I get the feeling, sometimes, that I waste a lot of free time chasing fruitless things that I expect will pay off in time. Football is a prime example - all of the teams I follow have been distinctly mediocre for years (Liverpool and Leyton Orient if you must know), yet I know that the law of averages over time dictates that some level of worthy success will eventually find them again. The same goes for writing as well - even if it was a hobby I picked up with earnest intentions, it was still influenced in part by a nagging, vapid ambition that I will one day write that One Novel That Says Something Truly Profound About The Human Race, and spend the rest of my days - and inevitable fortunes - on mansions with aquarium stairs and cars that are illegal to drive on normal roads. And then there are video games - the only other pastime that truly captures the bleeding of worthless achievement from the dry stone of frustrated, time-squandered misery. You don’t truly know a pyrrhic victory in the game of Life until you’ve finally completed a 60-hour Final Fantasy savegame - I kid you not.
Occasionally though, the gratification at the end of a long pursuit doesn’t come just from the milestone of some shallow accomplishment. Sometimes, we just need the satisfaction of a riddle solved. Riddles define the human condition, after all. While some of us sit here musing about why that girl turned us down for coffee, philosophers and anthropologists espouse on the whys for such social courting, and scientists scrabble in search of the justification for celestial bodies hurtling around an endless void to allow such transactions to take place. Reward and wealth matter far less to some than the satisfaction of some Big Question answered. And those who struggle for said answers find their road far more thwarted than those on the hunt for material accolades. The truth is, for those afflicted by questions, questions can drive us flippin’ nuts.
Strawberry Cubes might look like a low-budget PC indie game with its 16-color visuals and scribbled sprites. In actuality though, it is a morbidly captivating mystery that has plagued my continued hourly returns to it since I bought it for a dollar almost a year ago. Within the realms of my own gaming experiences, it is a Big Question; an eerie riot of pixel glitches, obscure floating symbols and seemingly random causes and effects that all strive to keep the game’s meaning at least two yards out of my reach. I have not yet completed Strawberry Cubes because I don’t even know if it has an ending. I’m not sure about its ending because I’m not even sure what the aim of it actually is. I’m not sure what the aims are because it intentionally tells me nothing about itself. It is the gaming equivalent of a hieroglyph - guiding, confusing and subtly hinting at me all in unison - and it stands as one of the most fascinating games I’ve played in recent times.
What is known is that Strawberry Cubes is a platformer, in which the player guides what appears to be a little girl around a coarsely pixellated underworld filled with skulls, bird-fashioned totem poles and sprawling textual chyrons that make little or no sense. The incoherence of it all is made further unsettling by the chaos that accompanies it - walls flash and blur at will, deadly frogs launch themselves around to a chorus of thunderous, echoing booms while a backing ambience of nervous drones and screeches resonate back from the void. Moving left to right through each room of this creeping turmoil is easy enough - thankfully the game responds as expected to the arrow keys - but any other explanation to the manner of things is intentionally left blank. The only assistance for the player comes from a README file that highlights a small handful of additional controls before suggesting they should ‘try pressing other keys’, ‘get a cup of tea’ and ‘draw a map’. A cursory glance at the official site reveals it to be a mere extension of the insanity the game offers up. There is absolutely nothing else to help you; you are left alone to explore Strawberry Cubes’ vast, perplexing catacombs, with all the curiosity, befuddlement and fun that arises from such a situation.
Expedition, as well as applying random behaviour to this random world, does eventually lead to the discovery of a pattern. As one wanders, one will find seeds to pick up and collect. Hitting the SPACE bar to plant them will cause them to immediately grow into giant flowers, enabing the girl to climb them to get to out-of-reach places (jumping is a non-existent action in this game). The mashing of other keys can also cause a myriad of unexpected effects - the shifting of both wall color and form, the spawning of yet more frogs or teleportation to other, previously unreachable areas of the map. Another key can cause you to clone yourself repeatedly, generating an army of sprites whose collective march has so much momentum it can glitch the player through entire walls. Glitching is undoubtedly a key part of Strawberry Cubes’ make-up - even if you don’t bother to break whatever rules the game tries to set, it’ll eventually do it for you, slowly decaying itself until its appearance has been completely transformed - or it crashes (it autosaves often enough for this not to be an issue though). It’s yet another one of the game’s great puzzles as to why it does this, but it obviously wants you to follow suit in rebelling against the initial system it sets up. Only then does it reveal its central gambit - and the one great mystery that the rest of its enigmas orbit.
Each time the player encounters one of the numerous purple icons that are stashed away in the game world’s nooks and crannies, they are transported to a room with a still woman, coloured red, standing within it. Only within this chamber does the player get to see some semblance of a progress check on their journey - the top left corner shows how many of these purple icons they’ve collected, and which ones. Again, no reasoning for these icons is explained, only that this check increases with each new item collected. There is clearly a goal in collecting every single one of the items, but where they are, what they are and how many there are is also, intentionally, undefined. Nonetheless, it’s the only significant, if piecemeal, offering of structure that indicates there being some kind of method to Strawberry Cubes’ madness. It’s the calm eye at the epicentre of the game’s maelstrom of creepy disquiet, and it’s the only way I’ve gauged that there is an object to all of this.
Unsurprisingly for something that intends to be both loudly obscure and softly menacing, the game has also garnered a small, hardcore following that have also expended their energies to try and crack through its esoteric outer shell. Normally, such endeavours lead to one uber-dedicated individual unravelling the game for everyone else. Abnormally, all who have attempted the task for Strawberry Cubes have failed. A thread for the game on Reddit’s /r/creepygaming board had initial buzz and breakthroughs, but recorded its last comment 6 months ago. A graveyard of blogs and Tumblr pages also lie out there on the Web - all of them start with an initial post detailing a brave declaration to solve the game, before tailing off into premature abandonment after a handful of further posts recording disconnected, unfathomable discoveries. One intrepid explorer even found a QR code to an image URL located within the files of the game directory itself, indicating a treasure hunt to be had outside of the game as well as within it. But none have found an end to the plethora of paths that Strawberry Cubes provides a player to embark. ‘Draw a map’ seems very apt advice when the game’s conundrums even lead players on quests for truth outside of it.
Naturally at this point it seems prudent to go to the source and get the answers from the very individuals who made the game. Strawberry Cubes is the work of prolific indie game developer / artist Loren Schmidt, whose other digital efforts seem to also place a focus on abstract retro minimalism. Again, a Google search for any kind of explanation from her reveals scarce results, except one particularly interesting interview that reveals his reasoning for creating the game - it’s an interpretation of the relationship he had with his grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Thus, the game may just well be an apt visual metaphor for such a disease - its world of blurring, shifting rooms and sprites definitely do feel like a symbolic expression for the slow, steady death of identity that such an affliction brings. It’s also important to note that although the game mostly infers itself emotionally as a twisting tornado of confusion, parts of it vibrate with other resonances - those of loss, of death, but also of dream-like childhood memoria. Underneath it all, there is something very personal going on with Strawberry Cubes’ behaviour and themes - and perhaps, without trying to dilute the importance of its air of mystery, that’s all there really is to it.
Discrete allegories for dementia notwithstanding, it is utterly impossible to rate or recommend Strawberry Cubes simply because of what it is. What I do recommend to anyone though is for them to at least buy the game (it’s just $1!), boot it up and experience its dark, disintegrating Wonderland just once. Whether its unapologetic obscurity makes you sick or sucks you in, it is guaranteed to draw a reaction from you, and maybe even lead you on a rabbit-hole adventure of your own.
If it does - definitely, definitely draw a map.