Encircle me

Platformers are dead. I mean, you’d think, right? On one end of the spectrum, Super Mario Maker is an explicit acknowledgement that there’s nothing left to do in the genre except keep cranking out levels. On the other, the puzzle-platformer trend is an implicit argument that platformer gameplay isn’t meaningful unless you weld another genre on top of it. Contrary to popular belief, however, there are new things under the sun; anyone saying otherwise is just rationalizing their own lack of imagination. What I’m getting at here is that Circa Infinity is an original platformer.

circa_infinty_scouting

The game’s hook is that it takes place around the perimeter of a circle rather than on a flat plane. This seems like a gimmick, the difference being simply a matter of visual transposition, but it’s not. It has a substantive effect on how the game plays. You start on the outer rim of the circle, and you progress by first “warping” into the circle from a specified point, thus positioning you on the inside of the perimeter, and then jumping from there onto the outside of another circle located inside the first, “zooming in” in this fashion until you reach the goal. Generally speaking, the outside of each circle is safe, while the inside contains enemies that you have to avoid (you can’t attack in any way). Thus, the time when you’re on the outside functions as a sort of scouting phase, allowing you to see everything that’s going on on the inside: where the monsters are, how they’re moving, and where you’ll need to move relative to the warp point. Once you dive in, then, you’re fully prepared. You’ve already seen everything that you’re going to have to deal with, so there’s no trial-and-error effect.

This solves one of the big problems with platformers: you have to be able to see what’s up ahead in order to play effectively, and this isn’t always possible. This has always been the critical flaw of the Sonic series, which is focused on speed, and which therefore necessarily makes it difficult for you to know what’s up ahead in time for you to actually do something about it. It’s a common experience in Sonic games to be blithely running along and then suddenly have some spikes show up right in front of you, and this is stupid (also, why are spikes used as an obstacle in a game where you play as a hedgehog?). There’s nothing interesting about failing like this; it might as well have been a random event. The series has tried to resolve this problem in different ways, and none of them have really been satisfactory. The original Sonic the Hedgehog is actually not very fast, it’s much more of a standard jumping-across-obstacles platformer. Whereas Sonic Rush offers a mechanic that lets you blast through anything that you hit while running, which solves the problem by trivializing it. These are just the most blatant examples of a general problem; even Mario games have the same issue. You’ll often be unable to see where a long jump leads or where an enemy is coming from, turning the gameplay into guesswork. Circa Infinity offers an approach as correct as it is simple: you first show the player what they’re in for, and then you let them have at it.

It also offers a novel approach to the checkpoint dilemma. This is a fundamental conflict between two theories about how to manage the failure loop. One school of thought holds that, once a player has “solved” an obstacle, forcing them to go through it again because they failed at a different obstacle merely enforces tediousness; ergo, you place a checkpoint after each significant challenge. But action games aren’t about solutions, they’re about performance, so it makes sense to require the player to be able to navigate obstacles consistently, rather than allowing them to just get lucky once and move on; this implies that checkpoints should be as infrequent as is reasonable. Mario games split the difference by offering one checkpoint halfway through each level, preserving the arduousness but not being a dick about it. Circa Infinity has a more dynamic approach: failing sends you back one circle, forcing you to replay exactly one previously-completed obstacle each time you fail. This might not sound like much of a difference, but what makes it interesting is that it allows failures to cascade. If you get frustrated or impatient and you screw up a circle you’ve already completed (or if you lucked your way past a circle the first time and now have to solve it for real), you’ll get knocked back again, and this will keep happening until you calm down and start doing things right (there’s a limit that prevents this from becoming completely obnoxious: some circles are completely safe, so they function as “hard” checkpoints; once you’ve reached one, you can’t get knocked back any farther). Thus, the game does not merely use checkpoints for the sake of player convenience – it uses them to enforce a specific approach to its obstacles.

But these are just minor technical points, you’ll say; they don’t change the fact that this is the same old get-to-the-goal gameplay. True, but the final effect of a game is determined by its individual design choices. So the reason this stuff is important is that it makes Circa Infinity feel like something more than Aestheticized Action Platformer #644. Giving the player advance information and encouraging them to use it makes the gameplay thoughtful in a way that even complex action games rarely are. But execution still matters; some levels have rigid solutions, but this isn’t a puzzle-platformer. So what’s really notable here is that this game achieves a rare synthesis: it requires you to observe and analyze and come up with a plan of action, and then to execute that plan with focus and physical precision. It connects the animal to the cerebral in a way that is not just “fun” but is, frankly, a significant part of what it means to be human.

circa_infinity_trainwreck

Each level also has its own specific conditions, and their progression builds towards the overall effect. The first is a simple introduction, setting up the framework with standard run-and-jump gameplay. You get an idea of what the game is like, but you can pretty much finish it by just flailing around. The second level is more rigidly designed, forcing you to take what you learned in the first and apply it more seriously. You can’t get out of jams by dodging frantically around them; you have to think before you act. In the third level, you control two characters simultaneously on opposite sides of the circle, which requires you to account for both perspectives when deciding how to move. This is when the planning aspect really hits home: the correct path for each level becomes non-obvious, so you really have to keep a sharp eye on the layout of each circle and execute your actions with a plan in mind. Even the basic task of entering the inner circle requires conscientiousness: if you enter from the wrong place or at the wrong time, you might be unable to avoid getting hit.

And that’s where the game peaks. The fourth and fifth levels have the same structure as the third, but simply pile additional requirements on top. These fail to add anything significant to the gameplay; on the contrary, they detract from its effectiveness. There gets to be so much accumulated mechanical cruft that navigating each level becomes simple tedium. Any of the additional mechanics may or may not have been interesting on its own, but piled up like this they just become a mass of annoyances. The experience starts to feel less thoughtful and more mechanical, like filling out a checklist.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the outer rim stops being safe, so planning becomes both more important and less doable. This might have been a great twist if it had been allowed to exist by itself, but nothing introduced in the later levels is allowed to do so; everything being crammed together makes the levels hard in a boring way rather than challenging in an interesting way. The individual mechanics are all viable, but they aren’t taken anywhere. If one level had, for example, been about not having time to plan, and if the stages had been designed with the intent of creating an experience based on this dynamic, then this could have been an interesting effect for the game to explore. (An important aspect of the now-standard Braid framework is that each level has a characteristic mechanic and they don’t overlap; this allows each level to focus on creating one specific effect.) As it is, this failure points to the real heart of the problem: Circa Infinity does not appear to have been designed with any particular intention at all.

I’m not referring to the intended goals of the designer; as a rule, I don’t care about people’s intentions. I am referring to the fact that the game itself evidences a lack of purpose. Each stage records your time and your failure count, and displays these to you when you finish. This is actually quite annoying, because it makes you feel like you’re being graded on your first run through the game, when you’re still experimenting and trying to figure out how things work. More importantly, it strongly suggests that the game is geared toward achievement-heads who only care about getting The Best Score, rather than people who want to have a good experience playing a game.

It’s also entirely typical: in order to compensate for the fundamental hollowness of the basic level-completion goal, players have long been setting extra challenges for themselves, and winning without damage or in the shortest possible time are the two most common examples. In other words, what Circa Infinity is doing here is, lacking any goals of its own to offer, simply falling back on established genre procedures – despite these procedures being directly at odds with how the game actually plays. Remember that stuff I was saying about planning and execution? Well, implicitly rushing the player through the levels via an omnipresent timer is a great way to get them to ignore that dynamic. And remember how well the checkpointing in this game works? Well, treating mistakes as failures rather than opportunities to learn makes that a bit of a moot point.

There are also some ideas that just aren’t utilized wisely. The enemy types are for the most part very simple: some run, some jump, some hover overhead, and in combination they define which routes are feasible. This simplicity aids the game’s planning aspect by making it very clear what you have to deal with. But there’s one oddball, which is, fittingly, the ghost. Ghosts persist through two circles each, though, strangely, the reason they do this isn’t because of ethereality, it’s just because they’re bigger than the other enemies. The point is, ghosts can still get you even after you’ve passed the circle in which they first appear. Once again, this is a potentially interesting idea that is not actually used for anything. It could, for example, have been used to require the player to plan out an approach to multiple circles at once. But because ghosts don’t move, and because getting past them just requires performing an arbitrary action, they’re basically just an annoyance during the planning phase. They become just one more thing to add to the pile of obstacles you have to worry about; they don’t actually require you to play differently.

About that arbitrary action: because ghosts are so big, you have to duck under them instead of jumping over them (because they float above the ground. Look, it’s fine. Metaphors don’t have to be coherent). And this is bizarre, because Circa Infinity does not actually have a duck move. Pressing down causes your character to sort of melt into the circle beneath them, which is how you activate the warp points to move to the inside of each circle. But when you encounter your first ghost, you suddenly have to realize that this move can also be used while you’re not on top of a warp point, and also while you’re moving, which allows you sort of “slide” under the ghost. This is stupid. It looks stupid and it feels stupid. I’m inclined to leave it at that, but I’m also already here, so I guess I might as well explain why this is an actual substantive gameplay problem.

In Mario games, doing a high-bounce off of an enemy gets you more height than jumping normally. This doesn’t make physical sense, but it does make intuitive sense. Bouncing off of an enemy is a more complicated action than simply pressing the jump button, so it feels like you should get more out of it. This is sort of like how in movies there’s a big poofy sound effect whenever someone gets punched in the face. In real life, getting punched doesn’t really produce much of a sound, but it’s kind of a big deal (in that it breaks an implicit barrier), so it feels like there should be a big distinctive sound associated with it. “Enhancements” like these aren’t bad because they’re unrealistic; on the contrary, they’re good things precisely because they’re better than reality – they make more sense. Art is, after all, largely the attempt to make sense of a senseless world.

The problem with Circa Infinity‘s ducking mechanic is that it doesn’t make any particular sense. As mentioned, the way it’s tacitly introduced makes it seem like an unintentional consequence of a completely different mechanic. Which could work, except that this is an abstract game and everything about it is completely arbitrary. This isn’t a case where you’re experimenting within a game world and you find a way to combine your abilities to do something new, or anything like that. It’s just an arbitrary required action that happens to occupy the same button mapping as a different arbitrary required action. Specifically, ducking doesn’t get you anything that jumping doesn’t already provide. Functionally, it’s the same action: you move past an enemy while pressing a certain button that allows you to avoid it. You can duck in Mario games, too, but there ducking is a different type of action than jumping is: you stay still while avoiding an obstacle that’s moving above you. This increases the number of ways in which you can interact with the game world and gives you a different strategy for avoiding certain types of obstacles. In Circa Infinity, ducking is just another dumb thing you have to remember to do every once in a while. It’s also completely static; the only thing it’s used for is getting past ghosts. It doesn’t feel like you’re interacting with a structure, it feels like you’re bubbling in the answer on a test.

There are other problems; the boss battles, for one, are just sort of there. Because the game’s effect is dependent on the aforementioned aspects of the level design, the boss battles don’t really add anything; they feel obligatory (especially because there isn’t actually an attack mechanic; “ducking” is repurposed again for damaging the bosses). But all of these things are “problems” only in the sense that Circa Infinity doesn’t appear to have been trying to get them right in the first place. This is a video game, and video games have boss battles at the end of each level. Why would anyone ever try anything else?

circa_infinity_abstract

When I talk about “purpose,” I am not claiming that Circa Infinity should have had some kind of story or message plastered on top of it. I meant what I said earlier: the mindset that the game creates in its best moments is meaningful; it is an effect that goes beyond a simple “message.” This distinction is related to the problem a lot of people have with abstract art. People have the idea that a painting is supposed to be “of” something, and can therefore be judged based on how well it represents the thing that it’s “about.” The Mona Lisa, to take an obvious example, is appreciated for the way it captures a subtle emotional state. Whereas something like a Rothko is “just a bunch of colors”; it doesn’t “represent” anything. But of course every painting is “just a bunch of colors”; even a photorealistic portrait isn’t actually real (neither is a photograph – and neither is the image that you actually see with your eyes). Art doesn’t have to be be representational; what is has to do is affect the viewer. (Really, everyone should understand this point very well, as the most popular art form, music, is almost never representational and almost always operates by creating a direct emotional effect.)

The point of a Pollock, for example, is to get you to look at visual art in a different way, to change the mindset you use to understand paint on a canvas. Circa Infinity works in much the same way: it takes the standard components of platforming and puts them in a new context where they operate differently. It changes the way you think about planning and performing actions in a game – and maybe even in life. Platformers do not require Braid-ification in order to be made meaningful; that’s certainly one option, but a game no more requires a pretentious short story layered on top of it in order for it to mean something than a painting has to represent something in order for it to create an emotional reaction.

This isn’t really a defense of abstract art. A lot of the stuff that winds up in art galleries is made by and for a tiny audience of art weirdos and is only understandable from within the set of expectations and assumptions that constitutes their milieu. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that everyone else is correct to point out that, from their point of view, such art is entirely pointless. It isn’t even a matter of preconceptions; most people simply don’t understand what they’re supposed to be looking at when they see a big blue square in a museum.

Indeed, this is the same problem that almost all video games have: they target only the audience that already understands them. (This is the actual significance of Braid: it challenged people who thought they knew how platformers were supposed to work.) They’re like the opposite of Wittgenstein’s talking lion: they cannot communicate because we already know everything they’re capable of saying. By making tiny adjustments to a conventional framework, they convince themselves that they are moving forward when they are merely pacing around a preestablished perimeter. It is into such a framework that Circa Infinity retreats from its potential. Its focus on pointless challenge, its formulaic structure, and its tabulation of meaningless statistics ensure that everyone who encounters it will either understand it as a typical “hard” platformer or dismiss it as something that is not for them.

No work can appeal to everybody, nor should one try. But there is a line between reaching out towards people and looking at yourself in a mirror. You don’t have to make a statement or light a beacon or raise a battle standard, but you do have to actually pick a direction to move in. Otherwise, you’re just . . . well, you know.

circa_infinity_running

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