Was Poetry, Video Game “Poems” Get A Luxurious Special-Edition Release) I think some of the limited edition version may even have still been available at the time. I revisited Bogost’s page over and over, marveling at the beauty of the physical release, re-reading the descriptions and re-watching the video, so very curious about what the gameplay experience would be like and what, exactly, I would take away from it. But I never did get around to ordering the much more affordable CD and paperback version that was available.
Eventually, of course, I forgot about A Slow Year, but over the course of time I would occasionally remember it, Google it to find that the page was still there, revisit it, wonder about it, and then forget it again. Eventually, in January of 2019, some nine years after its original release, the game popped back into my memory out of the blue, I revisited the page once again, and finally downloaded the digital edition. (I do have to wonder how many A Slow Year downloads are being purchased these days, but I was certainly grateful that it was still available.)
The digital edition includes the contents of the book as a PDF and the game itself, presented as a standalone app using its own custom Atari 2600 emulator. Note that despite it being a PC application, the game code is actually a real Atari 2600 game that works on real hardware, not a “retro-style” modern PC game; however, it is not available as a ROM file to be used with Stella or another Atari emu.
So after all this time, what was it like to finally experience A Slow Year?
The first thing I did, of course, was fire up the game itself, and cycle through the four parts, and I was smacked with a familiar old feeling — that of playing an Atari 2600 game without reading the instructions, and not being sure exactly what I was supposed to be doing with the abstract imagery presented to me. I sort of understood a couple of the games, but I wasn’t sure if I was doing them “right.”
So, to the book I went, and it was immediately apparent that the essays, poetry, and writing therein was an essential part of the entire experience of A Slow Year. Interestingly enough, though, for as thick as the book is with video game philosophy and information about its development, the rules of each of the four games are presented as simple, somewhat cryptic haiku — which actually explain just enough.
Indeed, the game is slow. It’s about observation and reaction — or not reacting. Each of the games represents a season. Let me try to describe exactly how this all goes down:
Autumn: A large tree fills the screen. You are able to move a rectangle, apparently representing a pile of leaves, left and right across the ground. The wind blows, and occasionally a single leaf falls from the tree. If you catch the leaf in the square, you hear a positive tone. If you miss a leaf, there is no penalty.
Winter: A first-person perspective tells us we are sitting at a table with a cup of coffee, looking out a window. The colors of the window gradually brightens as morning arrives. You may sip your coffee at any time, and a meter shows its remaining heat. Finishing your coffee before daybreak, or daybreak arriving before you finish your coffee, ends the game. It’s a shame to leave coffee un-drank, but also a shame to rush through it and not savor the sunrise.
Spring: It’s raining in a suburban neighborhood. At times, a yellow bolt of lightning strikes, and a few thunderclaps follow. I admit I have not figured this one out yet, but it has something to do with timing or anticipating the thunder with a press of the fire button.
Summer: Another first-person experience, as we relax by the side of a river, presumably reclining. A log floats along, rising and falling, and we can move a green line left and right across the bottom of the screen. Bugs make a rhythmic shuffling sound somewhere in the grass. Pressing the fire button closes our eyes for a nap. I’m not sure I understand this one yet either.
Playing the game, I found that an interesting thing happened to me: the game brought about an internal struggle, trying to reconcile the “gamer” in me who wanted to grasp the rules of each game and play them “well” with the “video game scholar/connoisseur/appreciator/journalist” who wanted to fully understand what this experience was all about.
But I think I get it: The fact that there is, as I mentioned, no penalty for doing anything “wrong” tells us that it’s not really about playing “well” at all.
It’s enough just to be playing.
That’s kind of all there is to it. The instruction booklet actually says as much. Strangely, it’s simultaneously so simple of an idea, yet also a starting point for some deeper thought about what a game is, should be, or can be. And I’m kind of okay with not understanding every game yet. That’s part of the intrigue. It will bring me back to it, and eventually there will be a “eureka” moment.
As such, I’m not sure that there’s any more about A Slow Year, as an actual gaming experience, that really needs to be written.
Is it about life itself? That it’s enough just to slow down, let things happen as they will, and it doesn’t matter if you react or not? Maybe. Maybe it’s just about exploring the medium of video games and taking them in another direction.
When I started this article, I was prepared to examine this cryptic game down to the bone and really figure it out, but after I playing it and understanding it (I think), I feel like by this point in the post, I’ve actually already belabored the point. It’s enough just to try it and appreciate that it exists, and form your own opinions.
Back when the 20 copies of the $500 special edition were released, I was certainly in no position to spend that kind of money on such an item. (Who am I kidding — I’m still not.) In fact, in almost 40 years of gaming, the only times I’ve ever spent multiple hundreds of dollars on a single game was when I bought arcade machines. (Fun fact: I’ve only ever spent over $100 on a single console game once. And yes, it was a Neo Geo AES game.) However, I must admit: even as I continue to distill my physical game hoard into a highly-concentrated library of quality over quantity, I would now count the leather-bound, hardcover, physical cartridge limited edition of A Slow Year among a very tiny group of personal holy grails that I will probably never acquire, but would love to display as a very unique and prestigious crown jewel in my collection.
I have one final thought, and I feel it’s most appropriate to present it as a haiku:
Slowly spent a year
Didn’t know ’til now this game
Deserved to be made