In my early teens I went to see a big Magritte exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London. It was a real blockbuster - there were segments about it on the BBC, and Magritte fever fairly shook London to its roots. I went with my older brother Paul who loved Magritte. It was an incredible experience, so much Magritte in one space: bowler hats, apples, pipes. I was delighted and unnerved, both at once, both sensation feeding the other. It remains one of my primal experiences of art.
Delighted and unnerved. I alway bring that heightened combination of emotions to Vectorpark, whose classic puzzle-adventure-thingy Windosill has just landed on Switch. I bring this combination of emotions even though Magritte is, I suspect, only one of the influences at work. Vectorpark, also known as Patrick Smith, makes playfully unsettling toys. In his back catalogue, alongside Windosill, which I promise we'll get to in a bit, there's an alphabet toy in which you can play the ribs of a living creature like a xylophone. There's a sandcastle toy that takes exactly no words and only a few seconds of your day to remind you that all is vanity. Vectorpark's stuff is always a surprise, but somehow it's always coherent too. I play it and through my bedazzlement I still find myself saying: of course!
If you'd asked me a while back, I would have told you I place Vectorpark stuff on a continuum between Magritte and someone like Gaudi. You have that sort of matter-of-fact juxtaposition of elements that are rarely juxtaposed elsewhere that you get from Magritte - the world up-ended with a nod and a shrug. And you get that mixture of the animate and the inanimate, that question of whether something is ceramics or anatomy, say, that I associate with Gaudi, who would make a cathedral from the spine of a whale if he was so moved.
If you asked me that question today, I might say something a bit different.
For one thing, I've been reading a book on Breugel recently, as well as playing Pentiment for review, and I have medieval art in my mind. I look at Windosill in particularly, with its beehive towers and its strange fauna and I'm suddenly reminded of Breugel's Babel or the bizarre fauna of something like the Voynich Manuscript. I'd never seen this in Windosill before, but in its endless surprises and twists, in its collection of unusual pieces - a pipe, a wheel, a lobster crawl - it could almost be culled from the illustrated margins of some wonderfully handwritten book of hours.
But for another thing, this playthrough of Windosill on Switch was like no other time I'd played it. That's because I didn't play it alone.
I should go back a bit. Windosill was originally a Flash game. It's a series of puzzle rooms, if you really want to reduce it to basics. You have to move a little cart with wheels through one room after the next, unlocking each door by finding a white cube and slotting it into the wall like a key. Each room, though, is a reminder that a game like this cannot be reduced to basics. It is wild! In one room an ocean may churn away with strange items being offered up by the waves. In another a bowling ball might hang in the sky, orbited by a smaller bowling ball.
You proceed by fiddling with things - grabbing stuff, setting it in motion, seeing what the individual elements of the current room do and then working out what they might do together, or in some kind of sequence. I love this, and in the past I've found Windosill to be a game of quiet, solitary thrills. But with the Switch, you can play it as a co-op game, two players, one Joy-Con each, grabbing things, activating them, working together and working separately.
I played through it the other night with my daughter, who is nine. I wanted to show her a game that I've always found to be delicate and clever, but when we played it together it became something completely new. Co-op Windosill, particularly with someone you know well, becomes a knockabout thing of triumph and accident. We'd both grab for the same item in a room, or we'd knock the item out of play by mistake. We'd spend whole minutes planning complicated moves and then see them frustrated by clumsiness or poor communication. Reader, it is marvelous.
My daughter doesn't know much about Magritte or Breugel to her eternal credit, but she understood inherently what Windosill is: a collection of haunted objects, hand-picked and curated and as likely to confound beautifully as illuminate. She cheered when we got the door to a room open, but she cheered when we didn't. There are so many moments of incidental delight in this game - where a shell opens and coloured insects swarm out, where Part A fits suddenly on Part B. Discovering them together, by accident rather than delight, allowed us to really enjoy each one fully.
One of the things I really love about Vectorpark's stuff is that it's incredibly hard for me to write about. I never feel like I've done it properly. To reduce it to what I suspect are influences - Magritte, Gaudi, Voynich - always feels worse than a cop-out. It feels like I'm missing the real beauty here, the real singular invention, because I lack the vocabulary to describe it without likening it to something else.
But there's a moment at the end of Windosill which makes me want to work harder. Not to spoil anything, but the door to the last room in Windosill does not work like the others. I saw it this time as a suggestion that perhaps you take your influences and then you find a way to transcend them, to escape into stuff that is purely yours. I wonder what I would have made of Windosill when I was young and wandering around Magritte with my older brother. I wonder what my daughter made of it yesterday.