One of the intrinsic difficulties in objectively assessing the difficulty of a video game is that various players are at various levels of skill depending on the genre. If you’ve been playing nothing but first-person shooters for months, then you’re probably going to rip through a game in that genre, while someone more inexperienced will have a tougher time. Someone who’s been playing real-time strategy games will have the multi-tasking and reflexes that a different player does not. A new game on Nintendo’s WiiWare, Art Style: Orbient, provides a unique opportunity to discuss challenge in games. It’s a genuinely unique game design that relies on a series of challenges and skills that will be fresh for any player looking for a relaxing and minimalist game experience.
In Orbient, you play a small celestial body. On each level, you’re the smallest size possible. The A button activates gravity, which attracts you to planets or blackholes. The B button activates anti-gravity, which repels you from these bodies. You then steer yourself around each level ramming into planets to increase your mass, which has respective effects on your ability to steer with gravity. Blue planets can be absorbed, red ones are too large and will crush you. You can lock yourself into orbit around the gravity of planets while you are able to collect moons and stars as you grow larger. And that’s the gist of it.
Once you get to a certain size you have to lock yourself into a star’s orbit, and then you beat the level. The more moons you collect, the higher your score and the more lives you have for the next level. This isn’t of much concern since you can start any level at any time, but towards the end of the game having more lives can mean the difference between a difficult challenge and limping through a level. There is not, in my memory, any game design quite like this. As a consequence, we can talk about the puzzles in it without adhering to the huge variability that player input normally requires.
On some levels, Orbient plays like a cross between a puzzle game and a game of skill. The ability to slingshot around planetary orbits, know just when you need to slow your approach with anti-gravity, and how to correct your course are all skills one learns in the normal tradition of Ralph Koster’s Theory of Fun. This skill learning shifts when the puzzle element appears; the game starts to introduce objects that gravity has no effect on. You can neither bounce off them nor correct course based on them. You then have to figure out the best position for the orbiting planets to be in for you to make your approach and rely on them to steer yourself into the blue planet that you need to progress.
The question that this brings up is whether or not to penalize a game’s puzzles when you can get to a point where you’ve figured out what you’re supposed to do, but because of the high skill barrier you still can’t do it. It’s a problem that comes up in a lot of games, such as many player’s complaints about Braid, where one would figure out what had to be done but had to try dozens of times before they could get it right. Braid lightened the burden by giving the player the rewind ability, while Orbient lightens it by letting you stack up lives and make multiple errors. The reason this raises the issue of considering this a flawed game design is this: if you’re not going to enforce the rules of the game world, then what is the point of having them? The only perk of allowing me to fudge through a skill barrier is to drag out play time, which may be a virtue to developers but is hardly something a critic should applaud.
To give an example: On Level 17, the blue planet you have to absorb is surrounded by space crystals that gravity won’t affect. You have to angle yourself at just the right way to pass through the field without hitting anything or you’ll bounce off and have to try again. After about five tries I realized the way to win was orbit around the large body, and then use the moon orbiting it as a way to correct my course after I launched myself. The level requires you to do this three times in a row. Each time you absorb a blue planet, you get bigger and your course has to be ever more perfect. By my argument, that’s a flawed design because absorbing the first planet shows I understand the level’s challenge. The demand that I pull off this feat of skill and luck twice more in ever harder circumstances is where the game’s challenge has shifted from figuring out the level and into beating the level.
This is not to say challenge in games should not exist or that beating a game is a flawed reward. The indie gem I Wanna Be The Guy is an intentionally difficult experience where dying thousands of times is an intrinsic part of play. The same can be said of Mega Man 9 or Contra 4. Dying is a part of what the game is delivering and in all of those games you’re readily informed from the beginning that death is going to be an active part of the experience. With the exception of Mega Man 9‘s shop system (which is something of an insult if you take the game’s intended nostalgia seriously), all of those games establish a level of skill and expect you to meet it. They do not, however, feature anything that could be called problem solving. In most cases shooting at something is the solution, or failing that, exploring until you find a new approach. Challenge is derived from both dexterity and luck. What Orbient does is take a game that chiefly involves patience and planning and add environmental puzzles that require a high degree of skill. The introduction of non-gravitational bodies makes for interesting obstacles most of the time, but in several instances the game turns them into painful trials of luck and error. The clash of experience is both tangible and tedious when this happens, made all the more so because the levels guilty of it are very few while the majority are the slow and interesting experience that the majority of the game provides.
That slow and interesting experience is not to be underestimated nor underappreciated. Each level starts with a very minimal and dry background song. As you collect moons, each one adds a layer of music until you put together a grand song. An excellent nod to the Pythagorean “Music of the Spheres”, it’s an elegant demonstration of in-game rewards that do not bear immediate relevance to actual gameplay. Although you do gain an extra life with each moon, most levels feel so lonely and sad until you have snatched a few moons into your orbit that you’ll catch yourself doing it purely to improve the experience. One of the bonus moons, a yellow crescent, is particularly fun to chase after because of the slow lilting toy piano tune it plays. These musical elements create an entire theme and personality that no text or plot could provide, a simple testament to the loneliness of outer space and the poetry of gathering company around you. As one friend noted while I showed him the game, you could play this for hours and just enjoy gathering moons. It is a unique sense of musical completion that I’ve never seen a video game provide in such a calm and passive manner.
Which is where the chief variation in opinion is going to occur with a game like Orbient. Those who enjoy the challenge of dexterity and reflexes will be intrigued by a few of the levels and bored with the slow and strategic challenges that make up the bulk of the game. Those who enjoy the music and relaxed pace will enjoy most of the game and get stuck at several points. Yet perhaps the sheer uniqueness of the game design and musical reward structure will be enough to overcome either prejudice. It is one of those games that highlight what a video game which is easy to learn but engaging to play should be: familiar rewards gained in new ways through a simple skill set. With a cost like six dollars, the game can certainly be credited with trying out more things than one would normally expect. For all my complaining about spending several days pushing through the trickier levels, I also played them until I won.