Defining 0°N 0°W is a difficult task. The easy approach would be to label the title as a psychedelic walking simulator, but such simplicity negates what 0°N 0°W is trying to say as a video game. The phrase walking simulator, too, has become something of a loaded term in the video game canon. Critics of the descriptor typically fall into two schools of thought: those who attack the genre tag as an excuse to short-change the medium’s shift to narrative-focused video games and those who refuse to place walking simulators in the video game bracket at all. 0°N 0°W, the debut game from Colorfiction, manages to deconstruct the newly established tropes of the walking simulator genre by totally embedding itself in its maximalist art style. The project’s directionless design translates to a title that, ironically, defines itself through its refusal to be defined.
0°N0°W opens not as a video game, but as a film. The first two minutes of the title is a film, depicting a man as he drives through most of the United States in his car. The cinematic has a large focus on the U.S.’s cities, which is a theme carried on later by the game’s uncanny architectural landscapes. The cinematic then blends into gameplay, where the player walks into a neon-drenched theatre, alone, and steps through a door into the world of 0°N 0°W. After that, the game is procedurally generated, with no real goal in sight. The player is presented with a seemingly infinite number of doors, both literally and figuratively. After the player opens a door of their choice, they enter 0°N 0°W’s dimension-defying landscapes and wide-open possibilities.
The levels are polarising, varied, and downright schizophrenic in their designs. Visually, the game is stunning, yet its greatest achievement is that it looks completely original in an indie market flooded with homogenised art styles. Many of the worlds are a mimicry of western cities and architectures, acutely re-imagined and re-formed under a blanket of colour. Echoes of cities can be found in even the most volatile of 0N 0W’s worlds, and they appear as labyrinthine and organic as real cities. That each level is surprising, vibrant, and original certainly helps; the levels are great fun to explore on a basic, aesthetically engaging level.
The gameplay lacks purpose, but the art style does not. The foundation of 0°N 0°W’s art is a meditation on how players interpret space, design, and architecture within video games. The art does not just exist to delight, but to force players to think about how they interact with video games as a space. A deeper question is also present: on how players, as a market, engage with traditional video game goals and tropes. The goal, if one exists, is to navigate throughout the level until the player find a door, object, or the edge of the map which teleports players to another world. While some structure to how each level flows into each other is present, with certain levels having a similar artistic theme to others, for most of the game the player’s path is wholly tailored to their choices.
0°N 0°W is a total rejection of linear progression, opting for the opposite of what single-player games have been offering recently. The best part of 0°N 0°W is the game’s reconciliation of maximalist art with minimalist design choices.0°N 0°W’s carefree ignorance of the player’s expectations is as artistically mature as it is childlike, but this ignorance leads to moments where the game feels unfocused and tiring.
The closest comparison to 0°N 0°W is the cult classic LSD: Dream Emulator, a PlayStation title from 1998. 0°N 0°W’s gameplay and thematic concerns are remarkably similar to LSD, with each title acting as a response to contemporaries in their industry. What is most surprising about 0°N 0°W’s relation to LSD is the artistic similarities in their indefinable styles. However, 0°N 0°W lacks much of the charm that made LSD so great, which is symptomatic of the wider issue regarding repetition within the game. 0°N 0°W’s random and seemingly endless dimensions of worlds can become tiring as player choice and agency lacks motivation. LSD, for example, offset its lack of goals with creepiness and cult appeal, yet 0°N 0°W makes its art style too paramount at the expense of engagement. Lack of purpose eventually catches up to 0°N 0°W, which kills any sense of longevity the project may have.
Whilst most of the worlds are visually interesting, they feel empty and, at times, unfinished. The game’s hollow level design is made worse by the fact that certain levels seem to appear over and over, making the game feel a lot smaller in scope than it should. At the worst of times, 0°N 0°W feels like a glorified tech demo or art installation. The artistic depth of the game is not enough to make it a worthwhile interactive experience alone. The style ultimately makes 0°N 0°W special, but the project’s fragmented design choices can leave it feeling oddly anaemic.
A market for experiences like this one exists, though. Whilst this statement may feel like a cop out, 0°N 0°W is not for everyone, but it will appeal massively to a gamer who values non-traditional experiences. Positive aspects can be found in the project’s ambition, sound design, and overall cohesion, yet certain players may feel scuppered by the lack of purpose.
The fundamental question 0°N 0°W posits is ‘how much direction does one really need to enjoy a video game?’ The rainbowed reality of 0°N 0°W provides no answer, but the suggestion that the art form is being limited by its own definitions of what defines a game lingers.