Lugaru HD surprised me, and not just because I hadn’t expected it to be a game about knife-wielding rabbits. It revealed how often I let my experiences with past games define my responses to new ones.
Back in 2009, I joined 138,813 other people in hopping on the Humble Indie Bundle bandwagon. It was the perfect opportunity to justify the purchase of more games. I wasn’t just hoarding games and adding to my ever-expanding backlog; I was making a statement by supporting independent developers! I happily bought a collection of games I knew very little about. I had played (and loved) World of Goo but had never even seen screenshots of the the rest of the collection.
2011 rolled around, and I realized that I still hadn’t played any of the games for which I so righteously paid. For no reason in particular, I installed Lugaru HD and proceeded to experience something I hadn’t felt since I played my first video game on my Dad’s early-1980s Zenith computer: total ignorance. Aside from its title and its menu icon, I knew nothing about the game. This lack of knowledge drastically affected my response to every portion of Lugaru HD and prompted me to reexamine my approach to video game analysis as well as the pitfalls of knowing too much about a game before playing it.
I entered Lugaru's tutorial and was immediately taken aback by what I saw: polygons. I realized that I had developed a mental image of what an “indie” game looked like: two-dimensional and artistically stylized. Games like World of Goo, Braid, Limbo, and a host of excellent browser-based games that had dominated the headlines had molded my expectations of the world that I'd be entering. As I spun the fast moving camera around my anthropomorphic rabbit avatar, the long familiar third dimension suddenly felt fresh.
Taking control of a bipedal warrior bunny actually was a new experience. Because I knew nothing of the game’s characters, setting, or rules, the experience felt similar to trying to grasp some of the earliest games that I played. I couldn’t prepare myself for the absurdity of Donkey Kong or the weird landscape of Q*bert because I had no sense of context. My knowledge of genres and conventions was nonexistent, so I had to classify those games after experiencing them. Today, I usually can make fairly accurate predictions about games that I haven’t played based on my knowledge of the genres in which they exist. I had no such basis for comparison for Lugaru, so playing it evoked a strange sensation akin to playing Pac-man for the first time. I had to learn about a game based on its internal structures, rather than testing it against preconceived opinions.
This blank slate approach probably worked in Lugaru's favor. With minimal expectations, I was able to avoid hasty comparisons. A game about rabbits naturally features a fair amount of jumping, but these leaps tend to work differently than in a platformer like Mario. The game seems to expect the baggage that players might bring and offers several reminders that high jumps are executed by crouching down and then springing up, while a running sprint yields a long, low altitude bound. While it was initially off putting that I needed to crouch before being able to run, such an action has a certain logic to it. Turner, the game’s protagonist, can use all four limbs to race across the game’s expansive zones, which means he has to get on all fours before taking off. This mixture of animal and humanoid locomotion reinforces the artistic style and sets it apart from games that are based solely on either anthropomorphic or mythical characters.
The absence of popular action and fighting game conventions would have been much more noticeable had I expected the bulk of the game to revolve around arena-style combat. Looking back on it, it is very strange that a three-dimensional fighting game was released in 2005 without some sort of variant on the Z-targeting system implemented by The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I constantly found myself struggling to keep the camera focused on the action and to keep Turner pointed in the right direction. Having to ward off a group of enemies that all attack at once made for interesting battle dynamics, but the timing-heavy combo and reversal system would have benefited from enemy-button assignments seen in games like Mark of Kri. Of course, had I known of these omissions before starting, I might not have finished the game. By having to build my knowledge of the game from scratch, I was forced to closely analyze the game’s components and then dissect them to determine what worked and what did not.
My lack of expectations also influenced my appreciation of Lugaru's story. Granted, there is not much of it -- the citizens of Turner’s village were murdered by traitors, and he goes on a Charles Bronson-esque quest to exact revenge on everyone responsible. Thin though it may be, experiencing the story without any clue as to what was in store made events like the village massacre, the reveal of the vicious wolves, and the politics of the rabbit kingdom novel and perhaps even a bit poignant. There was something both darkly funny and subtly tragic about a sword-toting bunny rabbit philosophizing on the morality of killing civilians.
Since I was not primed to expect anything in particular, my mind was free to make connections with a variety of influences. The woodland warriors of Brian Jacques’ Redwall books seem to be clear inspirations, but I also sensed allusions to more distant genres. After vanquishing the evil wolves and purifying the rabbit society through violence, Turner chooses to wander the world rather than rejoin society. Like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Turner fights to craft a society in which he has no place. The viciousness he possesses secures peace but prevents him from enjoying it.
Much has been written about the way that games allow us to explore mysterious worlds and analyze unique systems. My time with Lugaru awakened me to the fact that when I play games for the first time, I am actually exploring my preconceived notions rather than experiencing a foreign landscape. Today, with the constant hype cycle and plethora of pre-release information on the Internet, it is difficult to enter a game without prejudice. By their very nature, independently produced games are much more conducive to surprising experiences. Without big marketing campaigns, the focus remains on the game rather than the image created by the advertisements.
Going into Lugaru blind was a refreshing change to how I often play games. Without knowing what to expect, I was able to think about whether the game’s rough edges were flaws or simply surprises. I was forced to play through the whole game before categorizing it and filing it away in a certain genre.
Walling oneself up and trying to ignore the events leading up to a game is almost impossible. It’s not even necessarily a good thing, as analyzing the differences between the imagery surrounding a game and the game itself can be fruitful. Anyone who bought Dragon Age based on the commercials will tell you that. Still, Lugaru reminded me about the dangers of relying too much on past experiences and second hand impressions. It is important to study the context of a game's release and its relationship to other works, but a premature focus on history or an overabundance of expectations can obscure more than they illuminate.