[20 December 2007]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
If you’ve never heard of the game reviewer Yahtzee, then do yourself a favor and google his ‘Zero Punctuation’ game reviews. They’re a remarkable addition to the internet video personality world, not just for their humor but also their precision in nailing most of the major conflicts in the games that they cover. Most interesting, however, is that he’s also a fairly accomplished indie game maker. Several of his adventures have won major awards in the adventure gaming community for their writing, puzzles, and atmosphere. His latest game, Trilby: The Art of Theft is a side-scrolling action puzzler that uses classic graphics and innovative game design to meld modern game concepts with past ones. The final result is not just a testament to indie games, but to the power of what free games can really do to push the art form forward.
Game design wise, Yahtzee borrows concepts from stealth games and merges them with an old-school Prince of Persia-style 2D level crawl. You play a thief who must dodge guards and cameras with careful timing, while gathering loot and reputation points by not getting caught. There is a remarkable amount of replayability because you are forced to pick and choose which moves and skills you want to buy. Unlike a run-through of God of War, you can’t purchase all of the moves in the game after completion, and which skills you buy vastly affects how you beat a level. Beating a level almost always takes several attempts, with each new try revealing a new corridor or entrance that you missed on your first pass. Like any good stealth game, rewards are given to those who choose to maximize their strategy rather than barrel through. Yet, like Thief or Deus Ex, those of the more impatient stock who prefer to use tasers and blow a few alarms are never going to be seriously impeded. It’s a proven formula, but Yahtzee applies the design to an old-school game engine with great success.
The dated graphics shouldn’t be a deterrent. Trilby‘s animation echoes Symphony of the Night‘s via the love and care that went into each pixel. This character has been around a long time for Yahtzee, spanning several adventure games and web comics, and you can see the love that goes into each elegant motion for a favorite character. Like Alucard’s backslide or double-jump the moves don’t just serve a purpose, they serve the idea of Trilby’s character himself. The crouch and roll are elegant and possess just enough extra cels of animation to really feel fluid. The umbrella jumps and tasers have the look of a true English gentleman. They aren’t just cool looking, they help create a mood and association with Trilby that many 3D games of today could take a cue from. While many 3D models seem to bounce about in a sort of mechanical monotony that hardly differentiates between characters, Yahtzee uses 2D animation to make moves that actually make you feel cool when you do them. Like Symphony of the Night‘s Alucard or just about any character from Samurai Shodown, it’s a pleasure to watch Trilby and to play as him.
The mission briefings are delivered like those in Warcraft II, carrying you right into the moment by scrolling several paragraphs of narrative that explain the next mission. Yahtzee’s a good writer, but given the nature of the title, it’s refreshing to see him refrain from too much talk for the sake of gameplay. The plot is straight out of Alfred Hitchock, right down to the MacGuffin technology heist, and keeps you moving from level to level with the smoothness of an entertaining crime movie. There are several graphic novel-esque cut scenes, which come across like a simplified version of Frank Miller’s Sin City. All of these elements come together to tell a quick, eight-level story that ends at just the right time. It’s also easily skipped, for when you’re in a hurry to simply start the mission.
The game is not without its faults, many of which have been explained on the internet by people who have taken it upon themselves to mimic Yahtzee’s ‘Zero Punctuation’ reviews in response. It’s not that they’re wrong—there are a few light glitches and the wire cutting system is asinine—but the critiques all seem to have missed the basic reason this game is so remarkable. This is a handful of people giving out a game for free. Not only does the average gamer have a much lighter standard for a free product, it lets Yahtzee experiment with certain game ideas that a major publisher wouldn’t dare risk. What happens when you shell out $59.99 for a game and for whatever reason you’re terrible at it? You get mad, blame the developer, and tell your friends not to buy it. Just look at all the complaining Ninja Gaiden Black had to endure for being genuinely hard, so much so that an easier mode was included for all the players who felt cheated by the extreme challenge. When you’re paying a ton of money for a game, the designer has to be concerned with not making the experience too stressful or annoying to the customer. But when the game’s free, that’s no longer an issue. The player doesn’t have to love every second of it because there isn’t a moment where he’s going to feel ripped off. As a result, Yahtzee can actually toy with the idea of creating moments in the game that are expressly meant to piss you off.
Look, it’s like a cross between Elevator Action and
Case in point: the button-mashing sequence in level 4. As I said earlier, you have to play a level several times before you pick a good approach to beating it. Yet on this particular level, at the start Trilby is locked into a chair while a brainwashing screen flashes buttons that you have to mash in response. It’s a pretty demanding finger tap session and after a while you’re going to want to punch your screen when you’ve done it for the ninth time. How could a game reviewer I know isn’t an idiot make a design move that was so ridiculously cruel and annoying? It’s a testament to the rest of the game that I eventually got through the level, but it wasn’t until a later mission that it really occurred to me what I’d experienced. My brain now associated Trilby being locked into that chair with actual pain. Like Kratos escaping that god-awful Hades level or the Prince without his time dagger in Sands of Time, the hardships enhance the experience with the dread that you need to create the moment. When one of the villains is trying to catch Trilby in a later level, he tells you that the first thing he plans to do is lock you back into the torture chair. I have to admit, I actually shuddered when he said it. There is still some validity in saying that the button mashing sequence is the one serious flaw of the game, but it’s intriguing to see a game decide to make the torture sequence for the character actual “torture” for the player as well.
In the end, the real appeal of this game comes from the allure of the sheer fun of the thief mentality and being a master at it. Trilby is a child’s hero, a character that is both what we would all love to be yet cannot ever become in real life. He is one of those characters you cling to after you’ve beaten the game, in the same way that Yahtzee seems to have for years in his own writing. There’s just enough vice and just enough virtue to make you want to keep playing as him. The graceful animation, writing, and gameplay bring all of these elements to life. I do a lot of document-revising in my line of work, and as a consequence, many of the papers that I revise get their share of doodling. They consist of the usual ninjas, dinosaurs, and other crap that’s floating around in one’s brain at any given time. Looking down at my latest doodles, a little Trilby figure seems to have been appearing lately. It has been a long time since a game did that.