February 25, 2010 12:00 PM |
['Battle Klaxon' is a monthly GameSetWatch-exclusive column where traveling games journalist Quintin Smith fights to win a bit of glory for the beautiful, brave but overlooked games that people are missing in their lives. This month: cruel-to-be-kind indie platformer VVVVVV.]
This time last year the very hippest of the games industry's hip were trying to keep their cool while getting their asses handed to them by indie platformer Spelunky. Part masterpiece, part disasterpiece, Spelunky was and is a game about things going wrong. It's intricately designed to allow you to screw up in a thousand and one forehead-slapping ways, at which point it dumps you all the way back to the start. This is a game so mean that players discover by themselves that the damsel in distress is a viable projectile for fending off monsters.
Now? Now it's the year of our Lord 2010, and we have a new indie platformer with a retro aesthetic and rockin' chiptunes to enjoy. It's called VVVVVV. Like Spelunky, it's mean as a feverish mother in law and utterly brilliant, but unlike Spelunky VVVVVV isn't about hiding from death. It's about turning and facing it. You're no longer Spelunky's cautious, cute, chibi Indiana Jones, but the bold Captain Viridian.
Spelunky was a tease. It had you jumping at shadows and ducking danger, and it giggled as you fumbled with its fat mass of button-presses and items, it snorted every time you accidentally fumbled your weapon into a snakepit. VVVVVV's more zen than that. In VVVVVV you know you're going to die, as all heroes must, and you know you're going to do it with your head held high and no more than three keys on your keyboard.
Pay attention! This could be the best $15 you spend all month.
Here's Captain Verdigris' bad situation: his ship has mysteriously marooned itself in a strange new dimension, and the rest of his lovely crew (Verdigris, Victoria, Vermilion, Vitellary and the lovely Violet) have been scattered all around it. Your mission is ONE: To rescue and re-unite your dear crew. TWO: To explore this odd place. THREE: To escape it. All of them pretty tall orders for a little guy who can't even jump.
But wait! What Captain Verdigris can do in this dimension is flip gravity. Assuming his feet are on solid ground, the tap of a button causes him to either instantly fall up to the ceiling or back down to the floor. He can also move left and right, but that's it. In terms of acrobatic platforming capabilities that puts Verdigris somewhere between Miner Willy, Q*bert and a balloon charged with static electricity. Yet one of the reasons VVVVVV is worth playing is how its potent size and variety blooms out of this single, simple mechanic.
In short, it plays a lot like the final exam of a star pupil at Games Development Academy. You imagine developer Terry Cavanagh swaggering up to his desk, tiny black leather jacket slung over his shoulder, flipping his test paper over with a stroke of his hand. Eyes dusted with stories and sex scan the page.
"Design a platformer where the player is restricted to three actions: Moving left, moving right, and a third ability of your choice which is NOT jumping."
Cavanagh swivels his head and spits as he reads. What is this? This is nothing.
He pulls the chair back from the desk and sits in one smooth motion.
The world of VVVVVV is divided into little more than hundreds of perfectly square rooms. Play works like this: You, the player, walk into a room, surveying it with a pro gravity-flipper's trained eye. You probably smirk at the room's irreverant name which can always be found at the bottom of the screen. The solution of how to cross these rooms is sometimes obvious, sometimes unclear, and sometimes obvious yet such an unbelievable dick that you start groaning before you've even made your first attempt.
Yet soon you've beaten the room, you're stood at the other side of it and then you're eagerly sliding into the next one, which will also contain an idea, a challenge, and a funny name. In VVVVVV Terry Cavanagh's created something that plays like a chocolate box of game developer creativity. You're not struggling through levels, you're popping ideas into your mouth one after another.
The other interesting thing about VVVVVV is, as I mentioned before, how it treats death. Kieron Gillen beat me to most of this when he talked about the game on Rock Paper Shotgun, so I'll paraphrase. VVVVVV strips the punishment from death. You only ever get dumped as far back as the beginning of each room, and this reset happens quicker than it takes you to speak even the most unimaginative of swearwords. The result is that VVVVVV's trickier rooms play like a strange gaming sweatlodge where the only things that exist are you, death and this distant opportunity for success.
There are rooms in this game where you can and will die more than a hundred times before you triumph, and that's stressful, almost hateful, but never, ever tedious. You willingly lock yourself into this recursive loop of trying and failing, inching your way closer and closer to success, catharsis, release and (more literally) the other side of the room. Every room a tiny cycle of life.
This peaks in one entirely optional chamber known as Veni, Vidi, Vici. I won't spoil it. If you're interested, Kieron writes a great deal about it in the above link. What I'll say instead is this: VVVVVV's take on death is actually counterpoint to Demon's Souls, and games developers should be taking onboard the philosophies of both games.
Demon's Souls is an action game that won acclaim from gamers and journalists alike for possessing the cast-iron balls required to force the player to risk everything, from experience points to progress to items. The fact that these things were always at stake when you played turned a cruel game into a riveting one. It didn't matter if you were backtracking and had seen the level before, or were stronger than the enemies surrounding you, or didn't find the design of whatever segment of level you were in particularly interesting, because always you had this spectre of death peering over your shoulder. The game played for keeps.
VVVVVV is the exact opposite. It scythes the backtracking, boredom and fear of loss from the action experience, allowing players to exist forever in the scorching heat of insurmountable challenges, death-defying jumps and split-second dodges, and balances the shortened playthrough time by adding secrets, trophies and time-trials.
Both are forms of development which speak the same message: difficulty does not have to be a tiring, audience-limiting affair. To think of it as such is a failure of imagination and creativity, as nonsensical as assuming a game can't be gripping if it's easy.
A demo of VVVVVV can be found right here, alongside an option to buy the game for either PC or Mac.
You know, if you like it.
(You'll like it.)
[Quinns is a freelance journalist who has fun working for Eurogamer, contributing to Rock Paper Shotgun and reading Action Button. You can currently find him in the damp Irish city of Galway, as quinns108 on Twitter or at quintinsmithster at gmail dot com.]
Categories: Column: Battle Klaxon