Draft of the main character in two versions, courtesy Optillusion

Dialogue with the Unknown: an Interview with Optillusion about Their Game WADE

July 21 2022

The first of a series of interviews with the protagonists of Game Collection Vol. 2, curated by Pietro Righi Riva, presented on the occasion of the 23rd International Exhibition. Giulia Trincardi interviewed Yijia Chen and Dong Zhou from Optillusion.

Much of the discussion about our present-day life is focused on space and how it is defined. The pandemic has forced many people to re-think the function of the home from scratch, and to seek to experience nature in a new way as a space in direct contrast to the city. Moreover, our daily lives are immersed in the virtual space generated by social media, emails, video games and augmented reality apps, in an overlapping of areas that is actively altering the economy in private and public spheres, and generating new unregulated forms of ownership of spaces.

While we may talk a lot about space, the actual act of moving from one place to another is often overlooked—as though the setting of boundaries inevitably excludes the experience of any kind of passageway. And yet, mythology, religion and philosophy—all fields that ask questions in their different ways about the place beyond life—have always emphasized the actual passing over itself: death not as a space but as a wade, as a process of encounter with the unknowable.

As part of the 23rd International Exhibition Unknown Unknowns. An Introduction to Mysteries, with the second edition of Game Collection, curated by Pietro Righi Riva, Triennale Milano is presenting the interactive work WADE, designed by the Optillusion game design studio. The game chooses to explore that metaphysical interspace generated by passing beyond, imagining it as a “topsy-turvy" world that is simultaneously unknown, familiar and surreal. It has a mysterious river flowing through it, in the opposite direction to that which the character (and hence also the audience) needs to go in, and they find themselves going deeper and deeper into the river.

WADE does not have any text, but asks the audience to interact with its elements in a purely exploratory and intuitive way—freeing them from the illusory safety of an instruction manual.

We spoke with Yijia Chen and Dong Zhou—respectively 3D artist and game designer at Optillusion, where they work with programmer Chen Mi—about how WADE came about, about religion and what “unknown” means for them, and about the limits and freedoms that are intrinsic to interactivity.


Courtesy Optillusion

Thanks for joining: it's a pleasure to meet you. The theme of the second Game Collection is Unknown Unknowns. What was your reaction on being invited to take part in the Collection and what does “unknown” mean for you?

Dong: We both felt absolutely thrilled to get the invitation. As for how we interpret the concept of Unknown Unknowns, we think that there are two kinds of unknown: one is external, “above” us—in other words, the universe and the world out there, spaces that humanity has always desired to explore in order to discover its mysteries. The other is internal, inside our minds. So yes, the unknown has two aspects to it.

Yijia: With WADE, we started by considering different religions [and their relationship with the unknown]. Many religions talk in some way about reincarnation or rebirth into a new life after death, and death is the ultimate unknown, because we never experience it in life and none of us can describe the experience of death—so for every human being this is the unknown in the most absolute sense. Obviously the sky is to a certain extent unknown, but we can still fly there and the same is true for space: one day, it's quite plausible that we will leave the earth to go elsewhere. But death, or what comes after death, will remain unknowable for ever.

What was the creative process that led to WADE?

Dong: For us, everything always starts with an idea, with a stream of consciousness discussion. We wanted to combine these two concepts of the unknown: the one linked to space and the one linked to the mind. In China, there's a term 'huangquan' which indicates “the afterlife” as a natural space. This was the idea we started with, and that's why we put our character in a river.
Obviously, it was also important to think about the type of interaction, the mechanics of the game. We devoted a lot of time to designing it, and made a lot of different attempts; video games are different from other media because they allow people to interact with something and for us it's important to let people understand by themselves how to interact with what we do.

The limits of a particular platform help to determine the game itself, in a sense: what you can do on a mobile device is different from what you can do on a joypad with lots of buttons, but I imagine that's also part of the creative process.

Dong: Absolutely! Given that the Game Collection app is available on mobiles, there are specific actions that you can perform—such as dragging an object, or horizontal scrolling. But irrespective of that, our main aim was to give people the freedom to be intuitive, without giving them instructions.

Yijia: And that's why we also chose not to include any explicit words or text in the game. In many cultures there is a concept of “the afterlife” that may have different names, but that always has a divinity that rules it and a river flowing through it. Huangquan (黄泉) means “yellow river” in Chinese, or more precisely, “yellow spring”, but at any rate it indicates a river which the dead must reach and cross. It is an image that you find all round the world: take the Styx in Greek mythology, for example. Everyone will have heard at least one story like that of the afterlife, so it is a recurrent element in the collective imagination about what death may be like.
The process of deciding on the mechanics of the interaction was interesting, partly because we had initially thought of doing it so that every swipe on the screen would correspond to a single movement. Then we changed our minds, because we realized that it risked being too frustrating for some people, that it would be an interaction that was difficult to control. So we decided to simplify it.

Dong: Yes, it would have been really hard.

Well, life is hard, after all.

Yijia: Yes, it would have been a last slog before the start of a new life.

WADE is a strange walk through a non-place full of floating objects, and you go through it in the role of a character whose face you don't see. Where did that idea come from?

Dong: It was mainly a decision aimed at making the experience more immersive. In many cases, if the character has a face, it isn't so easy to identify with them. But if they don't have a face, you automatically imagine that it's you. We wanted to leave room for people to imagine: maybe it's me, maybe it's something strange. People immediately become curious about the character's appearance, and wonder what they look like, but actually you find out at the end of the game: when you enter the water entirely, just before, you can turn round and see your face: it's the face of a fish. We wanted to create this surprise.

Yijia: You can turn round in the last few moments of the game and see the character's face. I don't know why we chose the head of a fish: it could have been something else, but the fish was our first thought—and we liked the idea very much.

Draft of the character's journey, with indications of the movement. Courtesy Optillusion.

I'm curious about the hands that appear in the game. What was it that led to that?

Yijia: It's a reference to Anubis, from Egyptian mythology. At that point, the gameplay asks the player to balance the weight of the feathers against the character—as in Egyptian mythology, when the heart of a dead person would be placed on the scales so that Anubis could weigh it. That's what the hands are.

Dong: I just want to add that the hands you see in the game are Yijia's hands.


Yijia: Yes, they really are my hands! I made a model: I took a photo of the skin on my hands and I used it on the model. They're my hands: I'm the god who weighs your sins!

That's one of the advantages of being the game designer after all! You're kind of like the god of the world that you create.

Yijia: Yes, that's true!

Draft of the character's journey, with Yijia's hands lifting the character up, inspired by the god Anubis in Egyptian mythology. Courtesy Optillusion.

Looking at the trailer for Moncage, the game that you designed earlier, I noted something it has in common with WADE: suspension, with objects floating as if there was no gravity. What does suspension represent, from the point of view of the design and narration?

Yijia: Suspension means breaking the equilibrium. It means freedom. Moncage describes breaking out of a cage and finding freedom; suspension means that we are just one step away from freedom, and that we are very close to liberating ourselves.

But it's not the same in WADE, is it?

Yijia: In WADE, the suspension occurs in water: it's linked to following the current. You're in a river and you're walking, following the current, towards the inevitable: the suspended floating in WADE is more linked to the idea of going “wherever the current takes you”.  In Moncage, suspension is equivalent to freeing yourself from gravity, whereas in WADE there's always an invisible force that pushes you forward.

Draft of the final part of the character's journey, in a black and white setting reminiscent of deep space. Courtesy Optillusion.

Do you believe that the absence of gravity—which is basically what we experience when we're in water—is intrinsically melancholic?

Yijia: Yes, in a way. For most of the time, we have our feet planted on the ground. The earth supports us, the earth is our home and gravity keeps us here. When gravity disappears, we achieve greater freedom, but actually there is no longer anything to keep us anchored to the home that we know. It's a one-way ticket: if we achieve freedom, we can't go back again.

A 20th century Italian writer, Giovanni Verga, talks about something similar in his books: he describes how an oyster, once it has detached from its rock, cannot re-attach itself to the rock again.

Yijia: Exactly. And that's the sad thing about the process. Once we free ourselves, we can't go back.

There are some glitches with the WADE character every so often, when it appears wearing a space suit. Why did you decide to do that?

Dong: The choice of the space suit is linked to the last part of the game, the part in black and white that evokes space, where the character appears dressed as an astronaut. With the glitches in the first part, we just wanted to give the audience a preview of that last bit: an echo.

But as you said earlier, you don't think that space is the final unknown, do you?

Dong: No that's right. For us, the final unknown isn't space, it's the mind. People can imagine the whole universe, and they can imagine beyond the universe, too; so the interior of the mind is the real final unknown, because in a way, it contains and is bigger than the universe. Also we know virtually nothing about the human mind. It's true that the universe is enormous—infinite!—but we are learning to understand parts of it, through formulas and hypotheses, and to guess and to find confirmations in our calculations. But we can't guess how the human mind works — that's the real unknown.

On the other hand, some people say that the whole universe is a simulation created by our own minds, don't they?

Yijia: Aha, exactly! It's perfectly possible that that's how it is! And in that case, the universe would be just one of the possible explanations of our consciousness. But the point is that we can't imagine things that we don't know, and nor can we know if we really know something — so for us, the final unknown is we ourselves, because often we don't know what's really happening.

We hardly ever know what's happening.

Yijia: Yes, that's true. Hardly ever.

Draft of the last part of the character's journey, with indications of the interaction. Courtesy Optillusion

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