Munch’s Oddysee: Revamp

Let’s rewind a little. I’ve been meaning to finish Munch’s Oddysee for months now, and last month added an extra motivation: an unexpected update to the game, apparently the first in six years. In fact, not just an update. The press release calls it a “new port”. I’m guessing that there’s a new Oddworld game coming soon, and that both this update and the inclusion of New & Tasty in the Humble Montly are meant to get people talking about Oddworld again in preparation for it. (It’s obviously working in my case.)

Unlike New & Tasty, it doesn’t seem fundamentally changed from the previous version. It’s basically the same game, with the same rules and the same levels. The character models are more detailed and the framerate is higher, or so it claims. Having not played in a few months, I can’t tell the difference. But the feel of the controls is definitely improved, particularly in the menus, where moving the selection with a joystick was hit-or-miss before. And the sounds are much better, both in playback quality and in design. I complained before about cartoony boings, and those are basically gone. Munch’s footsteps no longer offend the ear. Abe falling down a cliff no longer sounds like Popeye in a fistfight. There’s still a certain amount of slide whistle on large jumps, but it’s a very reasonable amount. The sound design was my one biggest annoyance with the game, and I really wasn’t expecting it to just spontaneously get better. Maybe I’ll be better motivated to finish the game now.

The one thing that worried me about such an extensive rewrite was: Would it recognize my saves? Or would I have to start over from scratch? It turns out that my saves were accessible, but the save UI is weird enough that I didn’t realize this at first and wound up replaying the first few levels anyway. Also, it must be converting the old saves to a new format rather than just using them directly, because they all have the same timestamp, around the time I launched the game. As a result, the save menu can’t arrange them chronologically like it usually does, and instead sorts them in reverse alphabetical order by the name of the level. I had been saving at the beginning of every level, and had no idea of the name of the last level I had played. Fortunately, there was one converted save named “Quicksave” — which is distinct from the actual quicksave slot used by the new code.

The Fool and His Money: Ending

Toward the end of any puzzle collection of this sort comes a point where the multitudinous bounty ends, and all you’re left with is a small number of puzzles you’re stuck on. The Fool and His Money makes an admirable go of extending puzzles through unlocking new layers, so that you can have the pleasure of solving a puzzle and still have just as many puzzles left as you started with, if not more. But even so, after I finally started slotting things into place for the climactic metapuzzle, I spent the bulk of today stuck on just two puzzles, both anagrams.

The big problem with that climactic metapuzzle is that it requires not common words, but surnames. It all ties into the game’s big theme of names and people who have lost them. The prince took away people’s names to make them more controllable; by restoring people’s names, the Fool is restoring their identities and even, in the case of the people that the Prince turned into abstract shapes, bringing them back to life. Meanwhile, the Prince’s seven minions know exactly who they are: the Fool confronts each of them by stating their name, and each replies with a brief description of its meaning and derivation, indicating that it is a being with self-knowledge and therefore power. Of course, the figures of the Tarot, such as the Hermit and the Magician, don’t have names, being archetypes rather then individuals. This may be why the Prince’s magics were able to corrupt and reverse them (such as turning the High Priestess from “the one who knows” to “the one who acts”, setting the events of The Fool’s Errand into motion — a detail I suspect was put in because Cliff Johnson knows more about the meanings of Tarot cards now than he did in 1987). There’s even some suggestion that the Prince himself is in some way a corrupted version of the Fool — they tend to mirror each other’s postures a lot, and there are at least two places in the endgame where the Prince outright replaces the Fool in a picture. But this game is too enigmatic to go for an straight-out Fight Club ending, and besides, by the end of the story, the Fool has been given a name, which should render him immune. (It’s Thomas.)

At any rate, making names rather than words is thematic, but it’s also troublesome. I’d been very pleased with the game’s choice of words in its word puzzles: even when a puzzle required very long words, it consistently chose common ones. I came to trust that the solution would always be a word I know, and that goes a long way toward keeping me going when I’m stuck. But with names, all bets are off. Just looking at the names in the main puzzle list, I see ones that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in my life, like Voorst and Thwaite. Now, the puzzles that produce the names for the final puzzle are varied, and some of them just give you entire names without any trouble, but some of them require unscrambling of some sort, either as an anagram or by arranging some words you got from other puzzles in a grille in the correct order. And in both variants, I sometimes resorted to exhaustive permutation, with some help from reasoning backward from the anticipated solution to the metapuzzle. In the end, it turned out there was exactly one name that was completely unfamiliar to me.

I find it admirable that this wasn’t the last puzzle. The final puzzle involved going back to the main list, where a link labeled “Finale” had been available from the very beginning, leading to page that basically just reminded you that your task was not yet complete. The metapuzzle unlocks it the rest of the way, adding some more text and a puzzle, and, in accordance with good game design principles, it’s a pretty easy puzzle. It’s a type the player is familiar with by that point, pressing buttons in sequence to build up a sentence, but with a new twist, that the buttons can be pressed multiple times with different effects. But it’s pretty obvious from context what the sentence is going to be, and getting the sequence falls to exactly the same techniques as the earlier puzzles. If I recall correctly, the original Fool’s Errand had a similar post-metapuzzle moment, but had the Fool solve the simple final puzzle in a cutscene instead of letting the player do it. It’s more satisfying to do it yourself.

All in all, I’m pleased with this game, but also glad to be finished with it.

The Fool and His Money: Anagrams

By far the most frequent thing I have to do in solving The Fool and His Money is unscramble words.

Sometimes there are tricks to make it more tricky, like when there’s extra letters for some reason. There’s a set of puzzles in the Moon There’s a whole set of puzzles where you unscramble seven-letter words that cross each other in various ways. In most of them, you unscramble entire words in a fixed order, so that completing one word gives you a fixed letter for the next, which helps you, but in a few of them, the subset of letters you’re given to unscramble also includes one letter in a crossing word, which means you have to figure out which letter isn’t really part of the word. In some others from the same set, the crossings are treated as gaps in your letter set, so that you have to guess which letter in the crossing word you need.

But most of the anagrams are simply anagrams. And it’s a peculiar thing. I thought I was pretty good at anagrams, on the basis of my facility with them in cryptic crosswords, where I can usually just look at the letters and have an anagram pop out at me. But apparently it helps a lot to have the rest of the clue giving you the approximate meaning of the word you’re looking for. The anagrams in TFahM generally come with no useful context at all. I actually have to push the letters around some before I notice a sequence that sparks the crucial realization. I wind up trying to use as many letters as I can in common patterns, like and “the H probably comes after the C or the T” or “The letters N, O, T, and I could make a TION at the end”, but the result is most often something that looks wordish without quite being a word, like CUDMORE or FARMSHINE. I find these amusing at the time.

The weirdest part is that I can wrestle with an anagram to no avail, then come back to it the next day and see the answer immediately. Recognizing this, I’ve been building it into my plans. If I can’t see an anagram with a very small amount of effort, I switch to a different one. There are still enough left that I can get several per session this way.

The Fool and His Money: The Moon’s Map

Having described the first two phases, I suppose I should go into some detail about the endgame, which I still haven’t finished. (It’s not that this is part is taking me longer than the rest, it’s just that I didn’t start posting until I was almost done with the earlier parts.)

tfahm-mapThe Moon’s Map is composed of tiles that show segments of a curving road, with silhouettes of people standing by it, as well as occasional letters and numbers. Each puzzle you solve in the main part of the game causes a new tile to appear. If you like, you can start arranging the tiles before you have them all. Obviously the correct solution makes the road segments into a single continuous path, but the tiles themselves do not contain enough information to deduce the correct arrangement. For that, you need to go back into the main puzzles and interpret the cryptic hints you didn’t know what to make of when you first saw them. Some of the puzzles have sentences as their solutions that turn out to be hints for the Map.

Once you have the map put together, now, that’s when the fun really begins. The silhouettes, now each standing next to a letter of the alphabet, apparently represent the people named in the list on the Seventh House page; selecting a tile makes a link directly to their corresponding puzzle page, where the story fragment contains clues to the letters that you need to add to the name to form an anagram of a word. Find that word, and you unlock a further puzzle on that page involving the mysterious letters or whatever other changes were made to the picture after you solved the first puzzle. This seems to result in what I can only think must be a clue to a grand puzzle that unites the whole map.

There’s basically no instructions for any of this. The “Help” button will give you a gentle nudge about the general sort of thing you’re supposed to be trying to do, but it’s vague. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. This section of the game, more than any other, is about discovery as much as it is about solving. I love this stuff in all its layered complexity. The Fool’s Errand may well have invented the metapuzzle, but The Fool and His Money gets a lot more out of it.

It even gets some story out of it. There are a number of silhouettes that don’t have letters. Click on one, and you just get the text “I am but a spirit”. I didn’t even look at them closely enough to notice this until writing up this post, but: They seem to be the people that the Prince destroyed by abstraction over the course of the story. There are seventeen of them — didn’t someone tell me to “Seek the Seventeen” or something? There were seventeen puzzles unlocked initially — did the number reduce as I solved puzzles that caused the Prince to kill people? Do they correspond to major arcana in the Tarot or something? I have questions.

The Fool and His Money: The Seventh House

Today, let’s look a little at what lies between the mainline puzzles and the endgame that I’m still working on: the Seventh House. When I first started seeing this phrase used in the story text, I didn’t recognize it, but it turns out it was in front of me all along, in the title bar of the puzzle menu. The building depicted there, with its seven stained glass windows, presumably is the house itself, which the player sneaks into through the windows to access the puzzles there. Despite being non-obvious, these puzzles are just as essential to unlocking the Moon’s Map as the ones in the main sequence.

The Seventh House repeats itself sevenfold in both story and plot. There seven windows lead to four layers of pages, each available only after the previous layer is complete. Each layer contains seven iterations of a new type of word-building puzzle, and seven repetitions of similar events. In the first layer, the Fool eavesdrops on the Prince meeting with someone helping him, under duress, to spread his bewitchments through the lands. In the second, the Fool is ejected from the house and meets seven strangers, each of whom entrusts him with a key in exchange for Wordage before being captured by the Prince’s guards. In the third, the Fool once again eavesdrops on the Prince as he searches his seven captives for their keys, then destroys them. And in the fourth, even more disconnected from the narrative than the first three layers, the Fool confronts the seven mysterious and powerful beings through which the Prince worked his magic, and defeats them. Between these layers, the game indulges in fourth-wall-breaking trickery. There’s a puzzle hidden in the Seventh House page, another in the credits (or rather, the “compendium of true believers”, a list of the people who pre-ordered early on and never canceled), even one that pretends to exit to the main menu and erase your save.

Now, I find the third layer particularly troubling. The way the prince destroys people is, essentially, by abstracting them — turning a person’s silhouette into a mere wobbly shape with roughly the same contour as the original person, which then flattens to the ground. This seems worse than an ordinary death to me. It isn’t the only place in the game we see these shapes, either. A couple of other people turned into shapes and flattened at other points in the story. Also, I mentioned a puzzle where you press buttons to cycle sets of objects through different states: those objects were people that cycled through degrees of abstractions, and the goal was to make them all into people at once. (Interestingly, the buttons in that puzzle were letters of a word, and in the similar later puzzles where you press buttons to cycle letters in a word, the buttons are people.) But in the third tier of the Seventh House, the repetition makes the dehumanization and destruction of these people predictable: as you solve the puzzle that completes the story on that page, you know that it’s going to result in the annihilation of someone you’re trying to help. It feels a lot like solving the puzzle is what kills them.

And that’s not an unreasonable thing to feel. Understand that although the player is clearly meant to identify with the Fool in this story, it’s more like the sort of identification you get in a novel than a full-on Player Character relationship. You don’t control the Fool’s actions and aren’t affected by his setbacks, and indeed you basically operate on his story from outside, moving back and forth through it at will, skipping over bits and missing out on information that the Fool acts on. The one place where your interaction with the story intersects with the Fool’s actions is in the solving of the puzzles. In the main line, each puzzle you solve corresponds to the Fool breaking an enchantment and/or committing Wordage: the words you build or unscramble or decipher are the ones that the Fool is unlocking from the air. But here in the third layer of the Seventh House, the Fool does nothing but watch while the Prince does something very evil. So it’s as if the puzzle-solving in these scenes represents the Prince’s magic, not the Fool’s.

The Fool and His Money: Mainline Puzzle Specifics

By now, I’ve finished all of the main-sequence puzzles, which is more than I managed back in 2012. As the last few in the list got marked as solved, I started thinking that I was almost done with the game, but this turned out not to be the case. I knew there would be a metapuzzle involving arranging tiles to form a map with the final wave of puzzles on it, because that’s how The Fool’s Errand ended, and the map itself had been accessible, if incomplete, throughout the game. But the map is a great deal more involved this time around, less a finale and more a final act. I still have a way to go.

So let’s take a close look at what I’ve just been through. Ignoring the sneaky “Seventh House” stuff, there are 70 puzzles in the main list, in four groups associated with the Tarot suits. Each is indicated by a name — not a name that describes the puzzle, but a person’s name, like “Ursula” or “Crichton”, which seems to be linked to people forgetting their names in the story. When two names start with the same initial, the associated puzzles are the same type.

Five of the puzzles are card games, using Tarot deck variations with some extra cards referencing the story. There was one puzzle like this in Errand, but it was one of the more satisfying things in the game, so I’m pleased to see it expanded into a genre. The basic idea in all of them is that you and an opponent take turns swapping cards between your hand and a common pool, trying to make combos that score points. But the rules beyond that, and what the combos are, are things you have to figure out by observation.

Nine are tile-based picture-assembly puzzles of various sorts. Four are memorization puzzles where you trace a specific path through the irregular panes of a stained glass window. Three involve arranging tiles with numeric values to create specific sums. One is the perennial sort where you have to create a specific configuration of a group of things by pressing buttons, each of which cycles a different subset of the things through different states. One particularly difficult one is a rule-guessing game reminiscent of Petals Around the Rose: given six coins with various faces, you have to figure out how to tell which two to flip over to reveal the same symbol. The rule here doesn’t make physical sense, but it’s completely consistent and predictable once you know how to do it.

The remaining 47 puzzles are all about making words and sentences in various ways.

Mostly this means unscrambling letters. For example, there’s a set of puzzles that give you 4×4 grids of letters, which you have to rearrange so that every row and column is a word. Another type gives you a stack of bands of letters, which you shift left and right to form words in a highlighted central column. An interesting special case: Any puzzle that produces seven-letter words will feed them into a later puzzle, which you therefore can’t solve until you’ve completed the earlier ones. This is the game’s first real hint of metapuzzlery.

There’s some redundancy: there’s a set of cryptograms, but there’s also a set of puzzles where you select letters out of a list to make multiple copies of the letter appear in an expanding sequence that sprouts punctuation as you go, and after you’ve tried this a few times, you realize that it’s just a cryptogram in disguise, with a less convenient interface.

I mentioned a puzzle where you press buttons to cycle objects through different states. Well, there’s three others where you do the same thing, except the objects are letters in a word. This is a bigger change in the nature of the puzzle than it sounds like, because it’s not clear what the target word is. Interestingly, this means solving the puzzle effectively has two phases, figuring out what word you can make from the given letters and figuring out how to use the available buttons to produce it, even though there’s no separation of phases in its implementation.

Another notable type: the letter auctions. You have a bunch of letters, and there’s a bunch of potential buyers trying to turn four-letter sets into five-letter words. Your challenge is to optimize your earnings by auctioning your letters in the right order. Satisfy a customer too early, and they won’t be around to pump up the bidding on later letters. Now, this seemed to me at first to be essentially a math problem. By observation, I could learn each bidder’s maximum bid and derive the maximum value of each letter and so forth. But the behavior of the bidders is complicated and perhaps unpredictable — I’m sure I’ve sometimes seen people bidding on letters they couldn’t actually use. Ultimately, the key was to not try to figure it out that way. All that really matters is that all the words in the optimal solution fit a theme, and that by hitting “Undo” whenever someone makes a wrong word, you can backtrack your way to the solution. I’m pretty sure that the word auctions were among the puzzles I didn’t manage to solve last time, and I can’t say I like them much.

One peculiar thing about the words you make: Since the setting is based on Tarot, it’s all sort of vaguely pre-industrial. This is a land of kings and queens, swords and wands, hermits and heirophants. And this puts limits on the game’s vocabulary. So if one of those 4×4 word grids can make the word “cola”, for example, you know that it’s not going to be part of the solution. But those grids keep track of how many words you have — the cash offer for the grid increases with each word — and thus you can see that “cola” is counted as a word even so.

The Fool and his Money: Mystery

If I had to describe the feel of The Fool and His Money in one word, I’d choose “enigmatic”. You might think that’s a given for a puzzle game, but I’m not even talking about the content of the puzzles so much as everything else about and around them.

The basic format of the game is this: From a menu, you can access a series of pages. Each page contains a fragment of story, just a few sentences long, accompanied by an illustration, with all characters shown in silhouette, like shadow puppets — something inherited from The Fool’s Errand, where it was to some extent a reaction to the graphical limitations of the original Macintosh, but the effect is attractive and creates a sense of mystery from the get-go. Each illustration contains a puzzle, usually a word puzzle of some sort, but there are exceptions. Seventeen pages are available to start with; the rest are locked, and unlock in fixed sequence as you solve puzzles. In addition, solving a puzzle extends the story fragment on that page to fill in more of the story, and in many cases alters the illustration, adding words or jumbled letters of unclear significance. Presumably these are part of a metapuzzle to be solved after you complete all the pages, which means that at the moment they’re revealed, they’re a puzzle that’s out of your reach, a message that you can’t even begin to decipher yet. Enigmatic.

Even ignoring the puzzles, the story itself is something of a mystery. The original Fool’s Errand had a fairly simple good-vs-evil plot, with the High Priestess from the Tarot as the bad guy, seizing the power of the Book of Thoth to place curses on the land, and with various other Tarot cards, notably including the Sun, helping the Fool to against her. TFaHM starts out with the Sun apparently betraying the Fool while the High Priestess suddenly turns helpful, and it proceeds by generally casting doubt on everyone’s motives and revealing things that were said in the first game to be lies. You soon wind up with no idea what’s really going on. And this effect is enhanced by the fact that you’re missing important chunks of the story.

See, the puzzles vary a lot in difficulty. So I’m not solving them in linear sequence. I’ll hit a difficult puzzle, maybe solve it partway, and then break off to solve other, easier puzzles. And since the story is revealed by solving puzzles, this means there are gaps in the story I’ve seen, some of them quite significant for understanding the plot.

And that’s before we even get into the secret pages.

tfahm_menuThey’re not really all that secret. Just… non-obvious. The puzzle menu is in the form of a large building with the names of the pages on its walls, between and around a set of stained glass windows. In my initial pass at the game, I didn’t go back to this menu much: until I had sampled all the unlocked pages and had to start backtracking, it was simpler to just keep using the “next page” button. So it took me a while to notice that the windows were changing color, indicating that they were unlocking too. They link to a sequence of pages whose relationship to the rest of the story is still unclear to me: in them, the Fool repeatedly sneaks into “the Seventh House”, whatever that is, and eavesdrops on a machiavellian Prince plotting all the calamities you observe elsewhere. And that’s just the start of a fairly large set of puzzles that aren’t in the main list, but do seem to be an essential part of understanding the later parts of the story.

The Fool and his Money

tfahmI suppose my experiences with Games Interactive and its sequel left me craving an actually good puzzle game along the same general lines. I reinstalled The Fool and His Money over the weekend, and since then it has absorbed enough of my free time that I haven’t gotten around to posting about it. I’m in that mode where I wake up in the morning and say “Let’s try to make just a little more progress in this game before going to work”. That hasn’t happened in a while.

Before I get into the details of the game, it’s worth recounting its history. In 2003, Cliff Johnson, author of the classic Tarot-themed puzzle game The Fool’s Errand, announced that he was working on a sequel, and accepting preorders. This was years before Kickstarter; it was crowd-funded the hard way. The game was repeatedly delayed over the following years, prompting jokes about the appropriateness of the title, but finally saw release in 2012, nine years after announcement. For comparison’s sake: Duke Nukem Forever was released 13 years after it was announced. It did, however, beat TFaHM to market.

I was among the preorderers, and played the game for a while after its release, but 2012 was this blog’s first major slowdown, coinciding with a major project at work. So I didn’t get around to posting about TFaHM at the time, and neither did I get around to finishing it. I’m hoping to correct both of those things now.

My first obstacle to starting the game was that the hard drive I had installed it on was kaput. I don’t have it on physical media, and it’s not on Steam. This is a game that was distributed via the author’s personal web site. Fortunately, that web site is still operational, and I still have the email containing my personal key file and password for it. It seems strange to have to manually apply DRM for a specific game today, when most games are either on a platform that handles it unobtrusively, or simply released DRM-free, as developers decide that it doesn’t help their sales enough to be worthwhile. Heck, just a few days ago, Blendo Games released the source code for Quadrilateral Cowboy, a game that had only been released two weeks previously. And why not? It’s a quirky indie game from a developer with a cult following; it probably saw most of the sales it’s ever going to have in the first two days, let alone two weeks.

It may sound like I’ve just gone off on a tangent, but it’s very easy to read the story of TFahM as being some kind of metaphor for intellectual property law. First of all, the treasures that the Fool accumulated over the course of his Errand are stolen by pirates. Then he finds that the people of the Four Kingdoms have unaccountably fallen into a sort of mania for Wordage, a system wherein people own specific words and can charge money for their use — although the one time the Fool uses a word in the presence of its licensor, he doesn’t pay anything because it’s considered too much effort to figure out how much he owes. The Fool has the unique ability to pull unowned words out of the air by solving puzzles, prompting a flurry of bidding from whoever’s around. But any gold that the Fool obtains this way is somehow magically siphoned away by the pirates. But I haven’t gotten all the way through the story yet, so I don’t know how well this holds up in the long run.

A Couple of Good, Short Platformers

refunctRecent comments begging me to play something short and good after my recent experiences put me in mind of Refunct, a very pleasant game I played a while back, and replayed more recently when it got Steam trading cards. I wound up idling to get all the cards, mind you. This is a game that takes about a half an hour to play through even if you have no idea what you’re doing. But it’s a high-quality half hour. It’s a little gem of a puzzle-platformer, and furthermore, it’s study in first-person platformer technique, unencumbered by story.

The whole thing is set on a group of rectangular concrete pillars and slabs in the middle of a calm ocean. Some of them have buttons on top, and standing on a button causes more pillars to rise up from the waters. In fact, you can see them under the surface waiting to be summoned, the entire game lying latent. Also, any platform, whether it’s useful for reching a button or not, changes color when you stand on it, turning brownish with a grassy green carpet on top. This provides direction, as the places need to get to are visually distinct from the places you’ve already been, and also an implicit secondary goal of reaching every platform, not just the ones you need.

The really impressive thing about it is the wordless tutorial aspect. It keeps introducing new things you can do, and for the most part, it introduces them simply by giving you a reason to try doing them. For example, at one point there’s a button at the bottom of a narrow pit enclosed by slabs. It’s easy to jump in, but how do you get out? Inevitably, the player tries wall-jumping, if only by accident as a result of flailing around in the game’s first small enclosed space, and discovers that it works. You’ve had the ability to wall-jump all along, but you probably didn’t notice until that moment.

basketbelleAnd now that I put that into words, it reminds me of a moment in another charming little platformer I played some time back and have been meaning to write something about ever since: BasketBelle, a sort of stylized urban-fantasy game about the value of family and the power of basketball. Actually, it’s a little inaccurate to call it a platformer; its mechanics are kind of all-over-the-place, and its last few levels are all about flying forward unstoppably and dodging obstacles. Its best and most memorable parts, however, are basketball-themed platforming, with levels based on the clever conceit of throwing a ball through a hoop to open the door to the next level. Sometimes the level geometry forces you to do this from a considerable distance, and you have to clear the ball’s path of obstacles for it to work.

BasketBelle‘s player character is the son of a retired basketball star. Several times in the story, starting with the opening cutscene, it’s asserted that he had the power of flight. Toward the end, you encounter him, and he reveals that you too can fly, and always could — and then tells you the controls for doing it. Now, when I read those words, my reaction was “Wait, is this true? Did I have this power all along? Could I have used this technique to fly at earlier points in the game?” And so I tried starting the game over, and discovered that it was a lie. Even though I, the player, knew how flight is done, the ability to actually do it was locked until I reached the point in the story where the PC learns that he’s always had this power.

So basically, we have here two games with common element, of discovering that you have an ability that you didn’t know about. But BasketBelle does it entirely at the level of story, while Refunct does it entirely at the level of gameplay. And I have to say, I like it better at the gameplay level. At the story level, the moment is entirely unreal, just part of a story I’m told. At the gameplay level, it’s half-real: wall-jumping is a fictional ability, but a way, it’s really the case that I had this fictional ability all along.

Inside

insideI’ve been seeing Inside mentioned a lot lately, chiefly in two ways: “This looks a lot like Limbo” and “Oh my god the final level”. The general reluctance to elaborate on the latter sentiment got me curious enough to try it for myself.

I won’t spoil the final level (even as I show no such restraint for the rest of the game), but I’ll elaborate a little. It’s audacious. It’s unexpected, but it doesn’t come out of nowhere. And it’s gross, but in a way that’s more funny than than anything else, which comes as a relief after the tension and creepiness that dominates the rest of the levels. This change in tone is part of what makes it audacious, and probably part of why it’s provoked such strong reactions.

As for the resemblance to Limbo, the first thing I have to say is that it’s not alone. Limbo seems to have inspired an entire genre of grayscale puzzle-platformers. Inside at least has the excuse of being by the same developers as Limbo, and it uses the formula as a launching-point, not a constraint. For one thing, it’s not really grayscale. It’s just highly desaturated, and it seems like the desaturation is mostly a way to represent dim lighting. Whevener a really bright light hits the player character, you see just how vividly red his shirt really is.

The opening of Inside is surely meant to remind us of Limbo, starting as it does with a boy alone in a dark forest, with not a word of explanation. But as the game went on, I kept encountering scenes that reminded me more of other games: Canabalt, Another World, Heart of Darkness, even Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee at one point. They key difference is story. Limbo has about as much story as your average dream. It’s all about mood, not narrative, and scenes flow into each other without a lot of logic. Inside quickly makes a promise of greater coherence by grounding itself in the realistic: at the point in Limbo where you start encountering giant spiders, Inside instead gives us a couple of grownups with flashlights standing next to a large truck. On seeing them, the PC shifts unbidden into stealth mode — there’s no manual stealth toggle in this game, just automatic variations in posture and movement that indicate to the player what sort of scene we’re in — and we understand that we’re being hunted. That is effective storytelling.

(Spoilers intensfy from this point on.)

There are no words in this game. The story is told mainly through environment. You tumble down a highway embankment and escape to an abandoned farmyard, where you see dead pigs piled up — some sort of disease? Is that why they’re hunting me, because I’ve broken quarantine? Then a seemingly-dead pig stands up and attacks you: Oh no, is this a zombie apocalypse story? Well, there are zombies of a sort, it turns out, but they’re not Romero-style killer ghouls. Rather, they’re the sort that’s passive unless controlled. One of the game’s more striking images comes when the trucks from the beginning unload a cargo of zombies, presumably collected by those men with flashlights. Unloaded, the zombies form orderly queues and march into a compound of some sort, clearly receiving signals from some unseen source.

The brilliant part of this is that at certain points you can find the machines that control the zombies, consisting of a sort of glowing helmet connected to a device with an antenna, and use them yourself. You may be working against the people doing this, at least to the extent that they’re trying to capture you and you’re trying to not be captured, but that doesn’t prevent you from using their tools to your advantage. There’s even a bit where you daisy-chain it by making a zombie put on a second helmet, effectively acting as a repeater to reach a zombie that’s out of your range. Through this, I kept thinking: This is about the player/character relationship. The boy controls the zombies in a similar way to how I control the boy. In a sense, the daisy-chaining of control was already happening.

Things keep getting more science-fictional as the story ramps up, with the appearance of large possibly-alien machines, but the full story of what’s going on never becomes completely clear. In a guarded complex, we see a roomful of zombies floating upside-down underwater, their heads hooked up to zombie-control helmets. Why? To strengthen a signal, maybe? Is the large spherical device at the heart of it all something that the technicians built, or something that they found and are studying? I do have a sense that, unlike in Limbo, the developers have definite answers in mind, and that I could possibly figure it out if I paid enough attention to details. But simply playing through the game is not enough to fully understand it. Maybe it really is chiefly about mood after all, with just an illusion of story to provoke that mood.

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