Player Non Player champions oddness and intimacy. Part dating sim, part puzzler, the indie title may be built around a mysterious villa acting as purgatory for a clutch of haunted inhabitants, but the surreal encounters are part of a wider exploration of loss and mourning.
Driven by the same contradictions, the soundtrack is also French synth-pop duo Agar-Agar’s new album, ‘Player Non Player’. An urgent, vibrant collection of twelve very different songs, the pulsating disco bangers aren’t your typical video game soundtrack but it makes perfect sense alongside Player Non Player’s sprawling landscape. The whole thing is strangely moving.
“Agar Agar’s music is usually euphoric, tinted with despair. And that’s exactly what I do in my work,” says game designer Jonathan Coryn. When he met Clara Cappagli and Armand Bultheel, it cemented his belief they should work together.
Player Non Player started as a “very small project” that Agar Agar could use for promo. While it was planned to be finished in a month, Coryn and the band aren’t a fan of creating what they call “products”. So the project “evolved naturally towards something more personal”.
Two years into development, Player Non Player was a game focused on destruction, with players able to tear down anything and everything. But then Coryn added characters “and that changed everything. We focused more on them, their intimacy and their story,” he explains. Five years after their first conversation, Player Non Player is out in Early Access while the album of the same name was released last month.
Inspired by horror games like Silent Hill and Fumito Ueda’s The Last Guardian, Coryn believes video games are the “perfect medium” to explore grief. “You’re emotionally engaged with the character you play with.”
Player Non Player gives players full control over what their avatar looks like, and allows them to explore the world via holding or caressing. “You have to understand the desires of the other characters and you connect with them in an intimate way,” says Coryn. “Gaming is perhaps more moving than other mediums,” and Player Non Player is all about connection.
You don’t need us to tell you that music often adds to that emotional experience, be it the hype-inducing Fifa soundtracks, the bone-chilling music used in horror games or the relatable playlists in games like Life Is Strange. In Player Non Player, Agar Agar’s music is discovered as you explore the island, giving it another layer of interactivity.
“Music has the power of being in the background, while still being in the foreground of what you’re experiencing emotionally. It can make the game very intimate and shape the experience you’re having,” says Bultheel.
Released in 2018, Agar Agar’s debut album ‘The Dog And The Island’ was partly inspired by The Sims and Bultheel is a big fan of soundtracks in general, even if he hasn’t played the accompanying game. As for their ‘Player Non Player’ record, the duo wrote some songs from the point of view of the game’s host NPC – Odile. “What’s the point of having dreams today,” sings Cappagli, taking on the titular character and giving them an emotional heft. “No one sees your pain,” she sympathises while ‘The Visit’ talks of intimacy, ownership and exploitation.
Elsewhere the video for jubilant anthem ‘Trouble’ sees video game character NotYet trapped on an island above the clouds, following the death of their creator. They try to escape the “endless longing” of this purgatory via self-destruction but as you quickly learn from Player Non Player, it’s never that simple. Resolutions require work.
Agar Agar have been part of Player Non Player since its inception. Coryn’s characters inspired their lyrics, which inspired the game’s storyline, which in turn inspired the eclectic music. They describe it as a “ping pong dialogue of constant inspiration”.
The band wanted to get involved “because it was such a wonderful opportunity to collaborate. Video games really speak to us, and we thought it would be a more generous, more immersive experience for people,” says Cappagli.
Not that the band were aiming to write a typical video game soundtrack. “We were inspired by Player Non Player and this universe Jonathan was building, which had been inspired by our music, but really, we were pulling from a lot of different music,” says Bultheel. “We knew it would be the soundtrack to a game, but it was also just music. We felt free to totally express ourselves.”
“There were definitely no rules,” adds Cappagli.
“We didn’t want to have any limits with what we were creating,” continues Coryn. “It was a very organic way of working. The game and the album, they remain independent but they are connected.”
And it’s true. Player Non Player remains an engaging, emotional game with the volume turned down while Agar Agar’s record is a pulsating collection of songs that push at the boundaries of synth-pop. They’re bangers, whenever you listen.
Creating the record was an intuitive process, with Agar Agar reacting to what Coryn was doing with the game and following their gut every step of their way. A year after the album was finished though, vocalist Cappagli can “see the big picture” in terms of what was inspiring her. “I realise now how angry the lyrics are. There’s a lot of violence, there’s a lot of disillusion, there’s a lot of betrayal. The album talks about a battle that’s never going to end.”
“I’m not typically an angry person but this unknown feeling rose last year,” says Cappagli, explaining that ‘Player Non Player’ allowed her to educate herself on her emotions. However, all those personal lyrics have been twisted into metaphor. “I would never be too precise, because that’s not what this project is.”
Working alongside Coryn allowed Agar Agar to be more ambitious with ‘Player Non Player’. “It’s this whole universe, basically,” says Bultheel. “There were so many things to think about, to discuss, to create. We wanted to craft something that was stronger than what we’ve made before. It’s more personal to us, and more consistent.” The band are set to tour it later this year, with a cinematic new stage show.
He goes on to say ‘Player Non Player’ had “the most messages possible” within its 12 tracks. “We’ve never wanted to restrict ourselves to just one idea. The goal of this band is not to share a precise message. We pour our own emotions into this abstract thing, which is then received by other people and hopefully they can find meaning in it. It feels like we share something authentic that way.”
As for the game, Coryn has already had his fair share of “surprising” reactions from players. “That’s what is so cool about video games, as a creator you really can’t control how the public will react to it or how it’ll make them feel.” Still, he hopes Player No Player acts as a safe space where “people can come to think about death and grief…but in a good way,” he adds. “Acceptance is important and hopefully Player Non Player can provide comfort.”
Player Non Player is out in Early Access via Itch.io and can be wishlisted on Steam now. Agar Agar’s ‘Player Non Player’ can be heard here.