Exhibition is a game of absences. It has no plot. It also has no puzzles, at least not in the way we’re used to thinking about puzzles. There are no takeable objects whatsoever in the game, and most of the action consists of standing around examining things. What it does not lack, however, is quality. It’s a masterwork of storytelling, creating a spellbinding narrative from spaces inbetween. I loved it. The story takes place at an art exhibition, the final show of a painter named Anatoly Domokov, who committed suicide shortly before the show opened. The only thing to do is stand around and look at the show’s twelve paintings, but devoid though it is of traditional action, the exhibition has psychological action galore. The player may view the paintings from one of four viewpoints: the wife of the dead artist, a critic, a twenty-year-old man, or a student. Although we can see (via HTML TADS image embedding) a drawing of each character, we do not see the paintings. Instead, each character describes each painting in magnificently written paragraphs, and in doing so tells as a little about the painting, and quite a bit more about themselves, usually unintentionally. The absence of the paintings is just another example of the way Exhibition tells us its most revealing secrets by what it chooses not to include.
Like last year’s winner Photopia, Exhibition is all about someone whom the player never controls. Unlike Photopia, this game goes one step further: we never even see Anatoly at any point in the game. Instead, what we get are descriptions of his works, sometimes mixed in with anecdotes about him when the work is being viewed by someone who knew or met him. With each description from each viewpoint, we get another piece of the puzzle. All the pieces fit together like a jigsaw, but they do not form a clear portrait of the artist. Instead, like a frame around his outline, they define his shape, each moving from a different direction to collide with one of his boundaries, and sometimes with each other too. At the end of the game, we know Anatoly’s form, but only obliquely, filtered through the very individual perceptions of each viewer.
In the bargain, we are granted insight into his art, his loved ones, his disposition, and his culture, but all these insights are lines around a central emptiness, an absence reflected in the artist’s final painting, “Iscariot.” The painting, in the words of the critic, is “a simple desert landscape with a frayed noose hanging empty on a gnarled tree and a scrawny goat searching in its shadow.” Anatoly hanged himself, and was found next to this completed painting. Each character offers an interpretation of the empty noose (as well as its grisly companion), and each interpretation gives us a piece of the truth. The author notes that, in part, Exhibition aspires to be “an experiment in how tales are told and the inevitable gap between the teller and the audience.” It is by shining its light through these gaps that the game so sublimely illuminates and limns its subject.
Unexpectedly enough, this collection of descriptions is a puzzle, though certainly not in the tradition of most IF puzzles. It is up to the player to create that outline, to put the pieces together so that one viewer’s comments clarify those of another viewer, and both together sharpen the focus on Anatoly’s silhouette. Even the shape of the gallery itself, walls around a space, contributes to the developing portrait. Exhibition makes the process of deduction easier with its stellar production values. In the reams of text presented by the game, I found not one grammar or spelling error. I didn’t find a single bug either, though the game’s design is admittedly simple as far as programming is concerned. These virtues by themselves give me great pleasure, but what made the game a true joy to play was its wonderful writing. As an exercise in character and viewpoint, Exhibition is an impressive performance. As storytelling, it is mesmerizing. Exhibition may be a game of absences with death at its core, but like the stories it tells, it wields a power far greater than the sum of its parts.