Growing up on the Canadian prairies, I knew the oppression of the sky. Stand in the right spot and it’s a full five kilometers to the horizon in front of you and another five to the one at your back. But it’s not the endless fields that dwarfs you, the sky hangs above you an order of magnitude larger still. It’s almost too large to comprehend during the day, and it grows as the day progresses. In the evenings, pink and golden skies blur the line between earth and air as clouds match colours with wheat fields. After dusk on a cloudy night there is little discernable difference to observe between a pitch-black field and a pitch-black sky. During the day the sky is merely the largest thing you’ll ever see. At night the sky becomes everything.
While set in a mountainous valley and not the prairies, Jack Squires’ Exit 19 captures this natural phenomenon about as good as any game could. The game is a relatively straightforward wander game that depicts being stranded in a desolate valley during nightfall. Exit 19 employs a dithering kind of visual layer on the land and objects within a certain distance from you that moves about like old videocassette tape distortion. The sky and objects in the far distance don’t have this dithering effect and are merely rendered in solid static hues. Even though the ground is completely still the dithering gives it a feel of uneasiness, as if it’s trying to move in every direction at once. Meanwhile the sky above is motionless, heavy, and arguably even dead above you.
As the player progresses through Exit 19 the sun will set and night begins. As darkness becomes more and more prevalent you’ll notice that the dithering effect doesn’t work in shadows or other places of complete darkness. The dithering is only present on land and objects lit with light. The shaded corners are now just as still lifeless as the now purple sky.
When the sun has finally set, the land and sky have become an undistinguishable whole. The black sky blends perfectly with the darkened hills and only a small patch of dithering remains in the patch of light your flashlight gives out. The uneasiness of the dithered world is gone as the indifferent frozen sky has conquered and replaced it. As the game ends the player can find themselves cast into a brightly lit grave. Though there comes a moment of hesitation, the lit inside of the grave is heavily dithered. Does the player now question if the dithered space is what should be feared? Graves are obviously linked to the concept of finality but does this mean the dithering is as well? Has the player spent the length of Exit 19 fearing the retreat of the dithering only to have it greet them in death in the end? What’s clear is that the player is put in an impossible conflict, the world is now static and lifeless but so is the antithesis of that. It’s a moment of utter loss and misplacement.
There’s other ways to look at Exit 19, and I understand this sky-focused approach appealed to me from my own personal history. But it’s hard for me to call Exit 19 anything but an incredible accomplishment. It captures the natural phenomenon of dusk in a way that feels so incredibly organic while still capturing the impact of the moment. Exit 19 has already received heaps of praise as being a standout title of its collection, and it’s all absolutely warranted.