Framing is Action in ‘The Way of the Pixelated Fist’

by Nick Dinicola

5 August 2016

The Way of the Pixelated Fist performs a bit of slight-of-hand magic through its unique way of framing its action.
 
cover art

Way of the Pixelated Fist

(Blase Epic)
US: 27 Apr 2015

The Way of the Pixelated Fist is a side-scrolling action platformer in the tradition of Prince of Persia, but it looks nothing like Prince of Persia, nothing like any game really. It instantly sets itself apart by how it frames its action. Most of the screen is black at any given moment, with only a thin slit of a window in which any gameplay takes place. It is counter intuitive framing, blocking out as much of the world as possible, but in practice, it serves as a clever way to emphasize movement and action as well as a workaround for its graphical limitations.
  
The story, such as it is, has us jumping across rooftops in search of the 36 Hidden Chambers. The platforming is fluid and precise. With a few well-timed buttons, we can parkour our way across the world using an impressive range of actions. We don’t just jump left or right, we jump off the world in ways that a 16-bit Prince could never have imagined. We can jump off walls, move side to side in the air like Mario, climb vertical alleys through well timed jumps, and jump off background buildings to get some extra distance. We can even jump up a wall if we land just out reach of its ledge. These are actions that we take for granted today, but they feel like a revelation in a Prince of Persia-like world.

However, for as much as the art and gameplay evoke Prince of Persia, we move more like Faith from Mirror’s Edge. The game controls well and our avatar moves well, which means we can get going pretty fast once we get into a groove. Fast enough to leap through the world without really noticing it, without really seeing it.

This is where the framing helps. If we come to a screen with many long jumps, the screen blacks out enough of the world to emphasize only that horizontal path ahead of us. For example, our window might stretch across the entire computer screen but with the top and bottom blacked out, just the middle third exposed to better showcase the large gaps between buildings. Other times the window might be vertical, emphasizing up and down movement.

Sometimes the framing in the game is so tight that all we see are our legs. Surprisingly, this is all the visual information that we need to keep playing, as we can still see where we are in the world and thus we still know when to jump. This tight framing looks awkward at first, but it doesn’t make the game harder. Instead, it just moves the focus away from us and towards obstacles. As such, each screen feels grander than it really is because the obstacles are the centerpiece, not the player, which makes our inevitable accomplishments feel even more impressive.

On a more practical level, the pixelated visuals make the character and obstacles so small that they could easily be lost in the business of a modern day full screen television or monitor. Using the full screen means showing us what is beyond the immediate obstacle before us, and the game doesn’t want to do that. (Not on rooftops at least. The Hidden Chambers themselves are full screen, the size being in direct correlation to their importance in the story). The game wants to focus our attention on the thing directly in front of us at any given moment, like a kind of Runner Vision (similar to what Mirror’s Edge employs). This vision doesn’t show us where to go, since the path is fairly obvious in a 2D world. However, it does highlight certain parts of the world in the same way that Runner Vision does.

From a technical standpoint, this framing is important because it allows the developer to create a connected world that isn’t really connected. If you really look at the layout of each tile as you run and fight through it, it becomes clear that the environment makes no sense at all.

I’ll fight some guys on the top of a building with only blue sky above, then move left one screen, up one screen, and right one screen, climbing to a spot above that tile with the blue sky… but now I’m somehow jumping across a series of pipes attached to a wall. The environment is not consistent, it doesn’t connect together, but in a weird way that’s okay.

The world is consistent, even if the environment is not. That path to the left and up and right is always the same. It always takes me to the same place. I can run across the world and then run back, and I’ll pass through all the same tiles—every tile can be navigated in either direction—which means that I can map out the world in my head and trust that that map is truthful. It all lines up, just not visually.

The upside to this visual inconsistency is ease of development. It’s easier to create a series of obstacles when you don’t have to worry about those obstacles connecting together, when you can just focus on creating a world without worrying about logic. And when the development team consists of only one guy, that kind of ease is important.

All of this results in a unique visual style, certainly, and one that takes some getting used to, but once you realize that it has no negative impact on gameplay, it becomes pretty neat. Additionally, once you realize what it’s doing psychologically and technically, it becomes a legitimately impressive bit of slight-of-hand magic. 

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