In 2014, Markus “Notch” Persson created something both hard-hitting and powerful using only text-based visuals. The game he made was named ‘Drowning in Problems’. It has received little attention since its release, and with an increasingly saturated game market that leaves behind any game without photo-realistic graphics and a high-end game engine, it most likely won’t gain much attention in the future. I want to remedy that.
Disclaimer: The game is best played without any prior knowledge of what will happen, if you want the best experience, play it here.
Notch will certainly be known for his other release, Minecraft, which is one of the most popular games ever made. However, it could also be seen that although his block-based game is worth billions, it was very much the predecessor that would lead to Drowning in Problems.
Minecraft and Drowning in Problems share a rare integral theme amongst games; there is no end-goal. In both games it is up to the player to define how the game should be played, with no obvious way to win. Minecraft does, however, carry a positive, light-hearted and family friendly feel of a game without a goal, giving the player absolute freedom to explore, create and live as they please, the same certainly cannot be said for Drowning in Problems.
Drowning in Problems confines the players’ decision-making to only a handful of pre-written problems at any one time, each problem showcasing a different aspect of human misery.
Drowning in problems begins with one line of text on the screen: ‘There is nothing. Solve.’ Upon hitting the solve button, the game creates many more problems to solve in a click, from ‘You need to learn’ to much more macabre problems showing an entire life and subsequently that life’s death. The entire game takes place in under 20 minutes depending on your speed, but can leave you thinking about its message for hours. In pure text form, the game forces you to create a life, live a life and ultimately deal with the inevitable reality of death, with one of the last problems before the game restarts at a slower pace being ‘you are forgotten’.
This game is arguably a part of the ever-growing movement of existentialism, promoting a type of ‘cultural nihilism’ in which a person rejects the widely held beliefs of their society, whether that be the economic system, philosophy or core ideas central to a successful life. In favour of a realisation that at our core, humans have no purpose.
By boiling the challenges and issues faced by us all down to simple text-based choices, it gives the nihilistic perspective we need to realise the absurdity of it all, perfectly demonstrating what angry teenage nihilists everywhere are trying to explain about why they scrawled God is Dead on their desk at school.
Although it could be taken as a philosophical statement, the game can be seen as merely an insight into the mind of an isolated man, and a picture of what his outlook is. In 2015, the year after Drowning in Problems was released, Notch tweeted that he has ”never felt more isolated” and that
“the problem with getting everything is you run out of reasons to keep trying”. It is very possible that Drowning in Problems should have been an early warning to display Notch’s mental health, and the isolation that has followed his success.
Ironically, many of those who play the game go all the way through and dismiss it as pointless, lacking in any real substance. For the rest of us, it remains a hidden gem in the world of gaming, showing the industry you don’t need ultra-realistic graphics, a highly-paid team of designers and award-winning writers to build a game that has real emotion. In a few lines of text and one of the simplest game mechanics possible Notch has made players deal with the weight of an entire life in a simple, concise and deeply troubling fashion.