10 Beautiful Postcards Review
Anna Anthropy, the game developer and critic defined a game as “an experience created by rules”. She’s the first to admit this is a pretty broad definition, but it’s one that I kept coming back to playing Stephen Gillmurphy’s 10 Beautiful Postcards. This game is certainly an experience created by rules, the rules being you can move up, down, left and right across a mostly flat plane. You can enter and exit through doors and people and objects will interact with you when you’re nearby. And that’s about it. The rest is up to you, including where you go and in what order: whether you track down all ten beautiful postcards hidden throughout the game or just spend a few minutes poking about, will all determine your experience with the game.
You control Pesky, a squat little creature who’s been sent to explore a hotel, its floors and surrounding locations. Why exactly, isn’t entirely clear, are you performing an inspection or just trying to get away from it all? Gillmurphy describes 10 Beautiful Postcards as, “a funny game for your computer in which you navigate flat planes of exciting content which are parsed as doors and windows of a fabulous hotel. the [sic] brain flattened across a computer screen turns into a postcard which you can send to yourself.” Imagine the original Zelda (minus the monsters) meets art school absurdist comedy with a dash cultural commentary. Imagine a game where the treasure is the experiences you make along the way. It’s apt then that postcards are at the centre, because what are postcards but a memento of a visit, something you send to a loved one or keep for yourself to remember a location or image. 10 Beautiful Postcards is not so much a game but a way of remembering an experience of a game.
The postcards you can collect are huge, taking up more than a whole screen and appear to be filched from real life and then scribbled over or repurposed. But they weren’t the only memento I gathered, I also spent a lot time taking screenshots as I explored, not just for the purpose of this review but to remember a funny character quip or a particularly beautiful area. 10 Beautiful Postcards encourages you to chart your progress since your decisions create a unique pathway through the game. You can explore every corner you can find or zip through every room as fast as you can, or even spend all your time in the doodle park mucking about. The game is ambivalent either way. This nonlinearity, like a choose-your-own-adventure story or interactive fiction, gives over the narrative to the player and allows you to decide what kind of experience you want from the game. There is no win-state or goal, you can play for as long or as little as you like.
By flattening the sphere of play you’re free to wander off-screen or “out of bounds” with little regard for perspective. It’s surprisingly freeing, like navigating a painting by the folk artist Alfred Wallis or a Hannah Höch collage. The art style is a joyful mix of real-world clay sculpture and watercolour-washes collaged with digital assets and 90s text box pop-ups. The whole game reads like one giant détournement: a fancy way of describing the practice of subverting existing artworks or adverts by collaging ontop or adding your own drawings, often to satirise capitalist messaging or media itself. It’s like when you were a kid and you drew moustaches and eye-patches over the glossy adverts in the Sunday supplement. 10 Beautiful Postcards has a sarcastic, satirising edge to it, there are comments on capitalism and consumerism to be found throughout the hotel from its strange cults to its poor office workers. As in much of Gillmurphy’s games there are parodies of video game tropes and language to be found — a knowing internet-aged humour that we’ve seen this all before and know better now. There’s even a self-aware jab at the developer himself for the trend of reusing art assets.
What the experience of playing 10 Beautiful Postcards reminds me of most is not other games, but of wandering around a museum gallery. The confusing layout, dead-ends and circling back on yourself is familiar to anyone who has spent a day lost in the British Museum or MoMA. There is the same sense of discovery as you bounce from room to room, not knowing if the next thing around the corner will amuse, captivate or bore you. Thankfully there’s little to bore you here. The more you explore its rooms the more you want to discover, keen to see what surprise the next space will throw up, what new interesting design Gillmurphy has created for you. There are endless small quips and jokes in each room: like a character who hates people who are “always on brand” or a “fact” about Matisse being the inventor of tiling HTML layouts. It has a great capacity to surprise, like the first time the perspective shifts to 3D or suddenly being captured and put in a creature’s pocket — frequent surrealist turns that hold your attention.
My favourite way to play 10 Beautiful Postcards was to jump through the “random door” on the title screen. Unsurprisingly it catapults you to a random location on the huge map. Sometimes this led me to a new place and new postcards, other times I’d emerge through a door to discover a hub point I’d already visited and get that flash of recognition and understanding of how the flat planes connected to one another. Sometimes I got gloriously lost, not knowing if I was on the road less travelled, but happy to be there anyway and ready to send back a postcard if I reached my destination. This is a game that wears its artistic and aesthetic influences on its sleeve but also isn’t afraid to take that sleeve and rip it up for a good joke. Gillmurphy set out to make a “funny game for your computer” and in that he has succeeded, offering a truly unique experience created by a set of amusing rules.