Thursday, December 8, 2011

Trials By Fire: The Fatalism of Platforming

Trials by Fire is a column from D. Bethel whereby two game demos are arbitrarily judged and one is declared the victor. The demos featured in this edition are The War of the Worlds and Oozi: Earth Adventure Episode 2.

I am afraid to die. This was the basic philosophy underwriting all basic platform games from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. Platformers have since become a medium with infinite applicability (from Super Mario Galaxy to Ubisoft’s brilliant Metroidvania Outland) and all that is required to meet the definition is the ability to jump and having something to land on. Overall, like most games today, platformers have come to mean puzzle games: from Braid’s rewind mechanic to ‘Splosion Man’s self-evident gimmick; these affectations are not just enhancements to the game, but are required tools. This trend started with the 3D platformers, games like Super Mario 64 and Tomb Raider which expanded the horizon of the genre and turned it into a treasure hunt for collectibles or puzzle pieces.

This will kill you.
But before this need for deductive acuity and free-roam appeal existed in platforming games, the genre was about survival. Existing alone in a hostile world, the game fought against the player like a body against a virus. Enemies, bottomless pits, boss fights, falling spike ceilings, and water levels were merely obstacles to prevent the player’s procession forward––onward and forever forward. There was a finality to death (thanks to both limited lives and limited continues) that made a player tentative with every step, a strange meta-statement about how life itself unfolds. The early platform games act as a microcosm of human existence––we move forward until we can no longer do so. It is this existential dilemma that confounds this Trials By Fire, since both of the demos for Paramount Digital Entertainment’s The War of the Worlds and Awesome Games Studio’s Oozi: Earth Adventure Episode 2 approach this issue in completely different, and alternately successful, ways.

These will kill you, too.
Taking as many cues from Playdead’s LIMBO as it does the 1953 filmic adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel, the blurry smoke and silhouettes that create a destroyed London in The War of the Worlds can be entrancing at first glance. The demo shows what an impressive take the developers had on a platformer in the style of the original 1989 Prince of Persia game, meaning that the survival skills of the protagonist, Arthur Clarke (whose narration is provided by Patrick Stewart––one the benefits of being developed by a movie studio), are limited by his humanity. Arthur is, by all means, normal––he has a hard time running as fast as is needed, he isn’t the best jumper, he carries no weapons––and the demo subtly infers that there is no place for a normal person in this jigsawed world of stone, steel, fire, brick, and shadow. This is, however, where The War of the Worlds falls apart: Arthur Clarke does stand out, but mostly in a graphical, glitchy kind of way, not in a nihilistic, introspective manner. The best aspect of the demo is the beautiful background art and animation––again, taking cues from LIMBO and, arguably, Adam Atomic’s Canabalt. The world feels more alive than the character, who controls with an almost poignant, but game-killing, delay. The War of the Worlds demo violates one of the most important rules of platforming––a good game needs tight controls for the metaphor to be active. This applies even if the game world itself is beautiful and poetic; in the end, it’s still a game.

Bats or spikes are all the same...things trying to kill me.
Oozi: Earth Adventure Episode 2 is a much more traditional platformer, at least as it pertains to home consoles. Playing this demo is almost unnerving in its familiarity; the controls are so strong that a player may be tempted to overcorrect instead of trusting the game, and this extends to Oozi’s aesthetics. Where The War of the Worlds expresses the bleak metaphor of platformers as literally as possible, Oozi wraps the same dread in bright colors and bouncy enemies and is no less effective for the effort. In fact, because it does that the pessimistic subtext of the genre may be more effective than The War of the Worlds if only because that attractive sheen is how its progenitors like Mario, Sonic, Bonk, and Earthworm Jim did it. The game trial consists of the first stage of the second level (Level 2-1 for those in the know), and is so infinitely more successful as a platformer than The War of the Worlds even with that static-yet-fluid amateur Flash quality which would normally make a gamer feel let down.

A smile that big only hides the deep depression inside.
Oozi’s success is simple, and gets to the major issue that resides in all theory-driven platform gaming criticism (it’s a huge field of study...or I made it up): despite capturing that sense of endless forward momentum against overwhelming hostility that plagues humanity, the game is fun. Sure, death in the game is as dangerous as a whiffle ball, but the controls, once over that very slight learning curve, have been tuned to such a close ratio that it answers the existential question being implied: if platformers are so representative of our fatalistic and useless existence, why do we play? Because, the inevitability of our demise––when filtered through a controller, console, and television screen––is easier to digest when we feel like we are in control of it.

The Victor: Oozi: Earth Adventure Episode 2

     D. Bethel never has time, but when he does, he makes 
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  1. Fantastic article, D.! Thanks again, and we're always hoping to see more!

  2. Oh awesome... I have not heard of either of these. Oozi definitely sounds more interesting though.

  3. Yes. I had seen a Quick Look of War of the Worlds a few months ago, and it looked incredibly boring.

  4. Glad you like the article! The War of the Worlds could have been so good that playing it is almost shameful. It's like they got half way through it and said, "Yeah, that's good enough."