It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.
A style of storytelling that’s really only possible in video games is gameplay as metaphor. It’s a form of narrative that happens through the interactivity and problem-solving of playing the game instead of through the typical avenues of storytelling like text or visuals. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons did this by having you control two brothers cooperating to solve puzzles, with each represented by separate sides of the controller. When one of the brothers isn’t around you feel that loss not just empathically through the writing, but also as a hindrance to the gameplay since you effectively lost the use of half your controller.
In A Fold Apart, the puzzles and how you solve them act as a metaphor for the two main characters working through their anxieties about their relationship. The game follows who we’ll call Red and Blue, since they don’t have names and their genders are selectable by the player. Red is a teacher and Blue is an architect. They both live together and are clearly very in love.
Blue is offered an amazing job to help design a major skyscraper, but the job is for a year and a half in a city far away from Red. They decide that they can maintain their relationship apart for that long, and Blue moves away. While separated, the two communicate with text messages, which are cute and lovey, but then a seemingly innocuous phrasing in a text causes one of them to fall into a bit of an anxiety spiral. This is when the actual puzzle solving takes place.
The game’s puzzles require you to navigate one of the characters across various platforms to an endpoint. But the characters can only walk, so in order to bridge the gaps, you need to fold the level. The best way to think about these puzzles is as a piece of paper. There are two sides, each usually having platforms on them, and you need to fold the paper to line up the platforms in order to get the character to the end. Initially, you can only fold the paper in the cardinal directions, but as the game progresses you also get diagonal folding and the ability to rotate the paper.
Aside from the puzzles being well designed, what’s actually fascinating about them is how they work to help tell the story. Each set of puzzles, usually about five or so, has the characters working through their anxiety about a different message. The puzzles in a set will get progressively harder over the first few as their anxiety grows, before getting easier over the last few as Red and Blue work through things by realizing the message likely wasn’t intended the way they read it.
This helps to make the folding and other mechanics not only a metaphor for trying to bridge the characters’ separation, but also how a person can twist and complicate things for themselves when communication breaks down. The issues that arise for Red and Blue, though they stem from their separation, are more about a lack of communication. While they agreed to mutually endure the separation, by not voicing their issues with each other are not able to work through them together. Which actually just made things worse as it let their imaginations and anxieties run wild.
All of this is also conveyed in the actual written text of A Fold Apart. But it’s the game’s mechanics and pacing that help to accentuate and amplify those turbulent moments. The writing and gameplay feel as though they are working in concert toward a specific experience. It isn’t just a series of puzzles with a story about long distance relationships, but a game about communication.