[22 November 2013]
Silent storytelling is a difficult skill to master in western culture. We are a very text based culture. We prize the written word above all else as a symbol of intelligence and status. We subconsciously hold those who have read a lot of books or difficult esoteric books in high esteem. Even in very visual mediums like film or a purely visual medium like painting we do our best to apply language to them. Hell, we invented a new medium by adding text to paintings.
Suffice it to say that when a work eschews either completely or even just mostly words, we as a culture take notice because it is such an oddity. It’s why the opening half of Wall-E got so much attention on release. Lilly Looking Through is almost completely visual. The two characters call out each others’ name or other one word exclamations, but otherwise everything is explained and conveyed through the game’s visuals. Even the game’s early instructions have no words attached to them. Those instructions provide guidance through well designed cues left for the player to interpret.
Every game genre has a certain amount of words applied to it, even from the very beginning of the gaming industry when memory and a machine’s other capabilities were limited. Words always found their way into the video game—from explanations of how to play to context for the adventure that you are about to have. Though, historically, I’d name adventure games as the wordiest of the bunch. They evolved from a pure text heritage stretching back to Colossal Cave Adventure, and even when computer games began featuring graphics, the text parser remained. As the genre moved forward, puzzles needed set up and clues needed repeating to hint at the logic that the designer was going for.
From that standpoint, Lilly Looking Through is masterwork of design. The game has to hint at solutions through visuals and animation alone. All the puzzles are environmentally based and the only inventory item available to the protagonist is a magical pair of goggles that will shift her through time when she puts them on. Thus, she can shift back and forth to change the state of the environment. This helps you make your way across the screen and to the next leg of your chase. There are occasions when you can pick up an item on a screen, but it must be used on that screen and then dropped before the character can proceed. Every other action concerns manipulating some aspect of the environment to cross a barrier and get to the next location.
The subtlety in how the game gets you thinking along certain lines through its art and perspective (the highlight of which was an underwater colored lights puzzle) is astounding. I never once felt like the puzzles were beyond my grasp, and I made it through the whole game without getting stuck.
You play as a young girl called Lilly, whose brother is carried off by a rather insistent red scarf and a strong wind. She travels to catch up with him and get him down on what must be a very blustery day. That’s pretty much all the plot that the game is going to provide because there is only one other person who appears in the game for only a few seconds. If there is more to the story, it comes through the images of the environment and how they change across different time periods of the past and present. There is a story to each screen and how the march of time has effected things. Overall it’s light and rather a nice way to ease younger children into the concept of change.
The game is delightful. and while I do enjoy such games, at the same time I have issues with games that are just delightful. Or that is what I thought. In reality, there is also the consideration of who the game is for. Whereas most games aiming to be simply delightful are trying to create a contrasting aesthetic to the current gaming ecosystem, Lilly Looking Through is the kind of game a parent could play along with their young child on their lap.
The elements are basic, and the game is a wonderful introduction to critical thinking. I am a longstanding player of video games, so I’ve been conditioned to just accept things, and the world presented here does strike me as something that a child could understand. Kids have a different way of seeing the world that is unrestrained by reality, and Lilly Looking Through slips easily into that style of fantasy. There may not be much more in it than mere delight for me. However, it doesn’t seem like it was made for me, and I have to recognize that.
I should mention that the game does ends rather abruptly. I assumed that I was headed to an additional section, given that it had just changed the status quo, but then the credits rolled. I was sent to a scene selection screen with the option to quit to the main menu.
It looks like the game’s budget had ran out at that point, and given that this was made by a husband and wife team literally in their home, that probably was the case. It certainly leaves the experience open for continuation, and I’d have no problem in seeing where Lilly and her brother end up.