The Librarian is a game that feels like a poem

The CIA made a Magic: The Gathering-style card game for training agents, and we played it

Last year during SXSW, the CIA revealed that it designs elaborate tabletop games to train and test its employees and analysts. After receiving a Freedom of Information Act request, the CIA sent out censored information on three different games it uses with trainees — and thanks to Diegetic Games, an adapted version of one of them will soon be available to the public.

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When presented with different points of information, the human brain naturally tries to fill in the gaps. A number of games take advantage of this, like indie game Gone Home. When you start the game you enter a massive home only knowing that your family lives there, and that they mysteriously aren’t there. The rest of the experience is spent piecing together why everyone is gone, based on what information you find both out in the open and hidden throughout the house. It uses these gaps in your understanding to engage the player by creating a thriller-like mystery atmosphere that appeals to the desire to fill in those knowledge gaps.

Octavi Navarro’s The Librarian is a bit like Gone Home in this respect, but mashed together with a classic LucasArts point-and-click adventure game like Maniac Mansion or Monkey Island. (Navarro actually worked as an artist on Thimbleweed Park, a classic-style adventure game from Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert.) It starts with the words “something’s wrong in the library,” scrawled on a note. It’s the only narrative text that appears in the whole game. The rest of your understanding about what’s happening is gleaned from the art and architecture of the game’s environments, the puzzles, and the items you find and use to solve those puzzles. And even with all of that, there still isn’t much explanation to as to what is going on.

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Early on, you find a dried up corpse near the front door of the library, and when you mouse over them it says, “former librarian.” This raises a number of questions. Did the former librarian send the note you received at the beginning of the game? How long has it been since they died? What or who killed them? The game doesn’t actually provide explicit answers to any of these questions, but constantly creates these moments of uncertainty and curiosity.

But it still manages to work. Everything that happens is a new clue about what this library is and what’s going on. Instead of a traditional straightforward narrative, the story is something of a puzzle. But because there is so little to go on, it becomes kind of meditative; all your energy and concentration are focused on trying to figure out something that has no real solution. If the game were longer this might become frustrating, but as it only takes about 30 minutes to finish, the concept doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Despite its aesthetics, the experience feels less like an adventure game, and more like the video game equivalent of a poem. The Librarian uses the structure of a game to evoke emotions and ideas the way a poem does with the structures of written language. I’m not sure if this poetic structure was intentional, but playing the game has been a good reminder of how young video games are as a medium. We’re still a long way from completely understanding the different forms the medium takes — and it’s exciting to watch it develop as we start to figure out what games can do.

The Librarian was created by Octavi Navarro. You can get it on for pay what you want (Windows, and Mac OS). It takes about half an hour to finish.

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