Take off the brakes

Ossuary is an adventure game about Discordianism. Despite the underlying philosophy, this is a very straightforward approach, so it’s useful for determining whether this kind of thing actually works, at all.

ossuary_evil

Our first order of business is to understand what type of thing an “adventure game” is. That is, you walk around and you talk to people and you use things on other things and your progression is typically heavily story-based, but the question is: what are the underlying rules that define your interaction with the game space? To get an idea of what we’re talking about here, consider a typical combat-based RPG. You have an attack stat, and the monster has a defense stat and an HP value, and based on those things there’s an equation that determines what’s going to happen when you execute a particular attack. Or, in an action game, there’s maybe a physics engine or something (which is also just an equation) that determines what’s going to happen when a particular set of objects is in a particular configuration. So what’s notable about adventure games is that they lack any framework of this type, and what they have instead is nothing. Rather than being able to calculate the right answer, you just have to guess it.

The mechanics of other types of video games are like physical laws: they can’t (in theory) be broken, but you also don’t necessarily know what they are. You can be mistaken about them, and they may not accord with whatever conceptual frameworks you employ to understand them, but they’re there anyway. In an adventure game, there are no such laws, which means there are only conceptual frameworks. As you’re playing, you form the idea that, for example, you need a key to open a locked door, but there’s nothing that requires that to be the case. In a Metroid game, a green door can always be opened with a Super Missile; there may be an additional route around it, but that rule is always there. In an adventure game, there is no “always.” You might find a key for the door that breaks off when you try to use it, and instead have to talk a nearby guard into opening the door for you, even if neither of those things ever happens anywhere else in the game.

What’s important to understand here is that, while any type of gameplay can be reductively understood as a matter of “guessing” the right answer, adventure games are still different. Returning to our RPG example, you’re also selecting from a number of options, one (or more) of which is the “right answer,” but the underlying framework tells you something about what’s going to happen when you choose each option. When you have an attack that deals 50 damage and you use it on an enemy with 45 HP left, you know in advance that you’re going to kill it. Furthermore, those variables can change: the enemy might have a defensive property such that it only takes half damage and survives, and you might then have a “piercing” attack that ignores defense, so you can use that and kill it anyway. Learning about these rules as you play the game enables you to make informed decisions, and to take advantage of the available variables in order to accomplish your in-game goals.

What distinguishes an adventure game is the complete lack of any of these sorts of variables. Using the blue key on the blue door will open it and allow you access to the next area, and that’s it. That is absolutely everything there is to be said about the gameplay from a mechanical perspective. There’s no rule you can follow to predict what’s going to happen in advance, and there are no confounding variables that can change that result. In short, an adventure game is a game with no mechanics.

By itself, this sounds pretty bad, as though the gameplay were merely a matter of making random guesses until one of them works and allows you to watch the next cutscene – and, indeed, in the worst adventure games, this is exactly what happens. So adventure games are kind of the mechanical equivalent of free verse: there’s nothing that necessarily holds them together, so you have to come up with a way of doing it yourself. What’s needed is a way of making things make sense; in other words, the gameplay in an adventure game is aesthetic rather than mechanical.

A simple example of how this can work occurs in the game Savoir-Faire. The player character has the innate magical ability to link two objects together, such that actions taken upon one object affect the other. The first puzzle you encounter is a locked door, which can be opened by “linking” it to a teapot; “opening” the teapot then correspondingly “opens” the door. Knowing that you can do this type of thing reliably means you’re not just fumbling around in the dark when it comes to puzzles. You’re still “guessing,” in a broad sense, but you have something to go on – you have a reason to expect certain potential solutions to work. A more popular example is the Ace Attorney series, where your actions have a very specifically defined context: you’re trying to select a piece of evidence that refutes a particular argument. Because you always know what type of thing you’re trying to accomplish, you have a basis from which to make intelligent choices. And this is why the concept of “puzzles” is appropriately associated with adventure games: rather than simply having a list of options to try, there’s something you have to actually figure out.

There is, of course, a next step, which is to make the puzzles actually mean something. Guessing what door-opening technique the author was thinking of isn’t any more interesting than guessing what number they were thinking of. And what’s significant about Ossuary is that it actually gets really close to doing this. It has a coherent theme that provides an aesthetic foundation for its puzzles.

ossuary_democracy

The game is set in an unexplained foreboding netherworld, with the aesthetics set to maximize the forebodingness. Raw blackness is offset only by the tiny, misshapen figures of what barely count as people. The crunch of bones underwrites every step you take, everywhere in the entire game, while spooky dirge noises reverberate continuously in the background. It is very clear that the place that you are in is a bad place.

The gameplay uses the traditional adventure game approach of “inventory” items that you “use” on things, but it’s both radically simplified and semantically amplified. There are only seven “items,” which aren’t actually items at all: they’re the seven Christian sins. You gain the use of each sin by being “infected” with it, thereby becoming able to infect others with it. Every puzzle is solved by choosing the sin that will motivate someone to do what you need them to do.

The conceit, then, is that sins are good things. The descriptions in the “inventory” are all framed positively, inverting the usual valence: rather than sins being threats against purity, here they are the only spark of life in a world of darkness. The aesthetic thread that ties the puzzles together is this idea of positive corruption. Your goal is to introduce meaningful disorder into a world of pernicious order.

ossuary_pride

The basic idea of Discordianism, if there can be said to be such a thing, is that society is currently constructed along an order/disorder axis, with a preference for order. This points towards the false goal of an eternally true “perfect order” that will solve all problems and account for all things. Hence, we end up pursuing order even when it’s harmful. The proposed redress is not to make the same mistake in pursuing pure chaos, but to sometimes pursue order and sometimes pursue disorder as appropriate.

The world of Ossuary is, like ours, a world toiling under what Discordians refer to as the Curse of Greyface.

“In the year 1166 B.C., a malcontented hunchbrain by the name of Greyface, got it into his head that the universe was as humorless as he, and he began to teach that play was sinful because it contradicted the ways of Serious Order. ‘Look at all the order around you,’ he said. And from that, he deluded honest men to believe that reality was a straightjacket affair and not the happy romance as men had known it.

It is not presently understood why men were so gullible at that particular time, for absolutely no one thought to observe all the disorder around them and conclude just the opposite. But anyway, Greyface and his followers took the game of playing at life more seriously than they took life itself and were known even to destroy other living beings whose ways of life differed from their own.

The unfortunate result of this is that mankind has since been suffering from a psychological and spiritual imbalance. Imbalance causes frustration, and frustration causes fear. And fear makes for a bad trip. Man has been on a bad trip for a long time now.

It is called THE CURSE OF GREYFACE.”

Ossuary is an ironic portrayal of this situation. It’s all imposing black backgrounds and haunting sound effects. It even has slowly-fading-in Famous Quotes displayed in isolation, which is like the calling card for pretentious over-seriousness. In fact, in the last ending, the quote displayed is “The human race will begin solving its problems on the day that it ceases taking itself so seriously” – presented in the most serious manner possible.

So, I mean, that’s the joke, right? It’s a somber and serious explication of why it’s bad to be somber and serious. Hence, all of the endings are bad endings. There are five possible goals, each of which allows someone to take over the netherworld according to some principle of how things ought to be ordered. This even applies to the goal of exposing the lies of the other potential rulers, because that just gives power to the one claiming the authority of the truth.

But it’s not just that Ossuary portrays this situation, it’s that the entire logic of the game accords to this framework. As an adventure game, all it involves is slotting the right answers into the right questions. It’s perfectly ordered: use A on B so you can get C, use C to get to D, and then you’re done. The gameplay, as gameplay, is rigid and boring in the way that adventure games generally are. You just walk around and click on things until the puzzles get solved, and you have to constantly track back and forth to get the necessary items from one place and use them in a different place. In terms of game mechanics, it’s a fully ordered system illustrating why fully ordered systems are bad. So, in fact, the player’s introduction of disorder is merely aesthetic, because it is executed in the most orderly way possible.

ossuary_order

So, like, that’s still kind of the joke, it’s an expression of the fundamental emptiness of order, but we’re getting into dangerous territory here, don’t you think? The thing about satire is that it’s actually not a joke; it takes its subject more seriously than the subject takes itself. The corresponding danger is reification: if Ossuary works for you as a game, that necessarily means that you’re totally cool with expressing things through fully ordered systems.

To understand the problem, consider the Principia Discordia itself, as a document. It is, of course, an explanation of Discordianism, which makes it an orderly work. It even contains some substantive philosophical statements and political arguments. The reason is doesn’t suffer from the same problem that Ossuary does is that it’s presented in the most haphazard manner possible. It jumps between different weird sort-of-parables while making up a bunch of goofball terminology and fake history, accentuated by crude sketches and bad jokes. And throughout it all, it presents itself as a religion, injecting unseriousness into what is normally the most serious of affairs. The concise way to put this is that it’s fun1. This isn’t done out of defensiveness; it’s an active illustration of the document’s own principles. It embodies the upsurge of disorder into order.

Ossuary lacks this upsurge; it offers only one extremely narrow pathway of progression; it’s all hodge and no podge. In fact, there is a sort of alternate hidden goal in the game other than empowering the rulers, and it’s not an ending, which sets it apart from the rest of the game’s framework. It allows you to remove the Curse of Greyface, returning light to the netherworld and replacing the spooky dirge noises with happy glow noises. But you’ll notice that this is the most boring and conventional way to express this state of affairs, “bringing light to the darkness” or what the fuck ever, and, indeed, the way you achieve this goal is even more arbitrary and dull than the rest of the game. You have to solve a couple of nondescript click-on-things-in-the-right-order puzzles, so you don’t even get to talk to people or anything; you’re just inputting the correct answer into the system.

ossuary_art

So, is the point that this sort of thing is impossible to express through the necessarily hyperconstrained format of the adventure game? It is the opposite: it is precisely because an adventure game does not have an underlying set of mechanics that it is the perfect vehicle for illustrating the simultaneous use of multiple, overlapping frameworks.

This is a specific point; we’re not just talking about “chaos” in general here. Like, an action game can be “chaotic” in the sense that there’s a bunch of stuff going on and it’s hard to make sense of it all, but that’s not very interesting in this context. Remember, for Discordians, valorizing disorder is just as much of a straitjacket as valorizing order. What’s required is dynamism, and just as the Principia Discordia incorporates this understanding into its text, Discordianism incorporates it into its philosophy. As opposed to most conventional religions, which have a bunch of different sects that each think they are “correct” in opposition to the others, Discordianism has infinitely many contradictory sects which are all simultaneously correct.

To get technical, what Discordianism promotes is the ability to juggle conceptual frameworks. That is, there’s “reality,” which is the actual collection of stuff that exists, and then there are the ideas that we have about reality, which are frameworks that we use to understand it. Any given framework implies a set of constraints, which means it illuminates some things while obscuring others. Thus, adherence to a single framework is necessarily limiting; the ability to switch between frameworks as required allows one to perceive more of reality than anyone can under a single framework.

So if we’re talking about gameplay, what we ought to be talking about is a game with multiple rulesets that the player must switch between of their own volition. Again, you might think that adventure games, without mechanics, cannot accomplish this, but in fact they are optimally suited for it. Remember what we were discussing before about adventure games being held together with aesthetics rather than mechanics? In any other genre you would have to actually implement multiple different systems, which, like, go for it, but also good luck. But in an adventure game, you can get right down to business: you can simply portray the thing you want to portray. The frameworks won’t “technically” be implemented in the game, but they will end up where they actually matter: in the player’s mind.

The idea of productive corruption via sin that Ossuary advances is just one aesthetic approach. Indeed, Ossuary has five goals that you can pursue all at once, but you pursue them all in the same way. This problem is most obvious when it comes to the lie-exposing goal: this ought to be a different type of thing than the other goals, but it’s actually just the same walk-around-and-trigger-flags rail-ride. Only the negative half of the argument against excessive order is made; the ability of games to require behavior of the player provides the opportunity to force them to do the thing that you are claiming is important for them to be able to do. Miring the player in only one system undercuts the argument.

More important than any one conceptual system is an understanding of what a conceptual system is and what it does, and more important than perfecting any one set of game mechanics is understanding what those mechanics are for in the first place. Mastery has already been achieved, and it hasn’t helped. We need better art and worse games. We need a little chaos.


  1. I’m aware that I am no fun, so don’t bother pointing that out. I’m not claiming to be the Pope of Discordianism here. 

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

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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Every step you take, I’m there

I’ll spare you the suspense on this one: In Between is an attractive, enjoyable, well-made game, and it’s a failure. It has strong, distinctive aesthetics and solid level design, and it uses these things in an attempt to convey a serious, relevant message using game mechanics. The bad news is that the significant word in that last sentence is “attempt.” The good news is that the game fails thoroughly enough to be deeply instructive.

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The story concerns a man with terminal cancer facing up to the inevitability of his own death. The levels you play through represent his mental journey from shock to acceptance, with each chapter using different types of obstacles to symbolize different stages of the journey. At a basic impressionistic level, this is all very convincing. The backgrounds and the music impart a dull, haunted feeling that puts things in exactly the right emotional space. Some levels feature darkness as an obstacle, and this is portrayed with excellent visual precision. You can feel confident moving halfway into the black, as the graphics make it very clear where the actual danger line is without being obtuse about it. One particularly notable effect is the failure animation, where the screen splits into shards before reforming at the last checkpoint. The slightly jarring feel of this is like running up against a painful idea and mentally recoiling from it. It also works really well in terms of gameplay, since it’s a quick, sharp animation that provides a mental reset and is also engaging.

The story is conveyed through first-person narration, which has a lot of positive effects. First, it solidifies the fact that this is a personal journey that this guy has no choice but to deal with in the space of his own mind. Second, it meshes the story with the gameplay, since you’re going through the levels with the voice sounding in your head. Finally, the voice acting itself is convincing and adds an element of gravitas to the proceedings, even though the substance really isn’t there in the writing.

Easy though it is to make this accusation, the game just has nothing to say about its subject matter. The writing is nothing but bland bromides and generic slice-of-life vignettes, presented uncritically and completely unmined for insight, and in the end, having built up nothing with which to actually form a conclusion, the game finally rattles off some new age horseshit about how we all turn back into stardust when we die or whatthefuckever. Apart from its aesthetic offensiveness, this is ultimately uninteresting. That everything dies is just a fact; death is only a problem in the specific case. This is why one death is a tragedy while one million deaths is a statistic. Death is only meaningful if life is worth living, and the game doesn’t actually show us anything that implies that that’s the case.

Crucially, the game needs to make us feel something about the main character, to get to know him at least a little so that his death actually imparts a sense of loss. This doesn’t happen. His story is sketched in the broadest strokes, as a series of disconnected cliches. He has a strained relationship with his father, he’s stuck in a dead-end job, he loves his wife and daughter. That’s about it, and none of these things really gets developed much beyond the basic outlines. In particular, we learn absolutely nothing about the man’s relationship with his wife, and this is a huge problem, because this is supposed to be the most important thing in his life, and she’s the person most impacted by his untimely death. Any detail at all about how these two people got together or what they share with each other would have done wonders, but we get nothing. It’s the heart of the story, and it’s left hollow.

Of course, there’s a sense in which the man’s specific circumstances aren’t the point, as what’s he’s dealing with is the one true problem that every living being has to face up to sooner or later. That’s probably why the writing is as broad as possible: as an attempt at universality. The problem is that’s not how that works. The more you generalize, the less you give people to hold on to. A completely universal story is one that’s completely inapplicable to anyone’s actual circumstances. Paradoxically, it’s by being as specific as possible that you make your work relatable (this is why James Joyce always wrote about Dublin, for example). I mean, it’s not that much of a paradox; the concept of expressing the universal through the particular is like Art 101.

To the point, In Between didn’t actually make me feel anything about death, and I can assure you that I am highly susceptible to emotional manipulation in this regard. I really doubt that anyone involved with this game has ever actually felt the icy hand of oblivion clawing at their heart. I can’t imagine that anyone who had would allow the subject to be treated so bloodlessly.


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As for the gameplay, In Between is a puzzle-platformer, which by itself is somewhat sigh-inducing. The success of Braid has meant that every joker who wants to make a Serious Art Game does so by rigging together a bunch of puzzles and then slapping a layer of half-baked pretentiousness on top of it. See, the fact that Braid chose this genre was not a coincidence: the puzzles in Braid are relevant to its theme in a meaningful way, and so is the fact that it’s a platformer (I’m going to write a big pretentious post about this sooner or later, so get hyped).

Now, In Between‘s level design is actually very good. The central mechanic is the ability to change the direction of gravity at will, which is clever (though meaningless), and the controls are surprisingly fluid considering how potentially awkward it is. There are a few obstacles where it’s just a matter of dodging past them at exactly the right time, but for the most part the solutions are logical rather than twitchy. Though the gameplay is based on the typical challenge/failure/retry loop that is endemic(/pandemic) to the medium, failure is usually a matter of not thinking things through rather than accidentally running into a obstacle. In this particular case, though, the use of the failure loop is a bit of a strange choice. Consider: isn’t it odd for a game about facing death to use death itself as a mere convenience mechanic? Doesn’t this convey precisely the wrong impression, that death isn’t a real thing? Doesn’t it feel wrong to be playing a game about a man afraid of death and to constantly be throwing that man into pits of spikes, only for nothing to actually happen? This is where the problems with the story start to worm their way into the rest of the game: since In Between doesn’t really know what it’s trying to say, it has no basis from which to choose relevant mechanics.

There are a couple of early clues as to what the fundamental problem is here. First, the game has spikes in it. Spikes are the archetypical Meaningless Video Game Obstacle, dating back to at least Mega Man, where spikes were somehow the ultimate weapon against a robot. The reason spikes are used to fill this role is that they’re obvious: they’re simple and pointy, so they connote “bad thing” at the lowest possible resolution (the game VVVVVV, as the title indicates, deliberately exploits this fact for aesthetic purposes). Hence the problem: “avoid bad thing” is not enough of a framework for meaningful action, and it doesn’t work at all if you’re making a game specifically about a bad thing that cannot be avoided.

The other clue is the fact that the chapters are based on the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. I mean, for god’s sake. You can’t possibly expect to be able to say anything meaningful using perhaps the single most overplayed bit of pop-science dumb-downery as your framework. The only explanation for the fact that this is the horse the game chose to hitch its wagon to is that it has no idea where it’s going.

So, while the game makes a decent attempt at tying its mechanics to its theme, the fact that it has nothing to say means it ends up being excessively literal-minded. Each chapter has a few lines of narration implying the relation between the mechanics and the theme, but they’re always a stretch. For example, a level where you have to use switches to open doors has the narrator say, “Things change. Pathways that were open are now closed.” Which is a literal description of the gameplay that also kind of sort of seems like it maybe has some deeper meaning, except that it doesn’t. I mean, the whole point of the story is that there isn’t actually a path for this guy, right?

This is actually really important, though, because this attempt gets to the heart of how video games can be made meaningful to people. Designing mechanics with thematic significance in mind, such that the gameplay actually does the thing that it means to express, is exactly the right thing to do, and too few games are doing it. So it’s not enough to write In Between off as being “not good enough” here; we need to understand exactly why and how it fails in order to figure out how to get this right.


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Denial

Each chapter of In Between introduces a new mechanic that serves as a metaphor for the chapter’s theme. “Denial” is represented as a big wall of darkness that advances on you when your back is turned, and recedes when you’re facing it. As a metaphor this is coherent enough: the truth will eventually overtake you if you turn away from it, so you have to “face the darkness” in order to be able to resist it.

But the actual gameplay here doesn’t really work. All you have to do in each level is get to the goal, and the darkness doesn’t actually get in your way or anything, so all you really have to do is move fast enough so that you can turn around before you get overtaken, which . . . is really the opposite of what’s supposed to be going on here, right? Rushing through something is basically the opposite of facing up to hard truths. Conceiving of denial as an obstacle that you have to overcome on your way to something else is exactly wrong: the point of denial is that the thing itself must be faced.

This is the first symptom of the fundamental problem that all the levels have: the game is about trying to come to terms with things, and navigating a level to avoid the obstacles and get to the exit is a totally incoherent metaphor for this. Because, you know, you actually win each level, which is not at all what happens when you’re actually dying (i.e. always).

So, okay, this can be fixed though. What would make sense here is if facing the darkness were the actual goal. First of all, it never really feels like you’re “denying” anything, so it would actually make more sense for the darkness to not be a threat in the early levels, so you can start out by ignoring it. Then, in order to convey the theme of “facing the darkness,” the later levels would have to change things such that facing the danger becomes how you complete the level rather than merely something you do on the way to completing the level. For example, you could have to explore each level thoroughly in order to banish the darkness from every corner, and doing so would expose you to dangers that you could otherwise have avoided. As the game actually is, though, the way you finish these levels is by ignoring the darkness most of the time and just focusing completing the level normally, only turning around at certain points where the darkness becomes a problem. The gameplay actually encourages you to remain in denial.


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Anger

“Anger” is by far the laziest chapter, thematically speaking. Anger is represented as big red orbs that kill you if you touch them, and that’s about it. Unlike in “Denial,” there’s not even any new behavior required here. The anger orbs are just another obstacle, and you avoid them just like you avoid the spikes. As a result, the levels create no emotional impression relevant to what the chapter trying to convey.

There is a slight complication, which is that some of the anger orbs move around in response to certain actions, so sometimes you have to shift them around in order to open up a path. Gameplay-wise, the problem here is that these behaviors are arbitrary, which makes the whole thing an exercise in uninteresting trial-and-error. But this also fails to elevate the levels thematically. Again, a literal-minded narration cue attempts to tie the gameplay to the theme: “there must be a way to control the anger, or to avoid it.” So having to move the orbs around is meant to represent “anger management.”

But even when you have to move the orbs around, they’re still just obstacles, and an obstacle is not the type of thing that anger is. Anger isn’t something external that prevents you from reaching a goal; it comes from inside you, and what’s scary about it is that it feels right. I mean, even without any analysis, it’s obvious just from playing these levels that they don’t feel anything like anger. This chapter wouldn’t have made it out of alpha if the developers had just listened to their feelings.

So, since anger comes from within, since it’s something that affects your own actions, it ought to be represented not as an external obstacle but as a player ability. It would have to be something powerful, something that feels good to use. Since this is a platformer where you have to navigate around obstacles, the obvious thing would be an ability to destroy parts of the level so that you don’t have to deal with them. You could blow away some spikes, or punch a hole in a wall and just walk on through to the exit.

The other half of the problem is the same as in “Denial”: there’s supposed to be a progression here, the protagonist is supposed to be working through these feelings, but the obstacles remain mere impediments to the goal the entire time. In order to portray the protagonist changing his perspective, the means of navigating the levels would also have to change. Specifically, indulging your anger would eventually have to backfire. The later levels could be more intricately designed, such that trying to break through them would actually make them uncompleteable. The player would learn how to be careful about using their ability, to think before acting, to control their anger, before finally completing the last level without using their anger powers at all, but rather accepting the world as it is.


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Bargaining

“Bargaining” is the most successful chapter, because it’s the only one where the new mechanic is something other than a new type of obstacle. You control two characters at once on a split screen, and you have to maneuver them both to a point in the level where they can come into contact – each level is completed when the two characters touch. So this is also the only level where the actual goal is changed to match the theme. Also, the second character’s controls are reversed, which adds a nice aesthetic touch: the two halves of each level feel like opposing fragments, with a tension between them that you have to balance carefully while moving gradually forward, until you finally achieve a synthesis where the parts negate each others’ flaws and become whole.

The problem is that the thing I just described there isn’t what bargaining is. The struggle to harmonize opposing parts has a different name: reconciliation. Bargaining is almost the opposite: it’s when you’re trying to get something or get rid of something at any cost. But the only thing to say about bargaining in the face of death is that it doesn’t work. You could probably work this into the gameplay somehow, but I think the developers actually had the right instinct here: reconciliation in the face of death is a much richer subject. Again, sticking to shallow pop-science models = not that great for artistic expression. By inadvertently abandoning the model here, In Between comes very close to succeeding in spite of itself.

But it’s that very success that allows the flaws with the game’s story to come creeping in. Even if you’ve got good mechanics, you still need to connect them to the thing that they’re supposed to represent. And if you don’t actually write a story where there’s something there to connect to, you’re just reaching out into thin air. In this case, all we really learn about the dying man is that he feels bad about leaving his family behind. There’s just nothing there to be represented.

When I said that you control “two characters” in this chapter, that was actually a bit of wishful thinking. You control the main character and like a ghost version of him, or something. It’s kind of funny: it’s like the designers were subconsciously aware that they had nothing to represent here, so they put in something that actually symbolizes a lack of representation. What’s less funny is that they had a real solution right under their noses. In the cutscene introducing this chapter, the screen is split between the dying man and his wife, running home to meet each other after his diagnosis comes in. So, since we’ve established that the point here is that this guy has to think about people other than himself, that even in death, there’s no escaping the web of human relationships, isn’t it pretty fucking obvious that the second character here needs to be one of those people? Most obviously, his wife? I mean, you can stick to the conceit that this is all happening inside the guy’s head by making it like an afterimage of the person or whatever, but if the point here is that this guy needs to reconcile his own trauma with the needs of his loved ones, isn’t it thematically required for those people to actually be present in the gameplay?

I’m going to go out on about half a limb here and say that the problem is sexism. Recent events have indicated depressingly that a female player character with a purpose other than adolescent sex appeal is just a bridge too far for some people. Guess what though: sexism isn’t just a moral issue, it’s a quality issue. It is not at all the case that “inclusiveness” is a form of “censorship” that “dumbs down” games. Quite the contrary: games cannot be made correctly until this problem is solved, until the other half of humanity assumes its place as player characters. As In Between itself demonstrates, a man’s story cannot be told without accounting for the subjectivity of women.


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Depression

“Depression” is dishearteningly similar to “Denial”: it’s a big wave of darkness that you have to avoid. When you wind up representing two different concepts in almost the same way like this, it’s probably a good idea to reevaluate your chosen means of expression. Also, I think we can do a little better than representing “dark” things as literal darkness. Anyway, the difference is that to get through the depression-darkness you have to move between pockets of light, just like how when you’re actually depressed you have to find the little things in your life that make you feel better and focus on them in order to keep moving.

So this works fine, mostly, except for the game’s lack of specificity again rearing its ugly head. We never actually learn anything about what makes this guy depressed (beyond the obvious) or what makes him happy, so the whole enterprise comes off as hollow. What you actually do in these levels is move glowing boxes around to create lighted areas you can move through, which really doesn’t feel like managing depression. It feels like making whatever arbitrary moves are available so that you can get through a video game level.

I’m really not asking for much here. All that’s really needed is for the light-producing tools to portray something the guy likes, and to behave in a relevant way. Given that this game is about a very practical real-world experience, it’s inappropriate to try to convey it using generic abstract video game objects. A little bit of representation goes a long way.


Acceptance

“Acceptance,” appropriately, is an epilogue rather than a chapter. It consists of a series of trivial rooms that repeat in a loop. One of the rooms has spikes in it, but they’re not in your way, so you’ll never hit them unintentionally. The only thing you can do is “accept death” by deliberately killing yourself.

Straightforward enough, except for the fact that it doesn’t actually make sense. Killing yourself is not the same thing as accepting death. Indeed, because killing yourself is the only way to finish the game, doing so is actually the goal, i.e. the thing that you’re supposed to do, so you’re not actually “accepting” anything. This turns dying into something you do, rather than something that happens to you without your consent. In order for the concept of “acceptance” to actually be applicable, you would have to somehow be required to give up on finishing the game. It really doesn’t count as acceptance if you get an achievement for it. (Actually, there’s also an achievement for going through the “Acceptance” levels several times without accepting death, which I believe establishes a new state of the art in Not Getting It.)

The disease here is the idea that a game must be “finishable,” that it ends when you’ve done “100%” of everything there is to do. So the puzzle-platform framework, where the game consists of a series of challenges and it’s over once you’ve cleared them all, is fundamentally at odds with In Between‘s intended theme. A more appropriate framework would be something like a roguelike, where’s there’s a wide variety of potential things to do, but each playthrough is limited in some way, so you can never get everything at once. The game would eventually end on you of its own accord, while you still have unfinished business.

This would also be a great chance to develop the story. In what little of it there actually is in the game, we learn that the protagonist’s untimely death leaves him with a number of regrets. He never fully reconciled his feelings about his father, he was never able to pursue his dream of being a writer, he’s worried about leaving his wife alone (the wife gets zero character development. I’m telling you, sexism at work), and he’ll never get to see his daughter grow up. So, what could be interesting here is if the later levels in the game gave you the opportunity to explore some of these relationships, but not all of them. There could, for example, be some kind of stamina mechanic that depletes as you play levels, with the game ending once you run out. This would force you to make choices about what to do with your remaining time. It would close off important paths that you wanted to take. It would leave you with regrets.


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I’m not picking nits here. There’s a specific and important reason for all of these problems, which is that In Between chooses a means of expression that doesn’t work for the thing that it’s trying to express. It takes standard avoid-obstacles-and-get-to-the-goal platformer gameplay, tightens the design into the form of puzzles, and then paints over it with a series of shallow, literal-minded metaphors. But even if that coat of paint were more evocative, the actual moving parts underneath it don’t move in the right direction. The gameplay portrays the wrong thing – it uses completionist solution-finding gameplay to portray a situation in which there’s no such thing as completion and there are no solutions. This is as wrong as writing an EDM song about the good old days before technology ruined everything (ignoring the possibility of irony, which is obviously not what’s happening here). The means don’t lead to the ends, and this disconnect, irrespective of the quality of the writing, silences the game before it has a chance to speak.

Again, the reason In Between is a puzzle-platformer is because that’s what Braid was, and everyone agrees that Braid is a meaningful game, so obviously if you want to make a meaningful game you should do the same thing. More fundamentally, the misconception here is the idea that any means of expression can potentially convey any message – that one can communicate as though by Mad Libs, taking an existing design and switching out the words. The misconception is that “story” and “gameplay” are separate things.

A work of art is an aesthetic object; once created, it steps in and the creator leaves. The intent vanishes behind the act. But to suppose that this fact robs art of its ability to communicate is to lose sight of the real good while looking for the imaginary perfect. On the contrary, we’re fortunate to live in an ordered universe, one where specific actions have specific effects, and where intent cannot be directly transmitted. This forces us to engage with reality. In exchange, we lose the ability to inhabit the realm of pure ideas, which is a good deal, because that place is fucking boring.

Of course, reality involves danger, and the danger of communication is that you can make an honest go of it and still trip over your own tongue. One’s chosen method of expression comes in between the intent and the interpretation, and once it’s in position, it takes on a life of its own. Galatea was not an anomaly – any work, once encountered, begins to communicate of its own accord. And unless you’re really sure that it’s something you want speaking for you, it’s going to make you look like a fool.

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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Against cleverness

Undertale is an extremely clever game.

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Aesthetically, Undertale appears to inhabit the sort of campy retro territory that’s so popular these days, but in this case it isn’t just a pointless exercise in nostalgia – it’s actually a feint. The game is full of effects that go beyond its apparent technological level, and that contrast makes them all the more striking. Boss battles in particular are totally unconstrained by what appear to be the parameters of the battle system, making each one its own unique experience.

Similarly, while the game is extremely cartoonish, the writing is really good. There’s too much dialogue overall, but the characters are grounded in relatable traits that make them feel like real (albeit exaggerated) people. The downside is that the plot falls into the common video game trap of just throwing details around as opposed to actually telling a story. Most of the backstory is just posted on signs throughout the game (seriously, think about how little sense this makes), and by the end there are literally just monsters showing up out of nowhere just to exposit the remaining information at you.

A story isn’t just a collection of plot details; the way in which the information is presented to the player matters. For example, there’s a log entry (motherfuckers love log entries for some reason) late in the game that just reads “no no no no NO,” which is obviously supposed to convey that something has gone horribly wrong. But this doesn’t make any sense: under what circumstances would somebody actually write something like that down? Things like this are just a cheap way of establishing a generic, recognizable situation. While they succeed at conveying the basic details of the plot, they lack the verisimilitude required to make the player feel something about it.

Relatedly, Undertale is a comedy that has a serious ending, which is something you can do, but in this case the pacing is completely backwards. It starts off relatively serious and then suddenly becomes completely zany, and it keeps piling on the zaniness as you progress. This has the unfortunate consequence that, as the boss battles become more complex and interesting, they also become less relevant to the story, making the clever mechanics feel like pointless flash. In the end, the game suddenly swerves back into seriousness just in time for the final conflict, making the drama of the ending feel largely unearned.

undertale_pet

The reason Undertale matters is that it’s an RPG where you never have to kill anything. It’s deeply sad that this sort of thing is still notable, but it’s really important: the set of stories that you can tell by wandering around and killing things is very limited, and few of them are stories that are going to matter to anyone.

The game pretends to have normal random battles, but there’s a set of nonviolent actions you can perform related to each enemy, and finding the correct combination of actions will allow you to resolve the conflict peacefully. For example, if you’re being attacked by a dog monster, you can play fetch with it and then pet it to calm it down. Also, there’s one battle you can resolve by getting two bros to admit that they’re gay for each other, so that’s pretty great. Resolving battles peacefully earns you money but no levels, which means you can buy the healing items you’ll need but you’ll remain a Level 1 weakling for the entire game.

The problem with the battle mechanics is that they’re completely shallow. Instead of clicking “attack,” you click “hug,” and the battle’s over just as easily. In fact, while Undertale looks like an RPG, that’s really just the framework; you don’t have any abilities or anything, so there’s no actual RPG gameplay. Instead, enemy attacks are represented as shoot-em-up-like bullet patterns that you have to avoid by moving around. Not that there’s anything wrong with this; the fact that you have to sit there and weather the enemy’s attacks while trying to convince them not to fight is a pretty decent representation of what doing pacifism is like. Boss battles in particular force you to endure wave after wave of complex attacks, making them feel like real ordeals.

The part that’s a problem is the fact that you’re never making any real choices. While you do technically have the choice to kill each enemy you meet, there’s no reason to ever consider doing so. Because winning nonviolently is so easy, and because committing to nonviolence never prevents you from doing anything, the choice has no weight. There are a lot of things that could have been done about this. There could be paths you can’t take or items that you can’t get without fighting. There could be battles where you have to sacrifice something to avoid violence. There could be enemies that are too strong for you to handle – even nonviolently – if you haven’t already leveled up by fighting.

Thus, while Undertale finds a number of clever ways to portray nonviolent conflict resolution, it doesn’t find any that are actually interesting. This is where old-fashioned RPG mechanics could really have helped. If Undertale had the sort of complex array of interlocking abilities that a normal RPG about killing things has, it could have made nonviolent gameplay interesting. Instead, all it offers is a mere choice: select either Use Violence or Don’t Use Violence from the menu.

undertale_mercy

This isn’t just a point about game mechanics, because Undertale‘s story is ultimately just as shallow as its gameplay. This is not a coincidence. Putting the required effort into making the mechanics of nonviolence deep rather than cute would have required thinking about how nonviolence actually works (or doesn’t), which would have allowed for a story that was similarly deep. Instead, we get a completely generic happy ending where the villain-with-a-tragic-backstory is defeated/redeemed by Magical Friendship Power, and everyone lives happily ever after. The end.

As a matter of fact, the final battle is ripped more-or-less directly from Earthbound, and the result is that the ending is just as hokey as Earthbound‘s. The problem is that, in Earthbound, that was the point; Earthbound was a weird sort of kids’ game. Undertale, however, has a dramatic backstory that it expects you to take seriously, and the development of this story seems to be leading up to a cynical conclusion about the limits of nonviolence. Indeed, the final conflict begins out of sheer necessity: the way things are set up, either you or the last boss has to die, even though neither of you wants to fight.

Undertale even ups the ante with some pretty extreme fourth-wall breaking, implying not only that an easy resolution is impossible, but that you, the player, are a fool for expecting that everything will work out just because you meant well and tried your best. Immediately after this, the final battle happens on autopilot and you win. Thus, it’s specifically the game’s cleverness that makes it feel fake; the game self-awarely taunts you for expecting a “happy ending,” and then gives you one that has no complications.

The reason this matters is that it’s not how things work in real life. The idea that you can follow a simple set of rules and then just sit around hoping for a happy ending is the exact opposite of how reality works. It is actually possible to overcome things that are stronger than you, but doing so isn’t a matter of purity, it’s a matter of complexity. You have to figure out complicated situations and take specific actions in order to make things happen; whether you’re a “good person” isn’t relevant to the operation of the universe. This is exactly the sort of thing that games should be able to express through mechanics, and yet all we ever get are these fake final battles where you keep selecting “hope” from the menu until you automatically win.

Despite this, there is one place where Undertale‘s self-awareness gets interesting. If you want to play again after getting the real ending, the game will actually discourage you from doing so, on the grounds that you’d be “resetting” the happy ending for your own enjoyment, which was the specific motivation of the game’s villain. This is significant because it’s an implication that basically no other video game has: rather than encouraging you to obsessively waste your time playing the game over and over again, courting every minor secret and making every possible choice just to see what happens, Undertale suggests that it’s better to do the right thing once and then leave well enough alone.

The downside to this is that, y’know, games aren’t real. It doesn’t actually matter whether a bunch of fictional characters get a happy ending or not. What makes a game (or anything else) matter is whether you, the person who experienced it, got anything out of it; whether you’re a different person after experiencing it. And if the only thing the game has to say is that nonviolence is nice and the only thing it ultimately has to offer is a facile happy ending, then the unavoidable implication is that you didn’t, and you’re not.

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The problem with cleverness is that it makes you feel like you’ve hit on something important, regardless of whether you actually have. The jolt of insight it gives you is easily mistaken for significance, when it might be nothing more than noticing a reference. Undertale offers a very clear example of this problem that pervades the entire game. In the intro area, the game appears to be parodying the standard video game progression mechanic of walking in a straight line and occasionally solving an arbitrary puzzle. There’s one part where merely walking down a long hallway is comically presented as a challenge, and another where a character literally holds your hand through a trivially easy puzzle. After the intro area, having established all of this, you then progress through the rest of the game by . . . walking in a straight line and occasionally solving an arbitrary puzzle. The only difference is that you, as the player, now feel like you’re in on the joke. The game is clever enough to make fun of this, but not smart enough to come up with anything better.

This is the same problem that the mechanics have. The problem with standard violent game mechanics isn’t just that they make light of killing (though that is obviously a serious problem), it’s that they’re banal. RPGs in particular rarely require much more than just selecting the “Attack” command over and over and occasionally healing. The fact that you have a bunch of different fancy attacks – as well as the mere fact that you have to select the commands yourself – makes you feel like you’re making decisions and doing something, when you’re really just acting out a very simple script. And in this regard, Undertale is no better than what it’s reacting to. The fact that the commands you’re selecting have different names that amount to cute little jokes doesn’t change the fact that playing the game requires very little thought. The cleverness of the presentation masks the hollowness of the actual mechanics.

Finally, this is also the problem that the story’s theme of nonviolence has. With all of its jokes and twists and fourth-wall breaking, as well as the fact that it’s presenting an obvious alternative to standard RPG gameplay that has somehow not been seriously pursued in 30 years, Undertale seems like it has something of significance to say. But when it comes down to it, when it’s the final battle and everything’s on the line, the game has nothing to offer but the same trite conclusion we’ve seen countless times before. During the epilogue, someone does point out that “not everything can be resolved by just being nice.” That seems like it would have some pretty big implications for the choice of whether or not to use violence, right? And yet, other than this one line of dialogue, nothing that acknowledges this very basic point is actually in the game. For all of its cleverness, Undertale has nothing to say about violence.

As just one idea, imagine if the final boss were implacably violent and you had to kill it no matter what (and that Magical Friendship Power was not an option). Imagine you went though the entire game at Level 1, feeling proud of yourself for being such a good person and not hurting anything, only to discover that being such a weak loser makes it impossible for you to win. Imagine you then had to go through the game again, making hard decisions about where to earn the minimum amount of experience needed to beat the last boss, agonizing over every decision about who to spare and who to kill. And, of course, the more you leveled, the easier the last boss would become, giving you an actual motive to use violence that you would actually have to resist. A framework like this (again, just one example) would have allowed the game to require real thought on the part of the player, and to have a point.

There’s one instance where Undertale goes beyond being simplistic and becomes offensively bad. Towards the end of the game, a character appears out of nowhere to give you a big didactic speech about how the standard RPG concepts of “experience” and “levels” actually represent your capacity for violence. This explained in pretty much the stupidest way possible: by making the terms acronyms that stand for bad things. In addition to the obvious fact that making up an acronym does not amount to making an argument, this sort of thing is exactly why the “show, don’t tell” rule exists. The entire game was available to show you how the ability to use violence can tempt you into making bad choices, but no such thing ever happens. There’s nothing that even mildly dissuades you from just picking the nonviolent option from the menu in every encounter. Really, the problem is that the entire game is ultimately just a better-presented version of this speech. In that sense, it’s actually kind of nice that this bit is included, because it’s a crystal clear example of how you can be clever while also being spectacularly dumb.

The reason this is all so disappointing is because Undertale, for just a moment, made me genuinely nervous. When the game got to the point where it appeared to be subverting its own banal message, I was actually worried that I might end up having to make a hard choice, and that I might fuck something up. But I had nothing to worry about. The game wasn’t challenging me or putting anything on the line. It was just being clever.

undertale_home

The thing about all of this is that Undertale is a really good game. The problem is not that it “could be better”; the problem is precisely that it seems to have done the best it could. And given the way that its limitations are a direct result of its idolization of its predecessors, it would seem that the whole enhanced-retro aesthetic isn’t so harmless after all.

The good news is that there are other options besides making clever updates to 20-year-old games. There is, in fact, a well-established alternative with a pretty good track record. Kill yr idols.