I feel like I’ve been reblogging things more often of late, but hey, there’s a lot of good things to reblog.
I feel like I’ve been reblogging things more often of late, but hey, there’s a lot of good things to reblog.
Type:Rider is a beautiful game about the history of typography. It is obvious that much love and care was put into its visual aesthetic. Each level is a collage-like smattering of gigantic letters, mixed in with the imagery and visual artistry that we associate with that era in history. For instance, the Clarendon level explores the evolution of slab serifs in the 19th century, throwing you into the Wild West among mine carts, wanted posters, and a bounty hunter’s roving crosshair, out to end you. The Futura level explores the “function over form” design of the Bauhaus School and the experimental typography of many modernist movements, littering the level with the colorful deconstructivist shapes of Malevich and Arp. The music and sounds of each level are also lovingly composed on top of that. There’s a great deal of visual and auditory pleasures to enjoy while playing this game; it’s just too bad that playing it for the gameplay is an experience that starts with disappointment and ends with frustration.
In keeping with the theme of type, your player character is a colon (:) that rolls and bounces about each level to collect the 26 letters of each font’s alphabet and asterisks which unlock different facts in that level’s book. It’s a creative idea and the colon was probably the best choice of punctuation mark around which to design.
Despite the strength of the idea, the bottom falls out of the entire execution very quickly. Sometimes you will just not roll fast enough, weighed down by being awkwardly long and flat. Jumping can be a nightmare as the colon’s physics can seem random and capricious, causing you to restart certain sections over and over again because it decided to bounce this way instead of that way or jumped from the wrong end, sending you backwards into a hazard.
The levels seem to have been designed and tested with a placeholder player character instead of this unwieldy one. Sometimes you are expected to land flat on the dot of a giant “i,” but the square is simply not long enough to hold you, dropping you to your death over and over until you land it just right. Some of the more challenging sections in the game involve passing moving hazards in a rhythm – certainly possible for a character that takes up a square hitbox, but infuriatingly difficult with the character you have. Neat level design such as rogue pixels in the Pixel section or the smashing pistons of the Times section are regrettably remembered as design flaws because of this shortcoming. The game consistently presents you with a nice amount of “game” for what is basically an edutainment title, only to immediately give you too much “game” and ruining the flow of something that should have been enjoyable and relaxing.
It’s also disappointingly evident that the game half and the educational half were worked on by two different teams. I’ve already mentioned the easily recognized love and care in the visual design. However, the facts you pick up about each historical era of typography read, at best, as lazy rehashes of a Wikipedia article. The worst are the entries that just throw a bunch of names and dates at you without truly looking at the importance and influence of those people and events. There’s a distinct lack of discussion about the design benefits of each font. Typos are almost ubiquitous and most are glaringly obvious. Did no one proofread this?
Type:Rider is such a beautiful game to look at and listen to; it’s a shame that I can’t honestly recommend it since all that looking and listening would have to happen while attempting to play it. The game design is not lacking in interesting ideas, but they could have been less lazy in testing them. The first line you see in the credits sequence tells you that the game was created by Cosmografik, with their company name kerned incorrectly. Surely there was room to try harder.
There has been much written about heaven and hell. The absolute paradise of the former and the absolute pain of the latter are some of only a small handful of human ideas that are immune to hyperbole; our mortal descriptions of such places will never be too much and of that we can be sure.
But what about what lies between? The concept of purgatory is a much harder one to pin down. Thoughts on the concept, both lay and philosophical, have defined it as anything from a second mortal existence to an afterlife of absolute nothingness. If the title is to be believed, LIMBO ostensibly takes place in this in-between afterlife. It may not be hell, but it is a far cry from heaven.
"Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters LIMBO." This lone sentence is the closest thing to a synopsis that the creators have given us. How the boy got to limbo is unclear. Why you must press forward is unclear. But to stand still is to both promise and condemn yourself to nothing.
But after all, LIMBO is a puzzle platformer and the instinct to move forward is natural. The puzzles are elegantly designed and make the most of your limited capability for interaction: running, jumping, and moving objects. Everything feels right and the game plays as a good platformer should.
LIMBO is not content to only be another decent indie platformer, though, as the puzzles very quickly become trials of dread and fear. Death has always been part of platformers, but LIMBO is almost eager to remind you of the pain. In your desire to move forward, you only introduce to your character more ways to die. If you miss that jump, you will fall down a pit and be impaled on the spikes below. You will have your body torn to pieces by the crushing force of a giant bear trap. You will fall into a ragdoll’s seizure as electricity fries you. Even the more quiet deaths feel horrible; drowning in water is a whole process of struggling and sinking before becoming still. The screen will linger and you will sit with it until you are ready to press a button to respawn. Do you want to try again?
The hazards of LIMBO seem too much to all be manmade, but they all seem purposeful. It is hard to ignore the sense of malice that pervades this world. The colorless settings and the silhouetted character designs do some amount in making the deaths less gruesome, but only so much. You might find yourself standing still when you get that second chance. To stand still is to do nothing, but to move forward is to create your own hell.
But maybe you do keep pushing forward and maybe you do succeed more often than you fail. The purpose of this boy’s search for his sister is unclear: it could be a journey of redemption, or love, or curiosity. Either way, that there is even a chance at success and a chance at relief at the other end of each dangerous trial is, in a way, a promise of heaven. There will be hard times ahead, but the pain is not infinite. To be given the chance to find an answer and reach an end is a small but merciful thing. But before that, the hard times will only get harder.
There will always be ideas about that lies between heaven and hell, life and death. LIMBO has earned its spot among the best artistic representations of such a place – not only through its undeniable dark beauty, but also the fear that a similar world might await us.
Review: Dear Esther
I’m a proponent for expanding our limited and stagnant definition of what constitutes a “video game;” that games like Dear Esther exist is a good thing for the medium. The more we challenge the status quo through the creation and the experience of such games, the more we do to progress video games as a medium of artistic worth. I’m glad that Dear Esther has been as well-received as it has been; it’s a modest landmark for the real success that such experimental titles can find today.
However, I am nothing if not a harsh critic, and Dear Esther has its problems, small piece of history that it is. It is possibly unfair to judge an experimental video game by the standards of more established media, but if video games expect to play in the big leagues, they shouldn’t be exempt from playing by the same rules.
But first, there are things which Dear Esther does right. Easiest to praise are the visuals, which depict the island on which you wander as lonely but yearning to be explored. Each point of visual interest has been crafted with great care – from the vistas to the smallest details, like a lone buoy, far offshore and barely visible.
The size of the island itself is something to appreciate. Regardless of your feelings with regards to the game’s very casual walking speed, the island’s stretches of nothing have their own desolate beauty.
But while the setting of Dear Esther can easily hold interest, its story has a much harder time attempting to do the same. From what you are allowed to piece together, the narrator is attempting a sort of redemption by exile. His disembodied voice pops in occasionally at certain checkpoints to provide you with vague details about what basically amounts to “stuff.” A small collection of first names, a meandering history of the island, and unclear, melodramatic recollections of ailments and car crashes are some of what you can expect from these telling monologues that are anything but. I very quickly came to realize that the game’s visuals were better than its writing deserved. It is frustrating.
For a game like Dear Esther, the story’s the thing. The plot here lacks so much specificity and context as to void its stabs at emotional poignancy. To be vague is one thing, but that artful reluctance to provide specifics is a better trait for a rational character than the opposite. When reasonable people are weighed down by guilt, the poetic musings they conjure surprise you by contrasting with the voice you expect; but the narrator of Dear Esther is too unhinged to make a clear point among all the overthinking. What we get is a voice that constantly oversells things and scurries back and forth much too often between too many incomplete themes. It is unsatisfying to follow and even more unsatisfying still to piece together. There are bits and pieces of good phrasing scattered within all the overwrought prose, but the story would have benefitted from the writers falling out of love with this character.
Dear Esther was made in a time when video games needed a reinvention. It tried for some big things and for that is has my respect. Visually, it is a full experience; I just wish that same amount of polish and editing was present in its other, crucial half.
Review: Starseed Pilgrim
In Starseed Pilgrim, the first thing you learn is that you can break blocks and plant seeds. You are then set upon a large, earthy block suspended in white void and expected to use your fresh and limited knowledge of this universe so far to explore away from your starting point. Different seeds grow at different speeds, shapes, directions, and wonderful sounds. You plant away and start to climb, sure without being sure that there must be something else in this vast emptiness besides yourself.
There is a challenge to the exploration, discovery, and successful return home – enough that even with the game’s insistence on minimal to absent guidance, you’ll want to make it at least once.
However, it is after surmounting this first hurdle that I no longer felt compelled to play, because the more I saw of Starseed Pilgrim, the more I recognized it as a solid proof of concept rather than a complete and satisfying game. Allow me to explain.
The blocks, the seeds, and the void are simple components: easily understood with some trial and error. These same elements, however, are also samey to a fault and become bland with overexposure. While the simplicity of the core mechanic is both visually and sonically polished, the simplicity of the game that contains it is lonely and boring; it feels incomplete. You will make your way from base block to base block with practiced efficiency, but there is less and less of a reason for you to do so. Exploration continues to reveal more of the same, as if the game had something against variety in design.
I have heard that, with some doing, you can indeed find the novel experiences that I expected as the rewards for my progress. I’m afraid that I just don’t have the patience. I enjoy exploration for exploration’s sake, but when a game tells me nothing and shows me even less, should I really be expected to keep at it?
Final RAN cover
If there’s someone who deserves to be discovered right now, it’s you, Mr. Jon Marchione.
(re-uploaded in truer colors on February 17th, 2014)
Love Letters, a Valentine’s Day conceptual art series
1 “find your way back to me” (from a boy who lives on Bradley Boulevard to a girl at McGill)
2 “from me to you” (sending emotional connections to a special someone)
3 “it’s the thought that counts” (something to tell yourself when countless rough drafts don’t seem to cut it)
Happy Valentine’s Day