Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
On Arty 2D Platformers

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 10 Aug 2010 20:00
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I made a point in my most recent video concerning Deathspank and Limbo that the easiest way to gain instant acclaim in indie game development is to make an arty 2D platformer about a very small character with a big head exploring a huge, scary world. Limbo is this concept refined down to its purest form. Stark blacks on whites. Small boy. Big head. Scary world. Spiders crawling amongst the ruins of society.

So why does this sort of thing have such a strong impression on gamers? Well, firstly a cartoon platformer is about as retro as you can get without playing games on a fucking oscilloscope, and gamers are nothing if not keen on retro games, since everyone knows the only good games in history were the ones that came out when you, the person reading this, were twelve years old. It's also fairly inarguable that platforming doesn't translate well to 3D movement.

And I think it's partly because of the retro appeal that exploring the theme of childlike lost innocence in a world of adult cruelty hits a very strong emotional note. Look at us. We are grown adults playing videogames. Some of us shout at them for money. We are thirteen-year-old boys stuck in the bodies of men. Or women. But society has expectations of us. Move out of your mum's house. Get a job in a dog food factory. Figure out how mortgages work and impregnate something. Join the queue. Fill in forms. Society stands tapping its foot like an impatient nanny waiting for us to grow up and all we want to do is live in our twelve-year-old selves playing Sonic with our lithe, athletic bodies and efficient metabolisms. Don't you see? WE are the little big-headed boys, trapped in the big scary world that is society. The spiders probably represent capitalism.

Anyway, my wording may have implied that I can think of quite a few indie 2D platformers that feature cute big-headed children losing their innocence. So here are the first three that came to mind, and how well they explore the theme.

Braid. A full review for this one should be acquired from the ZP video, but in brief it's a 2D platformer about a big-headed man in a sports coat and tie who must use various time bending mechanics to solve puzzles. Its pretensions towards 'artiness' were limited to text dumps in between levels that didn't make much sense at all, probably intentionally, and beneath all that it's pretty much just a puzzle game with unusually good visuals (provided by David Hellman who also drew the excellent webcomic A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible). Exactly how the game fits into my running theme of 'innocence versus brutal reality' is a little unclear. In fact, the game's theme itself is also unclear. I think it's fairly safe to say that it's probably about a dude getting all emo about his ex. Or his mum. Or his daughter. Or Hiroshima. But I can say that it fulfils one of the hitherto unspoken cliches of this particular sub-sub-genre by featuring a great deal of strings music on the soundtrack.

Lucidity. Another one that's heavy on the strings. Now, when you're developing a game, an important part - some might say the very first part - is to figure out who, exactly, you're developing the game for, and factor that into your gameplay, story and difficulty level. Lucidity, a 2D platforming thing by LucasArts of all people, appeared to be targeting its gameplay at retro arcade players, its story at 70 year old grandmothers and its difficulty level at self-flagellators.

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