Tiny & Big has Big Problems
Tiny and Big is a game that reminds me of a time when I was a child and came down with a very intense illness. I don’t remember what exactly it was or even if it had a name—it could have just been an incredibly bad flu—but the reason that I remember this isn’t because of the waking moments of that sickness. Instead, I remember only the fever dreams born from it. In what I can only describe as a psychedelic state, I remember intense sensations of falling among nebulous shapes of indeterminate size and shape, lost in a sort of phantasma of sensation that defied earthly dimensions of space, time, and physics, existing instead in a sort of molasses-laden dream world. Tiny and Big in Grandpa’s Leftovers put me right back into that same weird state.
The barren psychedelic aesthetic of Tiny & Big alludes to this same deranged detachment of being lost in a sort of fever dream by creating levels on spires of land thousands of feet from the desert below and temples with an abyss of nothingness underneath. The artistic style, coupled with a soundtrack of haunting ululating cacophonies and syncopated percussives do their job in coalescing into a unique feel for a game that manages to be a completely one of a kind monster of form and function, which is both its blessing and its curse.
The game revolves around various degrees of terraforming and the defacement of ancient temples through the use of a rock-cutting laser and the superhuman strength of a protagonist named Tiny. The story goes that a grisled, dime-store villian named Big stole Tiny’s family inheritance, which (oddly enough) is a pair of underwear that when worn as a crown affords the wearer a godlike strength, allowing him to create force fields of energy to propel rocks weighing thousands of pounds at his enemies. The oddball story revolves around Tiny trying to retrieve the omnipotent unmentionables but seemingly remains a vehicle for the gameplay—which I wouldn’t have a problem with if the gameplay wasn’t as finnicky as it is.
Black Pants Game Studio pushes their game to a surreal place, where a waifish skamp can bull around rocks that a modern crane lift would have trouble moving. Levels contain all manner of forgotten gods with emo haircuts, ground-dwelling pellet-creatures, and a snarky smack-talking radio. Unlike my dreams, the game has an air of hipster aloofness, resulting in a daffy aesthetic reminiscent of a washed out episode of Adventure Time. Paired with a fantastic soundtrack that features an excellent cadre of collaborating artists, the game remains a joy to experience… just not to play.
When I first heard about this game over a year ago, I was excited about the prospect of a physics platformer that let you manipulate the environment. There was something thrilling about the idea of sending a thousands of pounds of rock falling down around you to bridge gaps and solve puzzles. I had such high hopes for this game, which may be part of the reason that the actual game part of the equation rings hollow. There are simply too many odd problems involving the in-house engine and the finnicky nature of the various tools at your disposal, especially for a game that can be fairly punishing given the lack of any true idea of what’s going to happen when you make a cut into rocks.
One of my favorite parts about playing video games is that sense that you are gradually mastering the game. With each attempt, you should feel as if you are getting better and better, slowly enmeshing yourself and becoming one with the controls and your character until you reach a point of game playing zen. It’s important—especially in a platformer—that this happens, particularly in the later levels as you have to solve more and more difficult puzzles and execute similarly increasingly difficult jumps in order to progress. The problem with Tiny and Big is that you never reach this plane. You will have to restart a puzzle five times, performing the same series of actions each time until a giant pillar hits a platform in just the right way so that it doesn’t fall into a bottomless pit. The actual physics are not the only oddities—the various tools at your disposal create weird logical disconnects. For example, you can’t “straighten out” a block by pushing it, only by pulling. Similarly, when you fire your grappling hook, it will randomly hook to something other than what you were aiming for. These fundamental problems with interacting with the environment are coupled with more large scale issues regarding the unpredictability of large falling objects, which invites a fair amount of frustration.
The game is an interesting experiment that tests Black Pants’s Scape Engine, showing what it is capable of and also where it needs to improve. The game shows promise for what could be a fantastic game after a fair amount of iteration on the control scheme and puzzle creation. The mixture of unique visual and musical stylings put into a game that does so many things right seems to crumble when examining the basic layers of gameplay and control.
Much like being sick as a child, I seem to remember the parts of the game that were the most troubling. I recall the aggravating moments of Tiny and Big as readily as I remember the semi-lucid fever dreams of my youth. These are the unpleasant parts of the experiences that seem to nest in my psyche, while the fantastic musical score and art direction of Tiny and Big seem to be a sort of enjoyable but hazy afterthought.