When you’re in a long distance relationship with another person, how do you maintain that relationship? How can you be sure the other person feels what you think they feel for you? Can their words be enough, or will they always leave something to be desired? And who exactly do you have a relationship with? Does the other person only exist as an idea in your mind, or are they something more than that? Would things be any different if the two of you met face to face? Perhaps most important of all, does any of this even matter?
If by that last question one means, “Is there any value in exploring these topics?”, then I would say yes. The Internet and social media have become such vital fixtures of daily life that it’s become natural to maintain a large number of relationships over the Internet without a second thought. But maybe we should give this some thought. After all, social interactions in digital spaces are so strictly controlled and we’re denied so much of whoever’s on the other side that they can only exist as an idea in our minds, one fueled by whatever bits of stimulus they allow to pass through the digital curtain. Moreover, these problems aren’t inherent to relationships over the Internet. They’re still present when we talk to people in our offline lives; all the Internet does is simplify enough that the issue becomes easier to see.
By this same token, though, Crystal Confines simplifies the matter even further so it can provide some answers, or at least a starting point for finding them. On its face, this student project from developer Christy Frisby shares a lot with Ihatovo Monogatari: both are basic vignettes (or a series of them in Ihatovo’s case) that are more interested in creating a scene than in thematic exploration. Yet through versatile and reasonably thought out play and symbolism, Crystal Confines can bring insight into matters it might not have been looking at in the first place. It doesn’t believe we can know people as anything more than concepts floating around in our heads, but it does think we don’t need to know them as anything further for our relationships to have value.
To provide a basic summary of how the game works, you spend a day in the life of a young girl named Ophrey. You explore her small fairy tale hamlet. You speak to the handful of people wandering its streets. You experience moments of nostalgia and childhood innocence. And every six hours on the hour, you ascend to the town’s belfry to ring its bells. This process happens thrice before Crystal Confines unceremoniously ends.
However, while this outline applies to almost the entirety of the game, it doesn’t explain how you’re introduced to it. Instead the game begins on a duality: two objects sitting on a table, and the whole scene neatly split into blue and orange. On the left (blue) is a snow globe; on the right (orange) is an hourglass. Both are worlds unto themselves, and each one speaks to a contrasting mode of existence: the former is frozen in time while the latter is the flow of time made manifest. Neither can be complete on their own, and each holds what the other lacks, but it’s for this reason that the two can’t be reconciled: they both threaten each other’s existence. The hourglass serves as a morbid reminder that time’s inexorable march will reduce the snowglobe’s village to nothing, and the snowglobe resists that march by embodying a sense of stability the hourglass can never know for itself.
I should clarify that this is all my own interpretation based on what the title screen has to offer. Where the rest of Crystal Confines is concerned, the game is definitely aware of these points and tries to find a more positive option as early as it can. After choosing to start a new game, we’re told of a romance between two inhabitants from these worlds. From the snowglobe comes Ophrey and from the hourglass comes Galimatias (Gali for short). We’re never told how their relationship began because it’s not important to the story. What is important is how they maintain that relationship: through writing. Gali writes a signal in the sand telling Ophrey when to ring the bell (the ritual being his idea), and then she climbs the bell tower at that time to ring it. This affords both of them an opportunity to see the other.
At first glance, it would appear these two have solved the dilemma between their worlds. Ophrey gets a sense of time from Gali’s messages, and Gali gets a sense of permanence and stability from seeing the town unchanged every six hours. However, it’s important to note that what each is providing the other is an illusion of what they have: an illusion of time, an illusion of stability, etc. Furthermore, their relationship is defined less by a conscious effort to bridge the gap between their worlds as much as it by childlike naivete; one that isn’t aware it’s fighting an intractable status quo, but upends that status quo anyway in pursuit of a simple desire completely unrelated to the matter at hand. Now this can have tremendous value on its own, since it demonstrates that the present state of affairs isn’t absolute, that it can be changed if we so desire, and that it’s shockingly easy to do so.
But if this is a source of power for the characters, then there are some major limits that power has to contend with. It’s easy to spot those limits with a bit of reflection. In fact, they’re a constant source of tension throughout the game. The youthful idealism that serves as the backbone for their relationship is destined to end as Gali becomes older and therefore more distant from a lover who’s forever stuck in childhood.
Or consider the writing Ophrey contributes to their relationship. In addition to Gali’s writing in the sand, Ophrey writes her own letters to Gali. In fact, most of the game comprises collecting and reading these letters. Pouring over them, I sensed a surprising amount of emotional depth and maturity on Ophrey’s part. She’s painfully aware of the limits they face. She knows that the only thing they know about each other is that they reciprocate their love, and that although this isn’t enough to maintain a strong relationship, the divide between their worlds is so great that this is the only fact that can cross the gap. Despite knowing this, Ophrey wants more. She wants to express her feelings for Gali directly to him and make certain that their love is based in something real.
Taking an example from Gali’s book, Ophrey turns to writing. Yet what she doesn’t realize is that the nature of their worlds gives writing in each entirely different meanings. Where writing signifies an act of continual creation in the hourglass, in the snowglobe is represents preservation and stasis. Thus Ophrey’s letters force her to retreat into herself. She writes down words that can only be of value to herself; that will further ensnare her in the only world she can ever know. In trying to confess her feelings to an outside party, all she achieves is reminding herself of the insecurities she can never do away with. So is Crystal Confines just stuck with this solipsistic form of interpersonal relationships?
Yes and no. Based on what I’ve seen of the game, there isn’t anything to suggest that either Ophrey or Gali can know each other as anything more than ideas in their heads. But in its optimism, Crystal Confines thinks that idea alone is enough to give order and meaning to our otherwise dull existence. This is where the act of collecting Ophrey’s letters makes a surprising contribution. You’d think this would reveal nothing to her that she doesn’t already know, or worse, further cement her in her own insecurities. Yet the opposite happens: Ophrey finds that her life has substance it was lacking before. The world we know at the start of the game is mundane and oppressive in that everyday sense. A suffocating blue hangs in the air, like the world’s being frozen in time is a quality one can feel impressed into their very being. By contrast, collecting her own letters allows Ophrey to find purpose in her daily grind and exposes her to facets of the world she previously hadn’t considered.
This doesn’t mean she comes closer to understanding the people who populate her village. At the end of the day, the clock will reset (or rather, stay exactly where it’s always been), and all those people will remain what what they were when the game first started. However, this doesn’t mean Ophrey’s and Gali’s efforts to preserve their love must end in vain. To return to the earlier question of, “Does any of this even matter?”, I think I have to respond with no, at least if we mean, “Do these problems prevent relationships from even working?” Trying to ground those relationships in some absolute value like access to the other person (which I see all other attempts at discussing this ultimately reducing to) is a fool’s errands that will ultimately damage the very thing one seeks to protect. Crystal Confines offers an alternative: a subtle acknowledgement of the meaninglessness at the heart of such things, and a comforting nod telling us that the meaning we create for ourselves has to be enough.