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On Arty 2D Platformers


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.


You control, in the loosest possible sense of the word, a little girl with a big head skipping through a dark forest for god knows what reason, and who lacks the most basic self-preservation instinct or perception of the world around her. She continually skips forward like a sprightly lemming (the puzzle game kind, not the real-life furry kind Disney used to slaughter en masse), and your role is to drop planks, staircases and spring shoes in her path to help her circumnavigate incredibly obvious hazards that anyone who didn’t have behaviour-modifying tunneling brain worms would just stop skipping towards like a retard.

Forgive me if this statement seems redundant after that paragraph but I wasn’t terribly impressed by Lucidity. The whole thing was going for a sort of A. A. Milne storybook feel and the visual design wouldn’t have been out of place on a Precious Moments figurine, as if the designers were consciously trying as hard as they could to make people feel guilty about bagging the game out. The order in which you drop the various pieces is entirely random, and randomness hasn’t been suitable as a major game mechanic since Tetris. Falling off ledges was basically a leap of faith since the screen scrolled up and prevented you from seeing whether the ground was toxic spikes or not. Lucidity fits into the loss of innocence theme quite well, because after ten minutes I dearly wanted the main character to be pressured into sexual experimentation by her 15-year-old boyfriend.

Cave Story. A freeware title rather than an XBLA game (although an improved version was released on WiiWare), developed by a single mysterious entity known only as Pixel, I include it here because it’s probably the most critically acclaimed freeware game on the internet. Which admittedly isn’t that competitive a stable, but Cave Story (pictured) really is damn good. If pressed I’d say it’s like a slightly more linear Metroid, but really it takes influence from the entire history of the NES, combining elements of platformers, adventure and bullet hell shooters. The many boss fights in particular are well-designed and not afraid to give a serious challenge.

It’s also got quite an in-depth story that manages to be involving without intruding. You’re a small boy with a big head (of course you are) lost in the now inevitable big scary world. All you initially know from the start is that there’s a cave and you appear to be in it, but over time you become embroiled in the machinations of a team of scientists, a proud race of bunny people and a dark secret deep within the rock. It must be said, though, that if you intend to get the best ending, you have to jump through some seriously unreasonable hoops. First solve a bunch of hidden puzzles that absolutely nothing indicates towards, and then complete a whole extra, lengthy, ultra-difficult level featuring two boss fights. WITHOUT DYING ONCE. That’s like eating an entire bucket of corn on the cob without getting bits stuck in your teeth.

What’s surprising is that Cave Story was developed in its entirety by one bloke. Well, actually, that’s not too surprising, considering it’s presented retro-style with low-resolution, easier-to-draw graphics and tinny Midi music, that’s exactly the same trick I used. I think it’s worth remembering that you mustn’t let yourself be blinded by nostalgia. Development of processor technology is an inherently good thing when retro graphics look like Lego did a crap on an EGA monitor, and Midi sounds like a battalion of gibbons going to war against the 80’s synth-pop artists.

Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.

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