Before I talk about the indie dungeon crawler Anodyne, I need to explain why I’m reviewing it, and to do that, I need to explain part of my general perspective on games. The best place I can think of to start is to talk about an essay that I wrote about Skyrim a while back. For those of you who don’t want to read it (it’s okay), I wrote that the game is fundamentally an egocentric power fantasy in which the player is rewarded with great success for putting forth minimal effort, and this felt cheap, shallow, unrewarding, and uninteresting to me. This same criticism that I applied to Skyrim I think can applied to most popular video games as a whole. Indeed, most games I’ve played recently that are critically acclaimed and beloved by others have really been leaving me indifferent, and for the past couple of months I’ve been trying to figure out why. Are my criticisms of modern games actually, at least on some level, valid, or am I just a fun-hating jerk that’s somehow missing something that other gamers have?
So, I was talking to a friend about what I had written about Skyrim, and she said that she embraced the power fantasy that Skyrim presented to her, and that playing the game allowed her to escape from the messiness of real life. Thinking back to myself, I realize that the games I do enjoy I play for the exact same reason. So, then, what was it about the fantasies in games like Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, Kentucky Route Zero, Katawa Shoujo, and OFF that made them palatable to me, and what was it about the fantasies in games like Skyrim, Borderlands 2, and Rage that didn’t?
While games like Skyrim may allow for most people to escape from the aspects of real life that they dislike, Skyrim ironically reminded me too much of the aspects that I personally am trying to get away from. When I sit down to play a game, I want to escape from the frequent impersonality and alienation, and the repetitiveness and routinization of everyday life. I want to experience something special, something different, something that makes me feel alive. And what does Skyrim give me? Repetitive tasks to do for people that I don’t care about.
In Skyrim, for example, every fight with a bandit felt undistinguishable from the next, generally following the lines of: close distance! Raise Shield! Block attack! Bash! Swing! Repeat! Kill!Every fight with a dragon followed the formula of: Dragonrend! Shoot arrows until he lands! Draw sword of devouring! Swing! Repeat! Kill! Regardless of the context of each quest given to me, regardless of where it took place or who I was fighting or why I was fighting them, the underlying experience felt the same to me. I felt as though a boss had given me a list of things to do and that everything I needed to do to knock an item off the list consisted of the same repeated actions. It didn’t feel like play to me; it felt like work.
So, generally, most games that I’ve actually been able to enjoy lately consist entirely of narrative without much in the way of traditional gameplay, or games whose traditional (and possibly boring) gameplay can be overlooked due to a strong narrative. This lead me to ask myself: do I actually even like games as a medium, or do I just like stories and actually really hate games? As someone who makes games in their spare time, writes a blog about them, reviews games for his university’s nerd magazine, and just picked up a major in games and animation, this is a really freaking important question!
I have a hypothesis that the problem isn’t with my changing tastes, but the changing nature of mainstream games over the last five years. For example, until recently the first person shooter was undoubtedly my favorite genre of game. I’ve played through relatively old games such as Doom, Quake¸ Marathon, Jedi Outcast, and Half-Life 2 anywhere from 2-4 times through each, and each subsequent play through would be just as satisfying as the first. It didn’t feel like work at all, it felt like play. In contrast, newer releases like Borderlands 2 and Rage simply left me uncompelled to play through them a second time. After I completed a single-player playthrough of Borderlands 2, I tried a second playthrough in co-op, thinking that it would enhance the experience, but I just grew bored within the first fifteen minutes and quickly shelved the idea. I used to never feel that way about a shooter, but now I do.
Part of the reason that modern shooters bore me, I think, is that the level design in them these days simply sucks (there! I said it!). Compare the levels of iD software’s classic shooter Doom, for example, to their latest release, Rage. The levels in Doom are wondrously designed, non-linear labyrinths filled with hidden secrets and traps. Not only did each level have a distinct feel from the subsequent one, but how you explored each level and what you actually discovered in it would make each and every play through of the game unique. For me, Doom feels like play and not work – it is a dynamic game.
Rage, on the other hand, had incredibly linear levels. You would walking down a cliff path, or walk through a linear series of halls and rooms, reach the end, and leave. The level design had little to no impact on the fundamental experience of the game – they simply served as containers for the game’s enemies. Once you’ve fought one mutant, or one bandit, or one soldier, you’ve fought them all – the context of each level fails to add much needed variety to the game’s encounters. The game tries to spice things up by adding new weapons, items, ammo, and enemies, but those things by themselves really aren’t enough to carry a game. The game ultimately feels to me more like work than play – Rage is an incredibly static game.
So, I’ve reached the conclusion that maybe it isn’t that I’m a fun-hating jerk, but that mainstream AAA games just aren’t as good as they used to be. Sure, they look prettier, the stories are a little better (although they still have a looooooong ways to go, oh boy), but I really think that the fundamental gameplay and level design is just nowhere near as good. I’m inclined to believe that this is because more emphasis is being put on graphics and production value than on gamefeel or core design, but it’s hard for me to say.
Although I think that a good story can redeem a game with dull and repetitive gameplay, the thing is that, honestly, most games’ stories downright suck in comparison to the stories in novels and film and end up failing to redeem the work as a whole. I understand that games are still a young medium, and that the “rules” for telling good stories in games have not been established like they have in text and film, but after playing games by people who have managed to tell a really good story, and then playing games by people who have figured out how to deliver satisfying gameplay, it’s really hard for me to enjoy a pretty-looking, overproduced game that does neither.
All of that being said, it’s been a really long time since I’ve played a computer game whose actual gameplay I’ve enjoyed, and I’ve been looking for one to help support my hypothesis that I’m not a fun-hating jerk. And I’ve finally found one.
Anodyne is a 2D Zelda-esque dungeon crawler made by a couple of guys named Sean Hogan and Johnathan Kittaka. The game puts you in the toles of a young man named Young who slips into a dream, is sent on a quest in said dream, and explores various parts of his subconscious. He explores a vast and intricate game world, navigates through traps, solves puzzles, and fights various foes with his trusty broom*.
The game takes solid old-school level design and gameplay and combines it with unique and highly personal themes that would have been atypical of the period. While the game’s story and characters are generally fairly simplistic, the game’s world is an incredibly vast and geographically complex, or, at least, it feels like it. Many of the early locations you visit are fairly literal (forest, beach), but as you travel deeper into Young’s subconscious the locations become more and more representative of Young’s personality (a womb, a suburb colored in black and white). The best thing about the game’s world, though, is that you are dumped into it with absolutely no direction, giving you incredible freedom to explore the game world and progress on his journey as you wish. This is incredibly refreshing since most open world games, in contrast, stifle the player’s wanderlust by giving them very precise objectives and placing a big arrow on the map for them to walk towards. Anodyne doesn’t hold your hand, but the macro-level level design is good enough that, no matter where you go, there is still a feeling of progression towards your ultimate goal.
The reason that I’m talking about this game in the context of the lengthy spiel before the review, though, is the micro-level level design. Anodyne is a great example of how good design doesn’t depend solely on the core elements of the game (the weapons, the traps, the enemies, the items, etc), but much more importantly how those elements are mixed together to create new an interesting situations. While games like Rage, for the most part, have the player encounter its enemies in isolation, with the only difference being the aesthetics of
container level that they’re put in, Anodyne teaches the player how each enemy, obstacle, trap, and interactive piece of the environment works in isolation, and then mixes them together to create radically different experiences. Evading a damaging orb orbiting around an emitter is one thing, doing that while fighting fire-breathing bats is another, doing that while simultaneously jumping between automated trolleys over a bottmless pit is another again. Moreover, each environment has a really unqiue style to it that not only makes it look and feel distinct from the others but in many cases makes it play distinctly from the others. Anodyne is a dynamic game that’s constantly throwing new challenges at you without changing the fundamental rules of the game, and that’s really, really good design.
All in all, Anodyne‘s not only a game with real soul, but a game that is, from a mechanical perspective, brilliantly designed in a way that few games are these days. The game restored my faith in, and gave me a newfound appreciation for, traditional game design. So, really, instead of dumping $60 on some boring and repetitive hack-and-slash game, you should really just drop $8.50 on Anodyne. It’s not a game that you work for, but one that you play with, and there really aren’t a lot of games like that these days.
*If broom-fighting doesn’t make you want to play a game, then you have no soul. Get one.
(If you’re a gamer and have any thoughts on the above subject matter, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear another perspective on these things.)
Alex writes more about games here.