Crash Course (ep. 23) – Anodyne

Combat the great Darkness spreading over the land and its countless, horrible minions with the greatest weapon any adventure story has ever produced – a broom….. oh! and some dust bunnies.

NOW YOU WILL KNOW TRUE FEAR, DEMONS!!

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Follow-Up to “Crash Course (ep. 22) – Braid”

Braid” is a beautiful game. The art style is so vibrant, and I especially love the contrast between the impressionist oil paintings of the background and the sharp, outlined figures and terrain in the foreground. The distinctly defined black outlines around the characters stand out incredibly well in front of the soft, blotched landscapes that create the settings for the different worlds you traverse.

The music is also spectacular! Each track matches so well with the feel of each level. If there is a puzzle piece to collect in a certain amount of time, the music is dark and biting, hastening you on to solve the puzzle as efficiently as possible before the reward is locked out for good. If the stage is more laid back and allows you to view all angles and possibilities without interference from enemies, then the song is usually more relaxed and pleasant. Even if you don’t ever play the game, you should still check out the soundtrack.

The game has a great pace to it, adding in a new mechanic or unique element in each world. The game starts off simple with just the ability to run, jump, and rewind time. The next world adds in objects and enemies that are not affected by time shifts, so you now must plan and time your rewinds to match up with your objective (obtaining a key, jumping from a moving platform that is affected by time shifts to one that isn’t, etc.). After that is a series of levels in which the movement of the main character changes the flow of time – if you move from left to right, time moves forwards; but if you move right to left, time moves backwards. The following world has a shadow world behind it that can be used to manipulate the real world. A shadow version of Tim can be created by rewinding time, and the shadow will then run through the rewound actions in forward motion alongside of the real Tim. The final world gives you a ring that can be dropped to slow down time in the area immediately around it. There are also platforms scattered throughout the levels that Tim can stand on to make himself immune to time shifts for a short while. Most of these elements do not overlap between the worlds, which gives each world its own flavor and different style of problem-solving to overcome the puzzles.

The most difficult part of the game is not any specific puzzle or enemy or really anything that has to do with the actual gameplay. No, the most difficult part is wrapping my head around the story. The narrative of the game is created with texts that appear before the levels in each world. They tell the story of Tim, who is off on an adventure to rescue a princess from a hideous monster (sounds familiar, don’t it?). Apparently Tim and the princess were close companions, but Tim did something that shook that friendship and made the princess upset with him. He left the princess many years ago because he felt he needed more independence, but is now searching for her again to apologize. It is the text at the beginning of World 4 that makes what was so far a rather straightforward story become hazy, confusing, and abstruse:

“This improvement, day by day, takes him ever-closer to finding the Princess. If she exists – she must! – she will transform him, and everyone. […] So couldn’t he find the Princess now, tonight, just by wandering from place to place and noticing how he feels?”

So is the princess a real person, or an idea that has escaped Tim’s brain, or a feeling that he had at one point in his life that he is trying to recreate, or is Tim hallucinating, or… what? This is the point in the texts where the meaning and the story become ambiguous. I mean, the plot displayed through the gameplay is pretty straightforward and creates a nice twist in the final level (no spoiler here – go elsewhere to find that, or experience it for yourself… but mostly the latter option), but the texts throughout the worlds and during the epilogue are just… odd. There are allusions to the detonation of the first atomic bomb at Trinity Site in New Mexico; memories of a boy in Manhattan begging to go into a candy store; talk of a scientist tinkering with experiments and dissecting animals; and finally the boy at the candy store again, creating a castle in his mind using memories as the stones for the fortress.

It all seems so very… snooty.

The story is trying to do and say so many things in such an incomprehensible manner that – to me – it just trips over itself and winds up saying and meaning nothing at all. Have you ever viewed any modern, post-modern, or abstract art that looks as though it was drawn by a child, or one of the thousands upon thousands of pieces that looks like a jumbled mess of unrelated images under the pretentious title of “untitled”? Some of these works are simply art for the sake of art – creating images in a specific fashion because the artist wants it to look that way, but has no inherent meaning attached to it. Others are artists’ attempts at delving into their subconscious or unconscious, or perhaps a visual depiction of an emotion or other abstract idea. However, some of these paintings, sculptures, and the like are just bonkers, and the artist or critic tries to tie some deep spiritual meaning it that doesn’t make any sense. Someone will create or view one of these works and come to a comclusion about its meaning that probably required a laaaaaarge amount of mind-altering substances. Or perhaps it’s an everyday item that is called something else and is justified with a long string of philosophical b******t-babble.

This game’s narrative feels like one of those later examples – it’s just trying to be odd. Yes, the story and gameplay primarily deal with altering the flow and rhythm of time, so the tale of Tim’s quest for what he believes is an actual princess could be fragmented beyond comprehension or even delusional. So how much of the gameplay are we supposed to take as literal in the context of the story? Does Tim actually have the powers to reverse time? If so, what does that do to his mind? If we are to believe this universe contains a being that can control time for himself and everyone around him, does it stand to reason that other fantastical elements (such as a princess needing rescue from an evil monster) also exist in the narrative’s world? Or is Tim imagining that he has time control, and this belief is altering his perception of reality, thereby ruining his relationships with his family and the woman he leaves in order to search for the princess? Perhaps he is creating characters and scenarios for him to interact with as a means of escape from the pressures of his adult life.

I don’t know the answer, and I feel that the creator molded the game so that it could be interpreted in many different ways. Perhaps it was made to spark a debate about the tired trope in video games and other fantasy story-telling where a hero must save a helpless princess from a foul beast, or perhaps it means more to him or someone else than a commentary on the story’s medium.

Whatever the case may be, I find it also completely possible to simply enjoy the game for the game itself – the time-changing elements, the platforming, the puzzles – everything that makes it an active experience rather than a passive story. So whether you care at all about the story or what it means to you or what it means at all in general, you should check this game out for the awesome visuals, the stunning music, and the unique and challenging gameplay that it has to offer.

Follow-Up to “Crash Course (ep. 21) – Limbo”

Yeesh… what a brutal game.

You heard my reactions to some of the environments and deaths in the Crash Course episode that I filmed, and I’m here to say that things did not get any more pleasant. The actions and events that occur in “Limbo” are just as dark as its art style. In later sections of the game, I was mowed down by machine gun turrets, sliced to bits by gigantic circular saws, crushed under the weight of massive metal crates, and electrocuted by neon signs and powered rails. Every single sharp, sudden death made me flinch just the slightest bit, and I don’t feel that I ever became completely desensitized to the numerous gruesome annihilations that I subjected the poor nameless boy to (with the exception being the annoyance and frustration I felt during those sections where I failed a jump or a puzzle over, and over, and over again).

As much as this game made my skin crawl, I still enjoyed it. I enjoyed the challenges that it presented for me to conquer, whether the test was one of reflexes, problem solving, or a combination of the two. I enjoyed the minimalistic art style of the characters and objects, of the backgrounds and foregrounds. The lack of color in the palette of the game made everything sharper and more distinct. I enjoyed the eeriness of the surroundings created by the fog and the grain effect on the screen. I enjoyed the strong sound effects and the lack of music through most of the game, but when music was present it was ambient and dark, which helped strengthen the nightmarish setting of the game.

Another mechanic of the game that really stuck out to me was the use of the glowing maggots that would leech onto the boy’s head. These maggots would allow the boy to move in only one direction, meaning that you would be forced to overcome the obstacles in your path – no running away and thinking things over. It added yet another layer of hopelessness and despair to this dark game – you no longer get to decide which way to go. You can adjust how quickly the boy moves and you can make him jump, but you are headed for the horrors that lay to your left or your right and there’s little you can do to prevent them from dismembering you. You are helpless, and the boy cannot get rid of the parasite by himself. You must wander until an NPC rids you of your curse. And the maggot always seems to steer the boy into the most suicidal predicaments. Remember that boy that I saw wander into the water near the end of the episode? The one that I dragged out of the lake and used to set off a trap that wound up pulverizing his body?

I thought that he had some cobwebs in his hair, much like the cobwebs I had stuck in my hair after escaping the giant spider. I thought he was just tired and injured and dove into the lake because he didn’t see it. The fact is, that was not a bit of cobweb on his head – it was one of those maggots. I thought the boy accidentally stumbled into the lake, but he was driven to unconscious suicide because of a brain parasite! After I encountered the first instance with the maggots myself, I remembered that scene and just felt… cold. Just this wide-eyed horror as I remembered what I thought was an attack, and with the new knowledge I had gained, I understood that it was the end of a long march in which the other boy knew he could not control his fate, knew he was approaching the lake, and knew that his own body and mind were betraying him to end both.

Just… holy hell.

Towards the end of the game, the scene switched from a vast forest sprinkled with tree houses and booby traps to an industrial cityscape. This last section of the game had some of the coolest puzzle concepts in the experience – gravity-shifting wells. Some of these wells would only affect inanimate objects in the field (like boxes and planks), and some of them would also affect the boy, sending him flipping to the ceiling and turning the game effectively upside down, or catapulting him sideways through a field of spikes and circular saws. These events ranged from “Well now – this is intriguing. I appear to be standing on the ceiling of the facility. Hmmm… I shall wander about and attempt to make sense of all of this in a calm and orderly fashion,” to “SWEET BABY JESUS I’M HURDLING TOWARDS THE DEATH MACHINE HIT THE SWITCH OH MY DEAR FUZZY SANTA IN A BIKINI THIS IS NOT ANY BETTER SPIKES AHEAD SPIKES I SAY HIT THE SWITCH HIT IT HIT IT HIT IT VVVVVWWWWWOOOOAAAAAAAaaaaahhhh the ground! I missed you so much! Mwah, mwah, mwah! I’ll never leave you again, babe! Promise!”

In short, they sure were times, lemme tell ya.

Now that I’ve said my piece about the gameplay, I’d like to talk a bit about the title and the setting of the game. “Limbo” is the First Circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno – a place at the cusp of hell’s gates intended for unbaptized children and virtuous non-believers. Given that the protagonist of the game is a young boy, we could assume that the setting he traverses is the place Dante refers to as limbo, as he could be considered young enough not to know or commit true sin, but was simply never baptized. However, since the game does not have any other similarities to Dante’s story other than the name, it is not probable that the boy is in fact in the First Circle of Hell.

But “limbo” could mean something other than “the edge of hell”. The word “limbo” itself stems from the Latin “limbus”, which means “edge”. A more recent definition could stem from the film Inception, in which “limbo” is a dream-state in a person’s mind where the subconscious takes control and time expands in the dream. A person could spend only minutes asleep in the real world but could experience a lifetime in limbo. So this definition of “limbo” is “the edge of reality”, and tying this definition to the events of the game make things more interesting.

If the boy is currently at the edge of reality, what could reality be? Perhaps the boy is in a coma and is on the edge of consciousness. This would explain the odd surroundings that seem to be similar to what a young boy might familiar with – other children, tree houses, a fear of spiders, an inability to swim, the city where he lives or visits, and his sister at the end of the game. The game ends abruptly with the boy finding his sister (or some young girl) and the girl turning to look at him. Maybe the boy came back to consciousness when his strong bond that he might have with his sister roused him from his comatose state. Or perhaps the boy is simply asleep and is having a nightmare. He is experiencing a horrible reality where everyone and everything is out to get him. Once again, the boy has no problem running, leaping, and climbing; but he can’t swim. Maybe he loves climbing trees and being in tree forts, but hasn’t learned to swim in real life, so bodies of water haunt his nightmares.

The last section of the game was a stark contrast to the woods, caves, and ponds of the earlier portions. We see a city with chimneys, neon signs, and mechanical (possibly electrical) factory equipment. So when is the game set? Is it set in the early 20th century? Perhaps this boy was one of the numerous children used for labor in factories during that era. But what about the gravity-shifting devices? Is that possibly something he read about or imagined and fit into his fantastical dream?

These conjectures all have their merits, but the setting (as far as time and place are concerned) isn’t as important as the game’s imagery and the boy’s journey. And the journey is worth taking. And it isn’t a taxing game to play through time-wise – I completed the story in a little under three hours. So if a platforming and puzzle-solving game with a twisted, dark setting and style seems like your thing, I highly recommend “Limbo”.

Follow-Up to “Crash Course (ep. 20) – Blocks That Matter”

Blocks That Matter” is a fun little game that combines elements from “Tetris”, “Minecraft”, and “Boulder Dash” (the three games listed in the “Hall of Fame” achievement as inspirations). I would describe this game as “cute” without the smallest hint of sarcasm. The art style for the character portraits and cut-scenes reminds me of illustrations in some children’s books I had growing up (like “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs”); the visuals for the landscapes in the levels – as well as the blocks, slimes, and Tetrobot – are simplistic, bright, and colorful, as though they were drawn by a child with a set of crayons or markers; and the narrative itself is full of hokey jokes and silly dialogue.

It is a game without a single abrasive, dark, or mean bone in its body, and that’s actually quite refreshing to see nowadays when so many games are trying to be overly-adult and serious. Yes, it is important for the artform to push its boundaries – to show that it can deliver stories and experiences just as engaging and complex as the older, more established mediums such as books and film; but sometimes I want a video game that’s just a game. And this is definitely a game above all else. It’s amusing, it tests your skills with platforming and puzzles, and it doesn’t harshly punish you for dying or messing up a puzzle. The creators of the game want you to finish it without quitting or getting frustrated, and I think they did a great job creating an enjoyable experience from beginning to end.

Speaking of finishing the game, I clocked in about six hours of play before beating the final stage. That being said, I tried to get as many Blocks That Matter in the initial run through the game as I could, and that tacked on a good bit of play time. I played many stages over and over again because I wanted to get these BTMs, but I often had to restart because:

  • I would be careless and would die to lava or slimes
  • I would fall into a pit that I couldn’t get out of
  • I would be really, really dumb and trap myself
  • I would place blocks in such a way that would make it impossible to regather them
  • I would use or break a block too early that was necessary to solving a puzzle

So if I hadn’t tried to get as many BTMs as I could in the first run, and if I hadn’t shot myself in the foot so many times, I could have probably sprinted through all 40 stages of the story mode in four hours or so. I wound up coming out the other side of the game with 30 of the 40 BTMs and three starred stages (stars are awarded if you complete a stage with a large amount of blocks left in your inventory). After completing the story, I did sit down and beat the ten bonus stages that I had unlocked thus far. The bonus stages all either made you use the game’s mechanics in a different way than you’d previously seen or were just plain cool (like one stage that was styled after “Space Invaders”). The game also allows you to create and share levels with the Steam community, offering near-infinite replayability if you’re looking for more challenges after beating the bonus levels and gathering all the collectables and achievements.

All in all, “Blocks That Matter” was a pleasant experience that was well worth the five bucks it cost. If you’re looking for something a little more light-hearted that harkens back to the golden era of console platformers, this is the game for you.