When the lockdown drops like a guillotine on everyone’s social life in March 2020, Valerio Mattioli, as he tells in his Exmachina – Storia musicale della nostra estinzione, does what most of us have done or would have liked to do: drain our hash reserves and turn on the stereo. He thus plunges into IDM, an acronym for Intelligent Dance Music, so called for lack of better names for a genre that represents a real caesura from the past. It is electronic music so artificial that it escapes human control, almost as if it were a coded signal from another dimension.
When listening, it may sound like music that is impossible to dance to, but only if the limbs it seeks to engage are human. The sounds that penetrate our ears are a virus, a string of code ready to reprogram our brains without our brains necessarily having to understand it. Here, with Cocoon – available on Steam, Xbox, PlayStation, and Switch and at day one on Xbox Game Pass (all September games arrived on Xbox Game Pass) – we are in the territories of this hermeticism, beyond the door of perception.
Cocoon and the manipulation of worlds
A signal arrives on a desert planet. It strikes the cocoon that gives the title to the hatching game. A bipedal firefly emerges, free to move in the world. It is back to degree zero of the video game, that is, pure and basic interaction with a virtual world that, in Cocoon’s case, has no interest in talking to the protagonist or the player. Nothing is said about what to do, but that does not mean, however, that the game says nothing. Simply, communication is of a different kind than verbal and logical ones.
The signal moves across our skin in the form of vibration, passing through the always open channel of our ears. It is the extraordinary audio compartment (with ambient music composed by Jakob Schmid) that guides us to the machines, which react to our presence. The technology does not really feel like something external to the body; it has an organic aspect. The impulse to interact with it is natural, and before long we are holding an orb. When placed in a semi-spherical location, it lights up as if it were a puddle reflecting another world. By pressing the only usable button, the firefly’s wings vibrate. A jump stands out. He dives into the sphere. And we glide into another world.
Here is unveiled the princely mechanics of Cocoon, the manipulation of worlds within other worlds. This mode has been refined by the lead designer Jeppe Carlsen (interview with PushSquare’s Jeppe Carlsen here), that is, since he left Playdead, for which he had worked on Limbo and Inside.What he brings with him, in addition to a honed and refined taste in environmental puzzles, is a gift for synthesis. Minimalism is the horizon toward which the gaze is turned.
The quest for simplicity
Cocoon persecutes simplicity in an enlightening manner, with the care needed to ensure that it never lapses into superficiality. Indeed, he seems acutely aware of how a world turns out to be alive by virtue of what it leaves behind, rather than by the amount of things that crowd before our eyes. In this, even more than in its aesthetics, it recalls one of the brightest illuminations of recent years, namely Tunic and, working even more by subtraction, it approaches an essentiality reminiscent of Journey.
In the face of such choices, it is legitimate to fear a certain degree of inconsistency. Cocoon manages to keep away from this danger as well, thanks to a short length (it is not utopia to think of completing it in less than three hours, running of course), but especially thanks to a peculiar learning curve: along with the progression of the game, it advances our understanding of the game world and with it our ability to solve puzzles. Without a single word being necessary. As the notes of IDM penetrate our ears ready to reconfigure us, a signal is radiated from the joystick that moves under the skin and transforms us, unaware. Who knows when the revelation that we have emerged from our cocoon will hit us.