Metaphors can be powerful, beautiful, and abstract. But they can also be exhausting, obtrusive, and clumsy. Maybe that’s why the director and animator Michael Dudok de Wit doesn’t seem to be interested in metaphors. Instead he seems to be interested in something else.
De Wit came to relative prominence in 2000 when he won an academy award for Father and Daughter, a beautifully animated short film that tells the story of a separation and the life-long longing that follows it. I saw the film in pretty bad quality around 2003 for the first time but was immediately captivated. Luckily, the film is available online today and in very good quality, too, so please take a look:
There are a lot of things to admire about this film but one thing in particular stands out for me: how gently it transitions from the concrete to the abstract. Or, in other words, from plot to story to metaphor to universality.
In the beginning the film is and stays pretty concrete: a father leaves his daughter at the shore of the sea. The daughter waits for him until the evening. She leaves reluctantly but immediately comes back the next day and the following days. We know this because the father’s bike is still where he left it.
From this point the plot gets more fuzzy and starts to recede. Transitions become more frequent, jumps in time get bigger. The young girl becomes a teenager, a young woman, an older woman. She is accompanied (presumably) by friends, then by a boyfriend, then by her husband and her children, then alone again. These story elements don’t act as „plot“ or „character development“ but form symbols, akin to the leaves, wind, sun, birds, and other humans which briefly appear in the background.
At his point metaphoric elements become more prominent such as a bike wheel symbolizing both the passage of time as well as the woman’s constant returns, her longing, and maybe also her stubbornness:
A similar metaphor could be attributed to the brief moment where she tries to properly park her bike before going to the shore but the bike repeatedly refuses by falling to the side after brief (and a little cruel) pauses.
This leads to the final phase at the shore where, suddenly and to our surprise, the woman steps not into the sea but into a vast field of corn or grass instead. She finds her father’s boat which (another surprise) is not crashed or broken but simply lying in the sand where the sea once was and where she also chooses to lie down.
I feel that this element of surprise is crucial in order to leave the „realm of metaphors“ and enter a different realm, the „realm of timelessness“ perhaps. The girl/woman and her father are not metaphors and they never were characters either. They have become symbols and their story has become as universal as a fairy tale, with gravity and meaning.
This type of universality or timelessness is still rare in video games (the games of thatgamecompany or Playdead come to mind) but something which I’m often thinking about with respect to my own game.