For years, I’ve been trying to think about what makes certain moments in games work. Part of the joy of criticism is that kind of self-reflection; why does x scene, film or video game work for me where another one doesn’t – and what does that reflect about what works for me about media? Sometimes this is an easy task. It’s pretty clear to see, say, why the fight with Ludwig in Bloodborne: The Old Hunters works so well – the fight moves from frenetic and beast-like to controlled and knightly, the music is some of the Souls series’ best and the cutscene that breaks up the two stages has excellent direction and voice acting.
But there are a few other moments that have plagued me as to why they stick in my mind so much. Chief among these is the church in Pokémon Diamond and Pearl’s Hearthome City. Actually, the church is called the “Foreign Building” (in Japanese, it’s known as the Foreign Culture Building, reflecting its appearance as a Christian style church). There are a few reasons as to why the church sticks out so much. Firstly, most buildings in the Pokémon world have extrinsic use to the player. This is obvious with Pokémon centres or Pokémarts, but even most NPC houses in the games either give valuable information to the player (such as tutorials or locations of nearby events) or items. There are a few which have very little utility to the player, but the purpose some meaningless buildings serve is clear to the developers – it’s easy to make a city look bigger by adding in a few more houses, and the workload isn’t intense because the assets for a house are the same throughout the game. But the Foreign Building is a unique asset which serves no extrinsic purpose for the player – so why put it there?
When doing a bit of research for this post, I saw a couple of forum posts asking the same question – what’s the significance of the Foreign Building? Why is it there at all? What’s so special about it? Is it for an event? To show religion exists in the Pokémon world? Most of the replies just say that the building is pointless, but I don’t think that’s quite right. I think the Foreign Building is an example of what I’m going to refer to as a “Pillow Moment” in video games.
The idea of the “pillow” word or phrase is something that was first used to describe phrases in classical Japanese poetry – these are often short phrases that appear as the first line of a poem, but don’t add anything to the literal meaning of the poem. Instead, their purpose is more for rhythm, or atmosphere, or perhaps to introduce a subject, or modify a noun. The idea of a pillow is much better known when applied to cinema – most notably the work of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.
Ozu is known for a number of different stylistic motifs, but one of the most famous is definitely the pillow shot. In essence, it’s a still-life image that is cut into the body of a film in a way that doesn’t advance, but instead stalls the narrative. What’s the point of the pillow shot? Well, it varies depending on who you ask. Some critics read meaning into each individual pillow shot – see how the vase in Late Spring shows the containment of emotion, or the train tracks in Tokyo Story an oncoming darkness.
Others, like Schrader, see the pillow shot as adding to a whole in Ozu’s style – what he calls a transcendental style of filmmaking. Schrader perhaps engages in a bit of light Orientalism in comparing Ozu’s filmmaking style to that of Zen art, but there are some interesting ideas to be had by picking up on the comparison; the pillow shots, he argues, are examples of mu, the concept of emptiness in Zen art. The pillow shots are Ozu’s version of mu, and they break off sections of conversation – unlike the critics who see the pillow shots as supplements to the narrative, Schrader takes a slightly different approach. He instead claims that the narrative is there to give meaning to the pillow shots; “the dialogue gives meaning to the silence, the action to the still life.”
Let’s take this back to video games – is the entirety of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl there simply to give meaning to the Foreign Building? Not even I will take this idea that far. But I think there is a point to the Foreign Building that does inform the tone of the game and even make it into a video game equivalent of the pillow shot. To explore the concept further, we’ll have to look at more examples in more detail.
One thing that’s important to differentiate the pillow moment from is a break in the pacing of a game. In Dark Souls 3, after a sewer filled with giant sewer centipedes and before a mansion populated with difficult Silver Knights, the player can find Siegward of Catarina, sleeping in front of a fire, having made some Estus Soup for the player. (Even if Siegward isn’t there, he’s still left the soup for the player). This is almost a pillow moment – but it serves too much clear purpose for the player. Not only is a break and an opportunity for healing always valuable in a game as tense as Dark Souls, but it becomes a crucial part of Siegward’s plotline for players who are following it. The same can go for the safe rooms of the Resident Evil games – as long as the moment also provides extrinsic benefit for the player, it can’t really be a pillow moment.
Open-world games further complicate the definition. Does the act of simple traversal count as a pillow moment for players of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Death Stranding? Well, it might count as a pillow moment for our real lives, but both of these games have to encourage the player into the state of zen-hiking by offering the hope of something new on the other side – a new Shrine, town, weapon or upgrade to make traversal easier.
Both of these points as to what is not a “pillow moment” leads us into making a tricky distinction into what does count as one. For example, the traversal to a point can’t count, because the player is at this point still motivated by a sense of curiosity. But the arrival point at the moment could count. In Shadow of the Colossus, the travel between the fights with the colossi seem like pillow moments – like the shots in Ozu’s films, they stop the action in its tracks and force moments of stillness at the viewer. But we do have to make some distinction here in the difference between mediums. In film, we have no choice but to be slowed down by and pay attention to the pillow shot – the viewer is made, by the director, to watch at the pace of the film. In video games, there are various ways in which the pace can be manipulated – Shadow of the Colossus is a borderline case, but Breath of the Wild is not, because various things exist in the world to either make traversal quicker, or to fill it with breaks so that the player doesn’t have to slow down and contemplate.
To give an example of a pillow moment in Breath of the Wild, I would choose the Lord of the Mountain. The player would be motivated to find the Lord of the Mountain by the strange glowing light that appears about Satori Mountain when the Lord appears. When you find the Lord of the Mountain – a glowing spirit horse, however, the player finds no extrinsic reward. You can ride the Lord of the Mountain if you’re stealthy enough, but you can’t keep it – it disappears as soon as you dismount it. Because of this, the Lord of the Mountain is nothing more than something to see. It exists within a symbiotic relationship with the game’s mechanics. Like Ozu’s pillow shots, it doesn’t further the narrative, but it might end up furthering the game’s mood, atmosphere and intentions. Breath of the Wild is a game about exploration but search only for extrinsic rewards and you may fail to notice this. The Lord of the Mountain informs the player of the game’s key ideas. Here, the game is giving meaning to the mountain just as the mountain gives meaning to the game.
Undertale is a game that is full of these moments. There are a number of screens in the game that have little or no utility, or the utility of which is only revealed later into the game. To give some examples, take your first visit to Snowdin Town. The north exit leads onto a screen which will have purpose later on in the game (you return to this screen when you want to come back to Snowdin Town), but when you first get there is nothing more than an empty space, without any indication it might have further use. Similarly, the east part of the town showcases a wolf throwing ice into the river, for a purpose never explicitly explained to the player. Perhaps one of the most notable pillow moments in Undertale is lying on the floor with the ghost ‘Napstablook’ – waiting there for a short amount of time will turn the floor into a space scene and change the music into something more relaxing.
This moment of lying on the floor with the ghost highlights a pivotal difference between a pillow shot in a film and a pillow moment in a video game – only one can really effect the pacing. This is really where some of the comparison points between the two start to fall apart. Not only can you choose not to lie down with the ghost, but you can also leave whenever you want – the zen-like state of meditation you enter into lasts for however long you want it to. You can choose whether to go into the Foreign Building, and for how long you stay there. You might never even find the Lord of the Mountain, and once you see it has no treasure to offer, you might just leave straight away. This means that the effect of the pillow moment isn’t in the hands of the developer – it’s in the hands of the player.
This might seem like a bad thing for the idea – developers can’t really force players to have a moment of quiet reflection like directors can with audiences. If I don’t want to sit still in a video game, I don’t have to. However, the fact that players control the pace of a video game means that they can also create their own pillow moments where the developer wouldn’t have intended any. Players stuck in a game like Ace Attorney will often find themselves going to empty screens, where nothing can be heard but the sounds of nature. In Undertale, someone might choose to extend the lying down segment for hours if it connects with them. In open-world games, a spot insignificant to the developer may take on personal meaning to the player, causing them to pause somewhere most players would just walk straight over.
All of this makes the idea of a video game “pillow moment” really hard to define. But it’s not a simple concept in cinema either. Where does a pillow shot end and an establishing shot begin? What if Ozu always intended the viewer to see a meaning that to him was obvious – maybe he thought of these as extensions of the conversation rather than breaks from them. What’s more important to think about is what effect the pillow moment might have on the player, and on the way we play.
Mu is the single character engraved on the tombstone of Yasujiro Ozu. The notion of nothingness conveys a lack of time, a lack of urgency – pillow shots don’t slow down the pacing as much as they include time for contemplation. The Foreign Building in Hearthome City is one of the few locations in the Pokémon series without any music. Game music can often become a kind of distraction, its endless looping bestows a sense of urgency and enforced pacing. Remove the music, and the space becomes a place of rest, of thoughtfulness.
It seems pretentious (and really is) to apply this kind of thinking to a video game series defined by cute, marketable creatures – but everything in a video game is created with the kind of deliberate action that surpasses even that of film. Creating space for the player to disengage with the active core gameplay loop is something that takes time for developers to add, and doing so might actually seem counterintuitive to their mission – far more time was spent making a fun battle system, or designing cute looking Pokémon, so why distract the player with something as meaningless as church?
I don’t think you can come up with an answer for this that satisfies every moment of this kind in a video game – they’re too varied for one clear answer. We could simply make the obvious statement that slowing down the pacing allows the player’s mind to become clearer about what they’re taking in, or even to become more immersed. We could add on that moments of quiet make a game world more immersive by showing us that something exists outside of the player and their actions. These are all true, but they apply to other moments in games as well. Does the addition of these lend games an extra element of that ungraspable feeling that Schrader refers to as “transcendental style”?
Of course, maybe it’s as much of a mistake to roughly analogise the video game slow moment to the cinematic pillow shot as it was to take a technique from poetry and try and apply it to film. However, the similarities can be found – a questioning of why these things were included, what the intention of the director was in including something that seems so antithetical to the intended aim, and yet ends up being not only memorable, but enhancing.
I don’t get a lot of comments on this blog normally, and I also don’t often ask for them. But I would be interested to hear if anyone else notices this kind of thing in games, or whether I have simply gone off the deep end. Perhaps you take issue with my definition or wording – in which case, I would love to be taken up on it. Thanks for reading.
Thanks for reading this deranged rant about things I am nowhere near smart enough to be writing about. As always, if you liked this, you can do me a huge solid and follow me on twitter or donate on patreon.