Oscillating between routine and the sensations induced by narcotics, a group of friends navigates an urban space populated with grotesque figures, figures both blasé and teetering on the edge of a precipice. A working visit to a flower farm in Hawaii, an almost mystic virtual experience, the unknown world of an old folks’ home, and a storytelling session fuelled by chemical mental stimulants are just a few of the points at which the characters intersect. Effervescent, surprising, hallucinatory, Herbarium tells the story of the search for intense experiences and, once they have been found, the need to share them with somebody.
It’s not the first time I’ve played Journey. My character is a figure dressed in a painstakingly woven white robe fringed with gold thread. His face is hidden in the shadow of the hood. All you can see are his eyes: a thin streak, glowing green in the darkness. A scarf flutters behind his robe. I have to cross the desert and climb a mountain.
At the top, after I complete all the levels, if luck is on my side, I’ll merge with the divine light that erupts from the bowels of the mountain. Here and there, I discover the vestiges of an ancient civilisation, signalled by strips of cloth frozen in the air, their colours dulled by the passing millennia. I release a cry that sounds like the tinkle of a bell and the dust is shaken from the strips of cloth, they take on new life. Their brilliance is transferred to me. I am all sparks, around me is a whirling swarm of lights. I receive energy from the strips of cloth painted with glowing runes and this allows me to fly. The more I interact with the vestiges of the ancient civilisation, the longer my scarf becomes. That means I’ll be able to fly longer and longer distances.
Some of the vestiges prove to be the skeletons of ruthless dragons that shoot death rays from their mouths and if I’m not careful, they can sap my energy and skills. On the way, I also meet other characters, but I don’t know their names. We communicate with each other by crystalline cries, which materialise in the air for an instant in the form of runes. When we touch, particles and then rays of light form between us. We envelop ourselves in light, and the more we touch, the more prepared we are to brave the sandstorms and the cold that drain our powers. After an embrace, our scarves shine, ready for flight.
This game is a bit gay, I know, it’s as if two autistic hipsters decided one day to brave the crowds in the centre of town. In the psychic wind, their long scarves flutter behind them like the train of a robe. They stop in every passageway to catch their breath. They light a cigarette. The wind blows on the glowing tips, produces showers of sparks. But that part of it isn’t all that important. It’s just the style of the period. It works precisely because it captures the essence of contact with the world and others. To bring the past to life, it’s enough to ring your inner bell. To hear the other person’s inner bell, it’s enough to ring yours. A plain sound, sometimes long, sometimes short, it’s all the language you need. In the real world, people have so many defence mechanisms, so many contradictory desires and moods, they act blindly so often that it’s hard to find a window to shed a clear light on it all.
The characters who accompany me on certain levels are always different. The one who is now helping me to build a tower in the Moorish style, with windows full of arabesques, gives me a strange feeling of security. His style, even his robe, which has a rich pattern of figs and other oriental fruits embroidered in gold thread, reminds me of the Philosopher and something that happened at the seaside. We were lying in the sun, just the two of us, the others had gone to fetch beer. I can’t remember what we had been talking about before that. Neither of us said a word, although in the first few moments, I was tempted to take advantage of the others’ absence to talk more privately. But from the way he was breathing, I could tell he wasn’t prepared for it. That he felt perfect the way he was. I got the clear feeling that he had reached some conclusion that he was savouring to the fullest, applying it to the world around him. Its mechanisms lay beneath the auspices of a set of satisfying concepts. And something in his body language invited me to do likewise. It didn’t matter how; by my own methods and powers.
Now there’s a cutscene. I’ve successfully completed the level, my path through the tower is suggested by a two-dimensional scene reproduced on a wall-hanging. In the next level, my companion has a red robe. She moves like a fox. Gabi moves like that, too, she walks on ahead, then suddenly turns around to wait for you with a smile on her face. When she’s in a good mood, she’s generous. With infinite patience, she waits for you exhaust all your overstatements. She does something so unexpected that you forget all your frustrations. Once, when I was ranting about some of the aesthetic choices made by the directors of the New Wave, she reacted by paraphrasing a child. She’d seen a video on the net. Different children were asked to think about the inequalities of adult life. At the end, the children draw their conclusions. One of them said that when he grew up, he would make changes, if he still remembered. That’s what I’m like: I’ll make better aesthetic choices, if I still remember when I grow up.
There’s a cutscene in the game featuring all the characters you’re going to react with. They stand around you in a circle, much taller than you. They look like sages of old. Their song is very nice. Sometimes I imagine that we are they. The Hacker, the Writer, the Philosopher, Gabi, and I. That vibe, created by the sounds we emit, draws the others. Even if there are also other reasons why they’re here, they can be regarded as superficial and can therefore be ignored. The most interesting people on the local scene gravitate to us, each displays his quirks on the living-room table. On my glass table, experiments take place, crystals proliferate, like in a Vladislav Delay video. I take an active part in the town’s cultural life. My house is there, one of the high ends, a hotspot of the metropolis. It displays its quirks and creates an artwork out of them. Without pretensions, without the glamour that almost every creator pastes on top, all alone, working responsibly, lucidly, with his mind on the target. Glamour, the aesthetic lubricant over which the consumer’s mind and senses can hardly wait to slither.
The characters guide me beneath arches buried in the dunes, we slide on the amber-coloured sand lit up by the dying rays of the sun. The serenity of the mountain envelops us; the only sound is the swishing of the sand under the soles of our feet. I feel a therapeutic effect. Everything comes together and drifts apart without anybody trying to salvage anything. Nights squandered without regret. Because we charge each other with energy and that’s all that matters. I’m good to everybody, I take untold care to be good to everybody. A chemical warmth envelops us, waves of endorphin wash through our viscera. The brain too immerses itself in good hormones. We glide over the amber-coloured sand, we pass the nail back and forth between us, our faces light up, we feel good. We are so carried away that we might happily live under the syntagma of the divine glow-worm. The levels are rapidly left behind, in accordance with a given ritual. We are on the pinnacle, and they stand around me.
I never die. At worst, I simply let myself fall from a great height. After a long while, I find myself suspended in a white space. I instinctively know that it is a cloud. I discover the terminals in the mist, signalled by elongated, flame-like bulbs. I transform the mist into a violaceous cotton wool. I am shown clues. They tell me that this place is a cloud of biological data, collected from the entire universe. After countless attempts, I manage to assemble all kinds of chimerical creatures, randomly combining billions and billions of the life parameters to be found in the universe. I study the chimeras, I interact with them until I discover an unexpected anatomical or physiological detail, something that makes me freeze with dread. I’m on the pinnacle again; they have brought me back.
I have a really cool girl now, Bonita Applebaum. She flits around the room all night, she has reflective stripes down her yoga pants. If I move close to her and touch her, I can feel the elasticity of her body. She doesn’t stay still for more than a few minutes at a time. Those minutes are very intense. A girl whose major existential problem is not to bore or get bored. And for that, she’d be capable of joining absolutely any artistic, social or political cause. Her intensity brings veracity. You have to believe in her. Or not. Whatever you do, she acts the same. And all this repeats itself ad infinitum. The lads come around every evening. The same as in the game, the helpers will guide you through the most convoluted labyrinths. The first level: you reach the shelter in the mountains. The second: you reach the metro station. And so on, in the rarefied air of the mountain ridges. Hippy gliders, artistic realism, magnificent crevasses. Bonita Applebaum, in a bathrobe and boxer shorts, with her hair in a ponytail. Wet, smelling of balsam.
During the game, I only rarely get lost. An inimical force holds me back, I press the controls, nothing happens. My forehead bumps up against a wall, my legs move on the spot. There’s no point in pushing it. There are rigid limits here. If you push it, the forward traction bounces back at you and knocks you flying. It’s five in the morning, there’s no point in my rolling, because the party’s long since broken up and I’m all on my own. A cold mist hangs in the room. I’m overexcited, exhausted, fragile, irascible. All at the same time. It’s as if I were in the middle of a weathercock and all the winds were changing direction, attacking it with equal force. Battering me, holding me to the spot, confusing me. To overcome my fragility, I’m consuming the energy my irritability lends me. The more I become aware of the scope and depth of my fragility, the greater my overstimulation becomes. I try to enable transfers between overstimulation and exhaustion, between weaknesses and frustration, until I completely lose my abilities as a negotiator and sink into an agitated, dreamless sleep.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“The film director as drug-dealing patron of the arts. The Writer, the Hacker, the Philosopher, and a woman, Gabi — the users. They are the Rakes of the Old Court, the turn-of-the-century junkies. Andrei Dósa has captured them as if inside an accordion and in Herbarium shares with us the condensation and the dilation of not just stories, but the perceptions of these characters, with whom we frequently intersect. The story also matters, but above all the way it is told. A novel about dreams petering out, about failure, about washing off the make-up in a puddle by the exit of a nightclub.”