"a luxury resort for your screen, eyes, and hands"
When an artist who mostly releases their work for free charges money for a new piece, it generally means one of two things: either they think the new work is more commercial and thus fits better in the mainstream commercial context of their field. Or it means they put a lot time and life force into the new work, and want to signal that by attaching monetary value to it. 10 Beautiful Postcards is the latter kind of thing. You might have played some of TheCatamites' important free games like Murderdog IV: Trial of the Murder Dog. This game builds on that body of work but is much more ambitious, a two-year epic.
Here's how I would sum up 10 Beautiful Postcards: it's the biggest flatgame ever made. Flatgames are perhaps the most consciously minimalistic of all videogame genres, at least in terms of 'game mechanics', and they are usually very small. This game has all the perverse grandeur of a thousand-page haiku.
The basic flow of the game is typical of a flatgame: you wander through a mostly-frictionless and unhierarchical (hence 'flat') space, in no particular narrative order, browsing it and conversing with it and gradually building up an understanding of the aesthetic and conceptual position that the game occupies. Nominally, you're searching for the ten postcards that the author has posted to himself, but these mainly seem to serve as milestones, structuring your exploration of the game's world.
The recurring motif in the game is the hotel. There are hotels of all kinds in here, some literal and some obliquely symbolic, and the idea is that the postcards are sent from them to the author by the player. Hotels, of course, are not simply tourist destinations — they are highly ritualized spaces that provide cultural emblems not just for travel but for meetings, conferences, illicit rendezvous, corporate imperialism, and nomadic businessfolks. Every time you enter one of the rooms in 10 Beautiful Postcards, the symbolism changes around you, forcing you to re-evaluate its meaning, switching up your mood.
TheCatamites wrote a piece about flatgames while working on this game, which might reasonably serve as its manifesto. He describes them like so:
[R]ather than systems they represent collections - collections of effects treated as independent of the wider process they’d ordinarily portray, which can then be grouped and moved around separate from that process. so it’s a personal, subjective format in the sense that the new groupings sort of mirror the groupings produced when various external effects are flattened into single moments of subjective experience, of memory.
A lot of TheCatamites' work takes inspiration from zines and zine culture, and this game, too, has the feeling of reading a good zine: disjointed, with each page articulating a new idea that riffs of the last one like a conversation between two people who emotionally in sync but not really listening to each other. This disjointed style intensifies that sense of 'flattening' the experience into a single subjective cascade.
Most of the videogame work in this vein (including nearly all of the work in the venerable trainwrecks community, to which TheCatamites is a prolific contributor) is short, like a ten-page zine that wells up from a particular mood or idea. When a zine (or a flatgame) reaches a certain size and scope, you experience it differently: the disjointed quality of the experience is impossible to mold into a continuous narrative in your imagination, and this forces your mind to relax into a more open state, free-associating ideas in a holistic and intuitive way. That's the brainfeel of playing this game.
10 Beautiful Postcards is also just aesthetically gorgeous, in its artwork and its writing and its sense of humor. There is a delight behind every one of its hotel-room doors, and it was enough to bring me off a four month blogging hiatus. Give it a try... and send me some recommendations for more games to play! I'm back on the horse.