The Rodinia Project

So, let’s kick off the new year with another writeup or two of things I played last year but didn’t get around to writing about even though I have a thing or two to say about them.

The Rodinia Project is a Portal-like, with most of the standard accoutrements of the genre, like large floor buttons that you can keep pressed by dropping boxes on them, force fields that you can pass through but the boxes can’t, beams that activate devices when not blocked, and so forth. But it’s strikingly minimalistic, even for a genre known for its minimalism. Portal itself had a minimalist laboratory aesthetic based on on antiseptic-looking white paneling. Rodinia is also built out of white panels, but with gold-painted highlights, a surprisingly ritzy touch given the setting.

That setting: a series of platforms in the middle of the ocean. Sometimes there are puddles to remind you of this, and to give some sense that these pristine constructions, with their almost cathedral-like atmosphere (enhanced by ambient angelic-chorus music), are still subject to the depredations of the elements. This is furthered by the gradual appearance, somewhat into the game, of slimy black tentacles, reaching out of the waters and wrapping around the support pillars or just lying loose on the floor. They’re a clear sign of an indefinite Something Wrong, probably related to the reason you’re going around solving room puzzles on ocean platforms in the first place.

But that vague sensation of wrongness is just about all the lore you get. Some levels have fragments of backstory you can find, in the form of little collectibles in hard-to-reach places, but it’s very difficult to get them all, and even then, all they have is pictures, subject to interpretation. I emphasize this point because of what the game leaves out: a voice. There’s no one talking to you over a ubiquitous PA system, no GLaDOS obliquely filling you in on the details of the world through her taunts. I would have thought this one of the essentials of the Portal-like formula, but Rodinia does without it.

I guess it’s not the only one, though. I don’t think the original Q.U.B.E. had a voice, although its “Director’s Cut” remake did. Antichamber didn’t have one either, although it may be more accurate to say that it didn’t have a spoken voice; the signs all over the place served the same function, of communicating with the player and giving the gameworld a personality. There’s just a sense that these games should talk to you, and if they don’t, it’s because they don’t have the budget. But I can’t imagine adding voice acting to Rodinia without ruining the austere and solitary atmosphere.

You know what else the game does without? Walls! That is, there are walls, but only when they’re absolutely necessary to make a puzzle work. It’s just about the only open-air Portal-like I’ve seen. I guess there’s The Talos Principle too, but Talos is kind of on the fringe of the genre, and anyway it’s different here. Talos still put its puzzles in spaces enclosed by walls, even if the sky was visible. Rodinia‘s platforms are simply open to the sea, which forms as effective a barrier as any.

But the biggest gesture of minimalism, the single most important element that Rodinia does without, is the gun. The portal gun is the single thing that defines Portal, and its various substitutes in other games — Antichamber‘s block gun, Magnetic‘s magnet gun, and so forth — are the things that most clearly identify them as games in the same genre. But Rodinia basically says “What if you didn’t have a gun for interacting with your environment in novel ways but you had everything else? Could you still make interesting rule-based environmental puzzles that way?” And it turns out you can. And that’s what I found so fascinating about it, particularly that it could get away with this and still be clearly in Portal‘s genre.

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