Framing Lone Survivor

I always thought of Silent Hill 2 as a game that was choking me, rather than scaring me. Whether I was being strangled by fog or smothered by a sheet of darkness my perception was constantly being obfuscated in some sadistic ploy by the designers. The spouts of violence I engaged in were always overshadowed by this battle I waged with the designers — how they didn’t want to see me survive their labyrinth. But framing the gameplay in order to pressure the player isn’t always done by maiming the their vision. Lone Survivor proves that gaining sight of your endeavour can prove to be just as a arduous.

Scrolling from side to side I could simultaneously see everything that I’ve encountered and everything I will encounter. If anything was offscreen I could hear its growls in the distance. Knowing, or being aware, has its own consequences on your mind. I my trust body’s reflexes and I trust my implicit judgement to make proper decisions in the heat of the moment. But here I stand, contemplating, ruminating, rotting, thinking of how I’ll escape this predicament. I can see the door on the other side, but I see two monsters patrolling the route. I know I can plant this slab of decaying flesh and squeeze my way past this one monster — becoming as 2D and as the second dimension allows — but then I’m sandwiched between both of them; as dead as the meat I used as bait.

Hiding in Lone Survivor.

“I can’t dodge, evade, or run without burning a resource.”

So I hide, and I walk, and I hide again. Sometimes I get caught. The monsters claw, spit, and bite, and I’m reminded how compressed my perspective is. I can’t run past these guys without paying a bullet to their legs. I can’t dodge, evade, or run without burning a resource. There is no left, no right, no up, no down — only forward and back. What you don’t realize when you play most sidescrolling games, is the power you command. Say I’m hopping about the Mushroom Kingdom and I run into a Goomba. I can jump over it, or I can jump on it. In Silent Hill you can fight, or run. But in Lone Survivor (the combination of both realms) you don’t have the wiggle room Silent Hill‘s 3D perspective permitted and you don’t have the tools to conquer the unexpected like a Super Mario title allots. You’re at the mercy of designer Jasper Byrne through the resources he’s allocated to this point.

I see my own death in every game, but a fraction of a second before it takes place. Lone Survivor pins me against my sanity in a 16:9 ring. Sure, I can plan accordingly, however, should my plan fall apart, I’m stuck. And I know I’m stuck before it happens. This isn’t a particularly fast paced adventure. It’s viscous. You wallow in your own filth with each mistake, and you see your death coming long before it happens.

Byrne hands you the game’s syntax, but laughs at you while he holds back the semantics. The foresight you hold when playing the game permeates the psyches of the game’s characters, although what they know doesn’t necessarily equate to what the player knows. There’s a man you meet in fever dreams, an hoary man in blue who you’re supposed to find familiar, but can’t place. You ask him who he is, and he mocks you. The protagonist recognizes him, but can’t remember who he is. It’s Jasper Byrne, amusing guffawing at your stipulated outlook. You play the game with clear eyes, seeing every obstacle in path, while the game plays you, suffocating any lucid grasp you think you have on both the gameplay and narrative.

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Log: Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP

I’ve got a soft spot for minimalism, surrealism, cubism, dada — any avant-garde movement that blossomed in the 20’s, really. And while I’ve applauded games for mirroring finer art styles I’ve never really considered how particular movements may incorporate and integrate with the interactive model of video games, especially on platforms as tactile as iOS and Android. Super Brothers: Sword & Sworcery EP really pushes what defines minimalism in game design, as well as what promotes surreality in terms of interaction — while perhaps replicating the former a little too well.

This game owns the concept of pixel art in an era dominated by 3D games. Where most games simply use pixel art to stimulate some vein of nostalgia Sword and Sworcery instead uses it to paint a detailed world filled with bustling woodland creatures and dancing flora. In its heyday, pixel art was an outline for imagination, the player having to colour the picture with their interpretation and creativity. This collaborative effort between Capybara Games and Superbrothers flawlessly communicates the depiction they intended to the player. There’s not much room in this adventure to conjure up visual interpretations of the settings and characters because they look exactly as they were designed to, using pixel art as a style, and not a stipulation.

But even though it uses pixel art entirely to its advantage, it forces a discrepancy between its visuals and its sound design… which is absolutely stunning in its execution. While I tapped on the screen to guide the Scynthian girl, I knocked on the environment, eliciting the sounds of water splashing, trees rustling and animals hopping about. Here’s the catch: they weren’t the beeps and boops that complement the games of yore, they sounded exactly as they would in real life. It’s this collision between what you see and what you hear that really drives the definition of surreality in this game. I looked at a duck composed of pixels, but I heard a duck with a healthy larynx. I looked at a character composed of pixels, spouting text about a dream he had, but simultaneously he spoke, telling me that he didn’t have much to say. It’s strange to seasoned players, but a fascinating juxtaposition between what you expect to hear and what you actually hear.

A pond in Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP.

While these peripheral components of the game are exceptional, my issue with the title actually stems from this hoity-toity concept of minimalism I’ve been spitting. I’m not a fan of hand-holding in games. This is a medium in which you have myriad ways to guide the player; the culmination of text, visuals, audio, and of course, interaction. This game uses these avenues superbly, albeit a bit too sparingly for my liking. There were a few points at which I was entirely unsure of what to do, because of the minimal design of the game. Points where I didn’t know where to go, what to do, or even my progression within a particular objective. Furthermore, the game eventually escapes its linearity for a bit, in that it creates different planes of existence for areas you’ve visited. The problem here is that these different dimensions hold different puzzles while appearing in nearly identical areas, making it easy to lose track of progression. During this tumultuous period in the game there’s a lot of tedious backtracking to activate the aforementioned dimensions, while being littered with the exact same enemy encounters during the treks. To top it all off, there’s a short time allotted for how long these realms exist with each activation, increasing the severity and possibility of said rote gameplay.

The most innovative aspect of tablet games are how control and interaction is reinvented with each title. Sword and Sworcery does this at every turn, and while the puzzles that adorn the mystical forest are brilliant, there are times when they’re mere guessing games of what to tap and in what order. One puzzle had me spotting differences reflected in a pond, while another had me enduring trial and error to make it to the next screen. It’s a mixed bag of manipulating your eyes and ears and just plain guessing.

The combat consists of raising a shield and swinging a sword — simple, and yet highly satisfying. There’s a lot of waiting for your enemy to strike, and slashing back when an opportunity presents itself. Rhythm plays into this concept; you can often time your actions to the beat of the music. However, later in the game combat proves trifling and monotonous. Lengthy battles grow prominent, that apply the same mechanics though with more emphasis on how the enemy’s attacks are measured to the music. This includes the enemy presenting itself, as well as powering up attacks or simply floating while music complements their slightest movements. It’s nice to see animation and music come into confluence at first, but if you die it means watching the bombastic performance all over again, which becomes rather frustrating with boss battles.

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP definitely paves its own path when it comes to art direction; encompassing magical realism to paint an electronic storybook, with some pretty funny and very self-aware writing. The music and sound editing by Jim Guthrie really adds to the scene taking notes from classic tracks of the Legend of Zelda, while tossing in the thought of what they would sound like with a funky baseline. It executed well on the concept of a minimalist video game but perhaps took too many cues from the style. The gameplay held a few too many nebulous expectations from me and not enough ways to orient myself. I guess they really nailed the feeling of being lost in the woods, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the experience I was looking for.

Thomas Was Alone Review

More often than not, videogames use violence as a justified substitute for problem solving. It’s a trope sewn into the fabric of the medium, securing the label of tradition as it becomes the norm for gameplay in contemporary titles. Because of this, the term ‘ludo-narrative dissonance’ is a hot topic these days; defining a thematic disconnect between the story told and the interaction the player assumes. Mike Bithell created Thomas Was Alone as a comparable puzzle-platformer, but the distinguishing feature of the geometric caper is how the gameplay serves a significant purpose beyond the enjoyment of the player: it exists as metaphor.

Thomas, an orange rectangle, awakens one day to find himself well, alive really. He’s just been conjured into existence by means of a computer error and immediately finds himself at odds with solitude and suffering from an existential crisis. The thought of dying unaccompanied sends a shiver down the AI’s (metaphorical) spine, so he decides to carry forward through life’s obstacles in search of camaraderie and purpose.

He comes across other AIs, each with their own personality and physical traits. Some friends can crawl through small apertures, some can jump to great heights and some just carry a buoyant sense of goodwill and vigilantism. Throughout the game Thomas learns the ins and outs of every cliché on the topic of friendship and life, but it’s presented in such a manner you can’t help but be enamoured by.

Thomas was alone.

Simple puzzles compose the majority of the game’s stages, requiring skillful collaboration between the given characters to progress, but how this works as an allegory for friendship and teamwork allows the simplicity of the endeavours to be overlooked, as there’s a sense of accomplishment and absolute delight with each step of the way. Occasionally, you’ll find yourself in a stage where your only objective is a simple romp from point A to point B, though there’s a feeling of frigid isolation when a level is completed without the help of friends. These solitary courses present an opportunity for silent reflection; a character contemplating their loneliness while falling down endlessly, speaks as a surprising analogue for someone being at their wit’s ends. The characters all radiate emotion, their own quirks and ineptitudes coming to light with each passing trifle — you begin to feel like you know these people.

Though to merely look at these “people” would undercut the infusion of charm that concocts the narrative. Various quadrangles shape the visual design of every character, but their nuances in animation inject plenty of vigour into their polygonal visages. Their stature, height of jumps and speed of movement mirror their personalities, from a short square striving to prove himself, to a pretentious rectangle with a prodigious double-jump. Even their jump animations add to their composure; each character contorting during leaps in their own unique way.

At crux of this polygonal coming of age story lies the trenchant narration by Danny Wallace. The coterie of misfit shapes that spearhead the game speak volumes with their body language, though they depend on Wallace to vocalize their sentiments through the comedian’s cheerful and sarcastic demeanour. His tone couples harmoniously with the reflexive script to remind you how absurd the game’s premise is, and how lonely it can be to experience an adventure in recluse — much like this single player game.

Teamwork comes naturally; the only way to succeed.

Minimalism is at the heart of the game’s art direction, creating a beautiful array of menu and level design that blooms in absenteeism. The lack of substance on-screen in confluence with the monochromatic palette, contributes to the crushing sense of isolation — and where there is substance a shadow is cast, jerking solidarity to the forefront of every asset and painting an inescapable dissonance. David Housdens’s ambient soundtrack flows throughout the arteries of the game, streaming the cold pings of chiptunes and the subdued chords of a violin to complement this yarn of the little rectangle that could.

Each level holds variances from the last that never make you feel like you’re hopping about the same abyss of cyberspace. However the story does dither towards the end, taking a step back from the developed characters’ journey of self discovery, to deliver a more conventional plot. Suffices to say, the game does end with a poignant conclusion that coalesces with Thomas’s plight, blending together an adhesively indelible game. As you become more acquainted with the characters in Thomas Was Alone, you’ll begin to catch similarities to people you know — your friends, family, and maybe even yourself. You’ll notice that after the time you spend with these colourful shapes, it’ll be difficult to see them as mere quadrangles ever again.