Shrine for the Gods of Lost Things

Shrine for the Gods of Lost Things, by Adam Le Doux (2017)

Temples, shrines, and other sacred spots are the stuff of all our surroundings as human beings. The functions our shrines serve vary from spot to spot, belief tradition to belief tradition, and person to person, from time to time. One might visit a shrine to pray to a god or to meditate, to connect to a departed loved one or to take a rest, to attend a community festival or to make a phone call.

The tiny, 8×8 sprite for the shrine in Adam Le Doux’s short Bitsy game Shrine for the Gods of Lost Things most immediately recalls the type of small wooden or stone shrine nested into a corner of a larger Japanese religious complex, on the edge of a rice field, or on a path wandering off from a mountain forest trail. Maintained, perhaps, by an affiliated institution, a family, or no one. An essential part of many Shinto shrines large and small is the 参道 sandou, the walkway that leads to the devotional site, often lined by trees. 

Temples and shrines are also the stuff of video games, dating back to at least Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (Nintendo, 1987)–in the English localization they were called “palaces” but in Japanese they were always 神殿 shinden, a word that is most commonly translated as “temple.” By their names and often their architecture, video game temples and shrines suggest a spiritual reason for being, but that is often easy to overlook when they’re crawling with enemies, house an big bad ancient evil that must be vanquished, and/or are arranged with death traps and brain-teasing, lock-and-key puzzle mechanisms. This makes sense. What rites and observances can you expect to perform when the verbs mapped to your controller all work toward combat? Clearing out hordes of enemies from an apparently sacred space is perhaps the ultimate ritual when your character walks around with a visible sword and shield at all times.

Adam Le Doux is also the creator of Bitsy, a game creation system that is designed around conscious limitations. In an era where Construct, Godot, and Game Maker Studio ask their users to push their toolkit to technical limits to achieve nearly any kind of vision, Bitsy wants you to sit. Bitsy is like a ZZT with three colors, no ammunition, no score, no variables, and almost no scripting. Many have modified the HTML5 code that makes Bitsy games run to include features left out, but with its basic parameters, the game mechanics available to developers are essentially just moving in and between boards or rooms and touching objects to interact with them, at which point the game will display some text in a box.

Shrine for the Gods of Lost Things uses these limitations. Rather than starting you at the shrine, though, you make your way through a forest path with the option to stop and briefly interact with other forest travelers, who seem to be making use of the space for another reason than you might be. You even have the option to avoid the shrine at all. When you make it to the shrine and move toward the shrine to interact with it, the game displays in a black text box various sentences from a describing the shrine by objects suggested by “lost things,” such as “It’s a shrine dedicated to a lucky penny” and “It’s a shrine for a corrupted save file.” The distance between what’s written here suggests a breadth unwritten and your own private list of lost things might fill those gaps.

That projection is key. After all, what is the interaction your avatar is having when you observe that the shrine encompasses all these things? The text is description of the shrine, not a description any action or even a suggestion that you’re reading text written on the surface of the shrine. Like the suggestive but ambiguous low-resolution sprites and tiles that populate the game’s monochromatic Bitsy world, there is a great deal of latitude in interpreting what is happening here, all relating to your own answer to the question of what you might be doing at the Shrine for the Gods of Lost Things.

Rather than a ritual of fighting and defeating, Shrine for the Gods of Lost Things presents a ritual of movement and a productively vague concept of interaction underscored by the environment of Bitsy itself.

You can play Shrine for the Gods of Lost Things in your browser (even on your phone) for free at itch.io. You can follow Adam Le Doux on Twitter.