Just drifting

So there’s this concept in game design called “verbs,” which are basically all the actions that the player can take in a game. Like, in Mario you can run, jump, duck, fireball, grab turtle shell; in old adventure games you can USE <inventory item> ON <thingy>. That second part, the <thingy>, is the “noun,” which is the object within the game that you’re “verb”-ing. This framework doesn’t work for everything – it’s difficult to apply meaningfully to abstract games, and it’s an awkward fit for sim games, where you’re basically just selecting options off a menu – but, imaginatively speaking, there should be a large variety of potential “sentences” you can form like this, giving games a rich expressive language that can address a wide variety of human concerns. Realistically speaking, not so much. Video games have been and are overwhelmingly concerned with the noun “enemy” and the verb “kill.”

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Hyper Light Drifter is a typical video game that presents itself as a typical video game. You run around fighting enemies and picking up items, working your way towards the big, imposing bosses, and dying over and over again while you try to figure out what the hell you’re supposed to be doing. It’s not particularly friendly, because it assumes that you’re already familiar with the things that it expects you to do. But it’s made with considerably more care and effort than your typical pointless nostalgic throwback. It uses pixel art, but it isn’t really “retro” – it’s an aesthetic, but it’s not intentionally low-quality. In fact, the graphics are really good. The environments are big and messy, making it feel like the world has some actual weight behind it. The copy/paste effect is largely avoided; different instances of the same structures will have slight differences or be broken in different ways. Most impressively, there are many huge, unique setpieces that add a real presence to otherwise generic areas.

So you’ve you’ve got this rich, mysterious, expansive world to explore, and your only means of interacting with it is to kill things. Aside from a generic “interact” button used to open doors and pick up items and soforth, everything you can actually do in the game is focused on finding groups of enemies and killing them. Verb-wise, it’s basically “move,” “dodge,” “kill.”

Again, there’s enough effort put into this to make it better than it sounds. Attacking and dodging both have subtle, smart mechanics that give the game’s action unusual contours. Your weapons are the typical sword and gun, and the typical distinction here is for them to be useful in different situations: the sword is powerful but dangerous, while the gun is convenient but weak. Hyper Light Drifter makes the obvious but uncommon choice to make the gun strictly better than the sword. It does the same or more damage, and it’s faster in addition to being ranged, so it’s always the preferred weapon. The catch is that you have to charge the gun by attacking enemies with the sword. This makes combat extremely focused: instead of switching between your available actions, you have one line of attack that you have to balance based on your gun’s charge. You have to be competent enough to fight with the sword regularly, and you have to have the judgment to know when to go for quick kills with the gun, and the fact that these are two aspects of the same line of action allows for fast and smooth gameplay.

The defensive side of combat is similarly focused: all you’ve really got is a quick-dash that lets you dodge out of the way of enemy attacks. Standard practice here is for the dodge move to just make you invincible while it’s happening, so it can act as a defensive catch-all. This way, whatever kind of attack you’re facing, you can get by it by just dodging at the right time. In fact, the invincibility means you can often dodge into attacks to both avoid damage and wind up in a great position to attack immediately afterwards. But again, Hyper Light Drifter does not make things this easy. The dodge move here is just a movement ability that offers no explicit protection. Not only will dodging into an attack result in getting hit, but even an imprecise dodge away from an attack might not be enough to avoid it, or it might put you in a bad position for the enemies’ next attack. On top of this, the dash itself kind of weak. It doesn’t have much range, and because of how fast the gameplay is you might find yourself under fire again immediately after dodging out of danger. What this means is that you have to actually figure out how to dodge each attack effectively, and be precise enough about it to both avoid damage and put yourself in a position to counterattack. For example, there’s a samurai-like enemy that slowly approaches you and then quickly attacks once it’s at the right distance. You’ll probably get hit if you try to dodge toward or away from the attack, since it’s fast and it has long range. And you can’t just keep your distance, or you’ll never get a chance to attack. What you have to do is dodge precisely so that you wind up to the side of the enemy after it attacks, which will put you out of danger but close enough to follow up with your own attack.

Everything else about the game is equally focused. Each enemy has one simple attack pattern, so you always know what you have to deal with. Damage amounts are small and clearly displayed, so you always know what the situation is. If an enemy has 3 HP, you know you can kill it with one combo; if it has 4, you need to be prepared to retreat after hitting it. If you’ve got an enemy down to 1 HP, you know you have the option of finishing it off with a gun attack and not having to worry about it anymore. Similarly, enemy attacks deal either one or two damage to you, so you always know what you can survive.

The problem with focus, though, is the question of what you’re focusing on, and this is where things start to get a little dispiriting, because all of this violence happens for no reason. The story is intentionally abstract; there’s no text, just the occasional pretty picture to suggest what’s going on (and also the occasional ridiculously overwrought cutscene, which is awfully incongruous in a game with an otherwise minimalist story). But the problem isn’t the technique, it’s the substance, which is to say the lack thereof. There’s no actual reason the enemies in each area are enemies, you just go there and start killing them. Games with lots of text in them get a bad rap for being slow and boring, but it’s this kind of stuff that writing is actually good for: establishing a relationship between characters and the world they live in, creating a context in which the actions you take mean something.

Abdicating one’s responsibility to provide this sort of context can have unfortunate consequences. The “story” in one area is that the native inhabitants have been genocided by, um, some kind of frog ninja clan, or something. There’s a lot of very explicit imagery showcasing the horror of the situation: piles of corpses, heads on pikes, flayed bodies, the whole deal. It’s all quite brutish and upsetting. And so, arriving in the middle of this situation, your response as the player is to murder every living thing you encounter, leave a trail of corpses strewn across the floor, and then strike a coolguy victory pose. “Dissonant” does not begin to describe the effect.

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The issue is not that violence should never be portrayed in games, or even that violence is always wrong. In reality, violence is a complicated subject. Violence can be used defensively or coercively. One application of violence is torture, the living destruction of a human being, and another is mercy killing, using violence to end suffering. The presence of violence makes related choices such as intimidation or pacifism meaningful. But video game violence does not admit any of these complications. The term “senseless violence” exists for a reason, and this is it. The problem with violent video games is actually not the fact that they’re violent, it’s that video game violence is nothing at all like real life violence. It’s thoughtless in a way that nothing real ever is, and that is both the problem and the appeal. When you see an “enemy,” the only thing you have to worry about is killing it. Once you’ve gained proficiency with the controls and learned the enemy’s patterns, you’re done; there’s nothing more you have to think about. You don’t have to consider what the right way to use your abilities is.

Instead of thought, games typically provide what is commonly understood as “challenge.” As a typical video game, Hyper Light Drifter is typical in this regard. Which is to say it’s hard, but not in any way that’s interesting. Actually, the better descriptor is “merciless.” There’s no grace period after getting hit, and many attacks will stun you or knock you down, which will often lead right into getting hit again immediately. One enemy type is actually intentionally designed this way: a bunch of them swarm you at once, and their attack stuns you, leaving you open to an arbitrary number of follow-up hits. There’s really no way to respect a decision like this.

Enemy projectile spam combined with multiple dudes rushing you is a common situation. Healing takes time, so you’ll frequently either get hit immediately after healing or just die before the animation finishes. This is all compounded by the fact that the gameplay is extremely fast. Everything I just wrote and more can happen in the space of about 3 seconds. Bosses in particular rush you like motherfuckers, so your first few attempts at each one will basically be instant losses. This has the annoying effect of requiring a learning curve of figuring out how to not die right away before you get to the actual learning curve of figuring out how to win. And once this happens, it turns out to be less of a learning curve and more of a learning cliff. There aren’t really any complications beyond the basics of avoiding attacks and attacking when you have an opening. Once you’ve figured out what you need to do, you’re done.

Obviously, these things all make the game “difficult” in a general sense, but the fact that there are many different types of difficulty is why it’s important not to lump distinct concepts together under the same word. Difficulty of conceptualization is different from difficulty of execution. Moral complexity is different from optimization. Planning is different from exhaustive investigation. Hyper Light Drifter is game where there is no thinking about what to do or how to do it or why you’re doing it, and there is only mastery of execution.

This compounds the aforementioned problem of senselessness. If the game had some kind of motivation to it, if it made you want to learn how to perform well, there might be some kind of value in it. This is why combining a story with gameplay is such a good idea: it makes action meaningful. As it is, though, you’re just going into each area and scouring the life from it, for no reason. It’s difficult to think of anything less meaningful than that.

Again, the violence is not the problem. Violent stories can be meaningful, and senseless gameplay doesn’t suddenly become interesting when you take the gore out of it. In fact, Hyper Light Drifter itself makes this point quite clearly, because the non-violent aspects of the game are equally senseless. Besides killing everything, the other main activity in the game in searching for secrets, and this shares the same lack of logic that the violence does. What will happen is you’ll notice a platform off to the side or a break in the trees or something, and you’ll go over there, not for any real reason (there is, again, no motivation for any of your actions in this game) but just because you’re playing a video game and video games have things hidden in places like this.

I’ve prepared some examples to show just how little sense this makes. Take a moment to inspect the following screenshot:

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See the gray scraps in the lower left? Those indicate that there’s actually a passage there rather than a wall. Now try this one:

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See the same scraps in the center right? Same deal, right? Nope. That one’s just a wall. One more:

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See how the path along the floor branches off to the right? Pretty clearly indicates that someone built a path there, and you just can’t see it because of the camera angle, right? Again, no. Just a path leading into a wall for no reason. Pretty much everything hidden in the game is like this: there’s no rhyme or reason to any of it, so you just have to obsessively check everything. Sometimes enemies coming out of a wall means there’s actually a passage back there, and sometimes it’s just randos comin’ outta nowhere. There are even a number of cases where just standing in a nondescript location will cause a little symbol to appear over your head, indicating that you can press the “interact” button to make some floating platforms appear out of nowhere. It’s all senseless.

And there is such a thing as sensible exploration. In fact, it isn’t particularly hard to get this right, you just have to treat exploration like it’s actually a part of the game. In Civilization, exploration matters because it has a cost. You have to spend resources you could be using on other things, and there’s no guarantee you’ll find anything good, so you have to make do with whatever comes up. In Metroid, exploration has mechanics. You have a variety of tools available that allow you to interact with the environment in specific ways, which makes exploration a matter of figuring out how to get places rather than merely poking at every wall just in case there’s something there.

And the other half of exploration is, again, the context in which it makes sense. And, again, Hyper Light Drifter has none. It is not the case that, for example, you’re in a library looking for a particular book, and you see a passageway behind some shelves, so you explore it looking for a hidden area. In fact, there is a library in the game, but your only business there is to pass through it on your way to continuing to kill everyone. In fact, there are even some library books on the floor that are in your way, so what you have to do, just as when you encounter any other type of obstacle, is to attack and destroy them so that you can proceed. I found this to be a particularly provocative aesthetic choice, as I am of the school of thought that considers book burning to be one of the great crimes against humanity. Perhaps this is a less universal viewpoint than I had assumed.

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The goal of the game is to find enough magic triangles in each area to open up the magic elevator that takes you to the last boss, which you then kill, and then everything’s over. But the only reason the last boss is the last boss is that it’s a big spooky shadow monster, so of course you’re supposed to kill it. And the only reason collecting the magic triangles is your primary goal is that, you know, it’s a video game, so obviously you’re supposed to run around and collect everything that’s not nailed down. Some of the magic triangles appear to act as power sources for the areas they’re in – the lights go out after you take them – which only serves to make the actions that the game requires of the player even more bizarre. Like, the person destroying the power grid for no apparent reason is pretty obviously the bad guy, right?

And where the game isn’t incongruous, it’s sterile. In one area, you find a lab full of monsters and robots and robot monsters, and it’s all just sort of there. It’s all spectacle and no interaction; you can’t disable the machines or figure out what’s going on or anything, it’s just a bunch of scenery, imposing and flat. Hyper Light Drifter doesn’t take place in a world, it takes place in a diorama.

One thing that seems like it should be interesting is the fact that the protagonist suffers from a terminal disease, such that you occasionally have to stop moving and cough up blood for a little while. This raises a number of questions about how you’re going to interact with the game world. Perhaps there will be times when you’re too weak to fight, forcing you to surrender? Maybe there’s some sort of medicine or resource you need to find in order to manage your symptoms? Or maybe the protagonist goes through the game acutely aware of the fragility of life, compelling her to avoid killing and show mercy whenever possible? The answer to all of these questions is “no.” Once you’re done coughing, you can get right back to slaughtering everything. And then you die at the end, which I guess is sad, or something.

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I get that this is all beside the point. The developers didn’t think about any of this, and the vast majority of players aren’t going to either. Considering how niche this game is, maybe I’m the only one who cares. But remember: Hyper Light Drifter thinks it’s a typical video game, and the problem is that it’s right. It’s the kind of obsessively inaccessible work that ought to be understood as niche, but given the current situation of video games, it actually is the kind of thing that its audience thinks of as “normal.” It wouldn’t be playable otherwise; there’s no explanation for any of your actions and no way to know what to do, except that the stuff you have to do is the same stuff you always do in video games. There are complicated mechanics for killing, and one generic “interact” button for everything else. There are big fancy graphics that don’t matter, because they’re just backdrops and not actual objects in the world. Conversing with another living being receives only the bare minimum representation, while chopping the heads off of goblin monsters is illustrated with lavish animations. A typical video game is one that’s complicated without being thoughtful, evocative without being meaningful, bloody without being human.

The mindset that this game requires you to inhabit is genuinely disturbing. You have to view the world as an adversary, something to be hacked through as you lust after pickups like a starving dog. You have to act like an animal, and not even the good kind of animal that gets to just eat and fuck all day long. The kind that stares with dull eyes at whatever happens to enter its field of vision, that inhabits the world as a creature of mere sustenance, that can’t think.

I mean, I’ve been here before, okay? I understand why this game exists. When I got to the first boss I died instantly, and then I died slightly less instantly a few more times. I experimented with the mechanics to make sure I had a handle on how they were supposed to work. I memorized the progression of its attacks and came up with a strategy for avoiding each one. I tried attacking it at every possible opportunity to see when I could do so without getting hit. And a few dozen tries later I barely killed it by using my last two bullets after noticing it was almost out of health. A lot of people can’t deal with things like this, especially with the audience for games having radically expanded, but I can. I just don’t care anymore. It’s typical. My ability to “overcome” “challenges” like this is not a virtue, it’s a vice. Difficulty needs to be for something; bashing your head against a wall is not a recipe for revelation, and putting up with it is not a recipe for being a decent person.

I’m honestly not even upset about any of this. I’m just sad. A lot of effort was put into this game. It’s precise and intelligent and beautiful. Playing it takes real effort; you have to pay constant attention, explore without guidance, and persevere in the face of seemingly impossible challenges. You can’t finish it without coming to a real understanding of the mechanics and genuinely improving in skill. And in the end, all you have to show for it is a pile of dead bodies.

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Stay woke

Waking Mars is, well, basically what it says. It’s inventive and original in a way that’s actually fairly heartening. The problem is that it fails to live up to the most significant sense of its title.

Quick political rant: the current Mars exploration fad is a bunch of horseshit. The sheer scale of the endeavor is being vastly underplayed; we’re not getting to Mars, and there wouldn’t be anything to fucking do there if we did. The only people saying otherwise are a) actual hoaxers and b) rich fucks fantasizing about abandoning their responsibility towards the planet they’ve destroyed and ascending to techno-heaven. Whereas all of us without tickets to Magical Space Paradise are going to have to live and die here, regardless.

There’s a reason this is a hot topic, though: we’re starved for glory. Getting to Mars is a goal we can look to for proof that humanity is still capable of greatness. The problem is that the current, greatness-less situation is justified. Our past “greatness” was built on a mountain of corpses, and those ghosts are coming back to haunt us. The kind of greatness we need now is not the kind that involves monuments and Manhattan Projects, it’s the kind that involves responsibility and small, quiet triumphs.

Which should be where Waking Mars comes in, because this isn’t actually a game about Mars exploration. It’s a game about managing an ecosystem.

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The idea is that you’re the first person on Mars, and as you explore the caves you encounter these weird alien plantanimalthings, and you need to grow and reproduce them in order to open up each new area. There are multiple different organisms with different attributes and different reproductive strategies, and you have to “research” them yourself in order to find out how each one works.

This aspect of investigation and discovery is what the game really has going for it. You start with no information other than “you’re exploring Mars,” and the situation gradually reveals itself to you as you do so. Rather than being given a set of puzzles with well-defined rules, the majority of the gameplay is figuring out the rules yourself. Furthermore, the explicit objective you’re given is to find your way back to base camp, but this is not the goal of the game. You actually have to ignore this objective entirely and search around in order to find out what’s really going on and what there actually is for you to do on Mars (obvious spoiler alert: it’s aliens).

The combination of exploring the caves and encountering and investigating each new life form gives the game a real sense of vibrancy that’s sadly uncommon. You genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next, not in the banal “shocking twist” sense but in the simple everyday sense of encountering the unknown. The actual gameplay mostly involves figuring out how the different types of plants work together, which heightens the effect. For example, one plant type will start to produce seeds when you water it, which can then be fed to a different type of creature to get it to reproduce, and that creature can then be eaten by a third type of plant, which will then produce seeds of its own.

The problem is that that sentence I just wrote is about as far as it goes. Once you’ve discovered how everything works, you find that there’s very little going on other than spawning as many plants as possible. As a result, the game relies on a major crutch: each plant has an associated “biomass” value, and the goal of each area is nothing more than getting the total biomass above a given threshold. There are no unusual conditions to deal with or specific behaviors that you have to trigger, you just have to stock up on seeds and get them plants in the ground.

Defining each challenge as a mere number kills much of the potential gameplay. For example, one type of plant produces water seeds, which can be used to hydrate other plant types. But the water plants themselves provide the smallest amount of biomass, so there’s no reason to ever actually plant them. When you need water seeds you can just go get them from one of the existing plants. This is precisely the problem with framing your game in terms of which number is bigger than the other number: there’s no dynamism. The only worthwhile option is the one with the biggest number attached to it, which means it’s not really an option at all.

This is boring, but the real problem is that it kills the theme. The game is supposedly about ecosystems, but there’s no sense of balance. For example, you can spawn as many of those seed-eating creatures as you want by just continually feeding them seeds, so in some areas the “solution” is to just spawn as many of this one type of creature as possible, which is the exact opposite of how ecosystems work. Early in the game, the player character expresses concern that recklessly growing as many plants as possible could have an adverse impact on the ecosystem. Turns out that doesn’t matter; apparently care is for suckers and ecosystems are just about making bio-numbers as big as possible. What should be an exploration of give and take is instead an exercise in making numbers go up.

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The game’s overall framework also has a coherence problem. Each area is supposed to be self-contained, the conceit being that the plants seal themselves off for self-protection until the surrounding areas have rejuvenated sufficiently. But the way you progress is by collecting seeds from one area and taking them to another area. Managing the reproduction of each plant type is supposed to be part of the gameplay, but you never have to actually worry about this. If you run out of seeds you can just go get them from somewhere else.

The problem is that there are two different types of gameplay being represented here: resource management and puzzle solving. You can’t just hybridize these by mashing them together, because they directly contradict each other.

Part of what defines a puzzle is its resource constraints. If you think of puzzle games like Lemmings or The Incredible Machine, each level in these games gives you a certain number of each potentially available tool, and the challenge is figuring out how to achieve the goal given what you’ve got. If you always had access to everything, there would be no point: you could just do whatever you felt like every time. On the other hand, if you don’t have enough resources, the puzzle is unsolvable. Good design means giving the player enough resources to solve the puzzle without a major headache, but few enough that they actually have to come up with something meaningful.

Waking Mars falls into both traps. If there’s a specific type of seed you need for a certain area, and you don’t have it, your only option is to backtrack and wander around until you find one. In other areas, being well-stocked with seeds trivializes the challenge. You don’t have to think about what you’re doing when you can just throw down as many high-value plants as possible in order to get over the threshold.

In a resource management game like Civilization, on the other hand, you have to take a big-picture view. You know what your current “income” is, what the costs of your various options are, and where your future resources can potentially come from. You can then make long-term decisions based on what you know, while trying to account for what you don’t know.

Waking Mars fails to deliver on this front as well. Since you can always get whatever seeds you need, your resources aren’t actually limited, so there’s nothing to decide. This makes the whole reproductive aspect of the gameplay fall flat. There’s supposed to be a give and take involved in reproducing each plant; for example, some plants have to eat other plants. But because everything is actually unlimited, managing this never actually becomes a decision, it’s always just a task. As it is, Waking Mars gets the worst of both worlds: both the boringness of having to manually collect resources and the blandness of not having any real constraints to deal with.

And this is why these two types of gameplay don’t work together. A puzzle has to be locked down; the ability to bring in outside resources destroys it. Whereas the presence of puzzles in a resource management game is pointless friction that gets in the way of the actual gameplay (imagine trying to play Civilization if you had to solve a puzzle every turn to get your towns to harvest their resources). Certainly, it’s possible to combine these genres, in the sense that anything is possible, but design is a real thing and you really do have to know what you’re doing.

The thing is, either of these approaches by itself would have been thematically significant. Focusing on resource management would have added to the sense that you’re struggling to restore life to a dying planet, while focusing on the puzzles would have emphasized the relationships between the different plants and the complexity of the ecosystem. The game should have picked a gun and stuck to it. Instead, it tries to walk in two directions are once, and ends up stumbling over its own feet.

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In the end, the key that really locks away the game’s potential experience is manual interaction. Pretty much everything in the game requires you to be there poking at it for it to actually work. You have to pick up all the seeds and carry them around yourself. Reproducing plants requires you to sit there and collect the seeds before they roll down into a lava pit or something. One type of creature won’t move unless you chase it, which means it won’t feed itself and its predators will never be able to eat it unless you’re there to bottle-feed them.

Since the setup is that you’re on a mostly-dead planet and it needs some intervention to get going again, it’s appropriate for the game to start by requiring you to jury-rig everything. But if we’re talking about reviving an ecosystem, the goal should obviously be to set things up so that they start working on their own. And this just doesn’t happen. The most blatant example is the water plants again. Clearly, the idea is that these plants have a function in the ecosystem: they hydrate the other plants. So it would make sense if you could arrange the plants such that each water plant can reach as many other plants as possible.

But you can’t really do this; the water plants basically just squirt about randomly, and they may occasionally hit another plant, but the possibility of precision just isn’t there. Furthermore, since you can carry the water seeds around and use them yourself, there’s no reason to even care about this (this is exacerbated by the aforementioned fact that you never actually want to plant the water plants. Design is a system; the parts affect each other). It would make a lot more sense if you just couldn’t use the water seeds to hydrate other plants yourself. That way, you would actually have to organize the environment in an intelligent way instead of just stocking up and then poking everything.

And again, this is not just about gameplay: the real problem is that this doesn’t work for the theme. Nature is very much not about manual intervention being required for every little task to succeed. It would have been quite provocative for the game to ultimately reveal that it’s bigger than you, that once you’ve restored the planet’s functions, the majesty of nature takes over and leaves you as just another insignificant individual creature.

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If we add all this up, we get to the heart of the matter: Waking Mars thinks it’s a video game. There’s actually a lot of other evidence that makes this even more painfully obvious.

You’ve got a life bar and you can technically “die,” although this will almost never happen and it doesn’t actually do anything regardless, since this isn’t an action game. Despite this, there are a couple of pointless “action sequences” that you have to slog through. There’s even selectable difficulty levels, which aren’t prominent, but still: selectable difficulty levels in general are a sign that you don’t know what you’re doing, and it’s particularly bad when they have nothing to do with what the game is actually about.

You get an achievement for “fully researching” each life form, which is exactly how actual discovery does not work. The essence of discovery is not knowing what’s still out there to find. Crossing items off of a checklist is the opposite of a revelation.

The story is established through tons of bland dialog between two talking heads. This is unnecessary, because, as mentioned, the point of the game is that you’re gradually discovering things for yourself. Pretty much none of the dialogue is at all helpful or interesting (as much as I hate to be snide, the fact that the game credits Wikipedia pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the discourse level, science-wise). Also, a very large amount of the dialogue is from an A.I. with the “joke” that it talks like a poorly coded chatbot, which gets old after about four lines and is also an obvious excuse to avoid having to do any real writing. I will mention that the two human characters in the game are a Chinese man and an African woman, which is nice, except that the former is wooden and pensive while the latter is gabby and emotional. You don’t really get points for diversity when your characters are just flat stereotypes.

Finally, there are “multiple endings” in the usual trivial sense, meaning you can choose between two different cutscenes to view at the end. Oh, you clicked on the right button and got Ending #1? Good job. Here’s your achievement. Now click on the left button so you can get Ending #2. Now you’re done.

Once again, the game had somewhere significant to go here: it could have done its part in correcting the most common misconception about evolution. As no one on the internet is aware, evolution is not a straight line from amoebas to spaceships. It’s convenient to think of things this way, because it means everything just keeps getting better automatically. All we have to do is watch the numbers go up.

But that ain’t how it am. Evolution is about mutual adaption, which means both that different things happen under different conditions and that lots of different things can happen even under the same condition. And since we’ve got a game here that is about restoring an ecosystem based on the interactions between different types of organisms, there should have been different ways for this to happen. There should have been different ways to grow the ecosystems in different areas, resulting in different evolutionary paths which would cause different forms of life to ultimately awaken in each of the endings. Instead, the ending to this game is that you activate an alien artifact and it causes a magical crystal spaceship to shoot up from out of the ground (not exaggerating).

This would have been a significant achievement in gameplay as well. The thing that games are supposed to be good at is modeling rule-based interactions, so evolution is hell of fertile territory to make some games about (in fact, this type of thing was the inspiration for one of the original meaningful games). Games have no right to exist if we can’t create meaning out of a set of rules. Evolution is one of the reasons we know this is possible: we exist because of a specific set of rules that operated under specific conditions. If we can’t make that meaningful, we’re fucked.

And we will continue to be fucked as long as video games continue to rest on their shoddy, decaying laurels. Waking Mars is based on a good idea that could have translated into a truly significant experience. Instead, despite its originality, it degenerates into convention. And while it has its share of design problems, what it ultimately needs is not “better design.” It needs to get woke.

On the verge

There’s not that much to say about Axiom Verge itself. It’s good. It’s a good Metroid clone. That’s not even a dig or anything; it’s well-designed and it’s fun. And despite the fact that “clone” is the term we use for things like this, there isn’t anything wrong with doing genre work. What’s actually interesting about Axiom Verge, though, isn’t how good of a game it is, but how good of a game it isn’t.

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The first thing that happens in the game is that you’re told to go into a room and pick up a gun. You then use the gun to shoot open the door to the next area. In fact, the next three upgrades you get after that are also weapons. The game proceeds pretty much how you would expect from this introduction: most of the gameplay is shooting things, and the boss battles are all firefights.

Actually, the game is disappointing even in this regard. You get a huge number of different weapons (like seriously way too many. Pro tip: the concept of “minimalism” exists for a reason) with different firing patterns and such, but the vast majority of the time the most effective thing to do is to stick with your default weapon and just mash the fire button as fast as you can. The second boss fight is especially anti-notable in this regard: it occurs after you’ve obtained three new weapons since the first boss, and none of them are useful. You know you’ve got a problem when you’re so into shooting ’em up that you’re failing Game Design 101.

This is especially sad when you remember that what makes the Metroid series notable is precisely not the combat, it’s the exploration. Metroid-style combat that consists of merely shooting at enemies until they go away is boring, which is fine, because it’s not supposed to be the focus of the game. Of course, Axiom Verge is far from the only game to make this mistake; indeed, the Metroid series itself suffers deeply from this problem, which is why Super Metroid is still the only game in the series that’s actually worth talking about. In all this time, not a single game has actually improved upon the aspects of Super Metroid that made it great; few have even competently imitated them.

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And yet, there are two items in Axiom Verge that actually hint at a path forward: the Address Disruptor, which allows you to “hack” certain enemies and objects in order to change their properties, and the Passcode Tool, which allows you to change the basic parameters of the game by discovering and entering certain passwords, which can then be turned on or off at will. Pretty interesting stuff, right? Here’s a fun idea: imagine that, instead of getting a gun first so that you can start shooting things as soon as possible, the first thing you picked up was the Address Disruptor, and instead of merely pointing it at the door and pressing “fire,” you actually had to use it to rearrange the environment in some way to be able to proceed. And then you got the Passcode Tool, and a password that, like, inverted gravity or something, and then you had an entirely different version of the game world to explore. Then imagine an entire game that followed from this introduction.

Go on, give yourself a minute to really think of some neat applications of these ideas. I’ll wait.

. . .

Did you enjoy that? I hope so, because none of the stuff you were imagining is actually in Axiom Verge.

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The Address Disruptor does a couple of neat things. It does not do anything neat with the actual environment, whereupon its only use is to allow traversal though certain passages by revealing platforms or removing walls, exactly as if it were a blue key that opens blue doors. Hacking enemies, though, does provide a few interesting moments. Some turn into platforms, others gain the ability to break through certain walls. There’s even one that directly drops an upgrade when killed in its hacked form. Behaviors like these provide innovative new ways to explore the environment and search for secrets.

Ultimately, though, most of the Disruptor’s effects are combat-based. Fast-moving enemies slow down, enemies that normally chase and latch onto you will instead stay still and shoot at you, armored enemies become vulnerable to standard weaponry. Again, the problem with this is that combat is boring; since your goal is to just get rid of the enemies, their behaviors don’t really matter. You’re merely removing obstacles that are in your path. If hacking them makes them easier to deal with, fine; if it’s easier to just shoot them, that’s fine too.

At least that’s something, though. The Passcode Tool is apparently made out of some sort of alien technology that’s powered entirely by disappointment. There are exactly two types of passwords that you can find in the game: one translates some of the log entries you find, allowing you to read thought-provoking fragments that reveal intriguing details about the game’s complex backstory (sometimes I really wonder why I’m doing this to myself), and the other opens passageways in certain rooms, exactly as if it were a blue key that opens blue doors.

There’s one last point that needs to be made about the aesthetics of these items. They’re both presented as ways for you to “break the game,” and their graphical representations support this. Hacking enemies with the Address Disruptor causes them to appear “glitched,” and the Passcode Tool is basically a Game Genie (remember Game Genie? It’s back, in pog form). Even the game’s own ad copy claims that you can “break the game itself by using glitches to corrupt foes and solve puzzles in the environment.” Of course, this is exactly wrong: because these mechanics have specific, intentional effects and the game is designed around them, they precisely do not “break” the game. This may just seem like a cute reference, but what’s important is that it allows Axiom Verge to pretend to be doing more than it actually is; to make do with cuteness instead of trying for depth. This is the problem of mere cleverness.

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So, since I already used the “kill yr idols” conclusion, let’s try something else. Axiom Verge is science-themed. The player character is a theoretical physicist (uh, I think. He works in a “laser lab,” anyway), and your equipment’s ability to alter reality is implied to come from the development and application of a “Theory of Everything.” What I’m going to suggest is that Axiom Verge ought to have followed its theme.

As mentioned, the game is a more combat-focused version of the basic Metroid design, “combat” in this case meaning that there are “enemies” whose only purpose is to be obstacles to your progress, and you get them out of the way by “attacking” them enough to get rid of them while avoiding their own attacks on you. This is very much not what science is like. Science (when done well), is about open-mindedness, collaboration, experimentation, careful observation, and even tedious rigor. Of course, I’m not claiming that the game should have tried to implement a complete representation of the scientific method, but I am claiming that it could easily have done better than implementing the exact opposite.

And here’s what’s interesting: the basic explorative gameplay of Metroid is actually already fairly science-like. You have to stay open-minded and look for alternative routes in order to successfully navigate the environment. You have to experiment to understand how your tools interact with the game world. You have to make careful observations to find likely locations of hidden areas. Sometimes you even have to tediously check every possible wall for a hidden passage. Axiom Verge, with its claimed ability to allow you to alter the environment via the Address Disruptor and change the basic nature of the game with the Passcode Tool, should have been able to do even better than this; it should have been a step forward. Instead, it does the easy thing and slaps a bunch more guns onto a basic design template. It retreats from the game it ought to have been.

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The third boss fight provides some insight into how things could have worked. The boss is a giant, screen-filling monstrosity that throws multiple simultaneous attacks at you, and if you try to fight it via the standard dodging-and-shooting approach, you’re totally doomed. Instead, you have to use the Address Disruptor to reveal more platforms in the area that both block some of the boss’s attacks and provide you with more advantageous positions from which to attack (it’s over once you have the high ground). This is a great example of how a boss fight can rely on thought and planning rather than reflexes and button mashing. And it shows that, even with just the tools that Axiom Verge already has, there could have been an entire game that worked this way.

This is the real significance of the fact that Axiom Verge is a Metroid clone. Starting from the basic Metroid design and then adding enough “innovative” ideas to make the game “original” is exactly the wrong approach. The clearest example of this mistake is the Remote Drone, which is used to move through narrow passages in exactly the same way as Metroid’s Morph Ball. Its look and feel are slightly different, which guarantees that clueless reviewers will praise it for “originality,” but the actual function of the item is exactly the same. Certainly, when one considers the possible applications of a remote-controlled robot in the context of scientific exploration, one can easily imagine several more interesting alternatives.

The better approach, then, is to start with a theme, something that you actually want the game to convey, and then use whatever aspects of existing designs are useful for doing so. Even if this results in a pure genre game, it’ll be one that matters for its own sake, that isn’t merely a representative of its category. This is part of the deep problem that video games have with insularity: they’re only judged against themselves. A different version of a game that’s already been judged “good” is therefore necessarily also “good.” But this doesn’t give anyone who doesn’t already like this type of game any reason to care about it; indeed, it doesn’t give the game a right to exist when someone else has already done it better. The reason nobody has to make any excuses when some new band comes out sounding like the Ramones is because it’s taken for granted that music is a way to express something; we expect it to stand up to judgment on our own terms. This is not currently the case for video games.

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