Orchids to Dusk: An Allegory for Beauty, Death, and Meaning
“…c’est peut-être ça la vie: beaucoup de désespoir mais aussi quelques moments de beauté où le temps n’est plus le même. C’est comme si les notes de musique faisaient un genre de parenthèses dans le temps, de supension, un ailleurs ici même, un toujours dans le jamais.
Oui, c’est ça, un toujours dans le jamais.”
― Muriel Barbery, L’Élégance du hérisson
The great existential novelist Muriel Barbery once wrote that beauty emerges only by virtue of the passage of things through time. A bouquet of flowers, for instance, is cherished because of its brevity, however much we might want the flowers to last. Artificial flowers never compare. Our lives, similarly, are of such dear value to us because of their impending finitude. If we were to live indefinitely, who’s to say how we would live our lives?
Death is so common in videogames that we take it for granted as a built-in feature. Games allow us to save our progress, to try again, to improve and strategize on our previous playthroughs. Rarely, if ever, do games limit us to one life, one chance at victory. Even less do games build death directly into a game as a certainty. Orchids to Dusk, a contemplative indie game by the developer Pol Clarissou, masterfully captures how each of us might, in the final moments of our lives, approach the certainty of our own death.
Orchids to Dusk begins, after a loading screen implying an impending emergency, with a crash landing of your character onto a foreign planet. No immediate context tells us who this character is, what biological race they are (some kind of geometrical human of – depending on your playthrough – various skin colors), what planet this is, etc. But we know that the computer mouse in our hand is enough to guide us across the vast, almost barren landscape, which is peppered by little oases.
In my first playthrough, the atmosphere of the game stole the majority of my attention. The petite pod from which you’ve crashed on this planet belies some kind of advanced technology – but not so advanced that this Pikmin-like crash isn’t unwarranted. These sparse clusters of vegetation across the vast desert of the foreign planet invite your character forward to explore – and even relax within – the calming lush green of the swaying leaves.
Quickly into your playthrough, you become aware of a time-limit of sorts: your character’s limit of breathable oxygen. Not only has your spaceship crashed you into a foreign planet, but apparently you aren’t able to breathe the atmosphere of this place – even in vegetated areas. Soon upon realizing this, your meter trickles into a red zone, indicating your impending and inevitable death.
The process of death in Orchids to Dusk subtly comments on contemporary debates about euthanasia and the movement towards “death with dignity” as volitional options for terminal patients in medical care. For, in one sense, you can find yourself dying in two main ways: by choice or by accident.
In my first playthrough, I died by accident. I failed to realize – or, more accurately, admit to myself – that there were no ways to replenish your character’s oxygen. I kept exploring further and further, looking for items or interactive objects to keep my playthrough going. Despite my every effort, my character miserably died in vain, alone, out in the desert dunes.
Other playthroughs feel more goal-oriented, not so nihilistic and solipsistic. The first playthrough in which I felt goal-oriented was when I noticed a particular marking in the sky. It appeared like a star or satellite to the planet, twinkling in the atmosphere. But this ‘star’ took the shape of a symbol, much like a tally mark. This moment in the sky looks like something out of Journey, from the atmosphere to the lighting to the symbol itself – it feels as though you should drop your death-walk and pursue this beacon in the sky.
The second playthrough in which I felt goal-oriented was when I decided to somewhat spite the game for an atmospheric death. Wandering through a deserted landscape can only take you so far. Why not subvert fate and choose your own way out, pick a patch of beauty, and greet death itself? (After all, it makes for a better screenshot.) And so I lay in a patch of vegetation, the most beautiful I could find, and allowed my character to lay down in the lush foliage.
Laying down and awaiting my death, a faint, translucent etch of the ‘enter’ key appeared on screen, with the accompanying text: ‘press enter to remove helmet’. Even if this is your first playthrough, it should be obvious that taking your helmet off on this foreign planet is a bad idea, suicidal even. But for some reason I was tempted to rebuke fate even further. If you press ‘enter,’ the game prompts you again to ensure that you truly want to go through with this self-harming action.
If you choose to remove your helmet, your time is cut short. But, if you’ve chosen to lay in a patchwork of vegetation, your body will release life-energy to otherwise dead or dying plants in the surrounding area. Trunks and branches and roots will regain their leaves in your life’s absence. And, though not shown in the game, your body will eventually fertilize them, growing plants from desert to forest.
Death is not a celebrated act in Orchids to Dusk. Apart from the relationship between the player’s mouse and walking around, death is perhaps best understood as the underlying mechanic of this game. As with any creative endeavor, constraints birth many of the ripest fruits of creativity. Death, as a mechanical constraint within the (seemingly) open world of Orchids, becomes an opportunity – rather than a responsibility. This opportunity is for many brief, satisfying playthroughs, full of meaning.
For such a small game, Orchids packs itself with metaphorical lore. The aforementioned beacon in the sky feels like a spiritual compass, and its very presence implies the presence of a narrative destination – whether or not there truly is one. Similarly, the patches of botanical oases implies a path for your character to seek refuge within, like landmarks or rest stops.
The presence of the symbol in the sky also underlies a common theme in mythological literature: the ideal. Western thinking most cleanly inherits this concept from Plato, hence the term “Platonic Ideals” in which the best version of a thing that we can imagine becomes the most true – the most real – version of the thing itself. In other words, this symbol gives us a literal, physical aim: a direction. This aim becomes a metaphor for how to live the dying moments of our lives, which is to say, nobly. If we pursue what is ideal, what is meaningful, then we might not quite die on our own in the desert.
If we pursue what is meaningful in a world laden with certain death and inevitable ennui and suffering, then perhaps we can build some kind of dignity and self-respect into moments of absolute abnegation. If we seek out the little oases in our lives, even if we must cross deserts to reach them, then perhaps our lives can flourish. Like orchids, perhaps a little independence and self care can help us thrive. Perhaps, when we reach our dusk, we won’t find ourselves lost in the desert, but at home in the world, ready to give ourselves back to life itself.
Blake Guthrie (Twitter: @BlakeGuthrie) is a columnist for Epilogue Gaming, host of LudonarrativeFM (Twitter: @LudonarrativeFM) and Need For Nuance (Twitter: @NeedForNuance), as well as the Ludonarrative stream each Tuesday (Twitch: LudonarrativeFM). If you like Epilogue Gaming’s work, you can support us by following on Twitter at @EpilogueGames or subscribe to us for as little as $1 a month on Patreon. For more of Blake’s work, check Epilogue every other Friday.