"Is this a sequel to Braid? Or that other game with the kid in the dark?"
"Is this a sequel to Braid? Or that other game with the kid in the dark?" As I fired up Eyebrow Interactive's new PSN side-scroller Closure the other day, my girlfriend was a bit confused and with good reason. Despite coming from a new developer, it borrows aesthetically from Limbo, and it plays at least a bit like Braid. To give some background: Closure is a 2D, black and white platformer with a philosophical twist-- the only part of the world that exists is the part that you can see -- and most of this world is covered in darkness. You move through the game world via small lamps and spotlights that you must manipulate in order to get beyond the clever puzzles.
From my initial impressions of it, it is clear that the folks who made Closure[ have a lot of talent and ambition, both in terms of artistic style and level design. What gets to me a bit, however, is the feeling of utter familiarity. To play Closure is to feel the sensation of playing a thousand games converging on each other simultaneously. It's not just this one game though. The problems of Closure are emblematic of the stagnant state of 2D indie platformers as a whole.
I do get some of the reasons why this type of game is so common, especially for new or independent developers. They’re cheaper to make, and they’re easily accessible, allowing developers to more easily recoup their (comparatively low) development costs. Moreover, 2D platformers are the medium’s most notorious and easily playable genre, which allows game creators to invert or manipulate commonly accepted norms of game functionality: time and space in Braid and light in Closure . This ability allows for commentary, both philosophical and referential (at least theoretically).
Still, for a game that was the winner of this year’s Indie Game Challenge, shouldn't there be something different beyond some novelty and cleverness? Maybe it's just me, but it seems that we should look for more significant innovation or new types of experiences when rewarding upcoming games and developers. At this point, a game like Closure feels more like a retread. With the Kickstarter projects from Phoenix Studios and Double Fine)providing new avenues for funding games and "new" old genres to re-invigorate, do we really need a game like Closure? Has the 2D platformer market become too saturated to be worthwhile?
I am hopeful that it has not. There are more possibilities for 2d platformers than in providing genre references, atmosphere, and novelty to the experience of gaming. My knowledge about developing games is limited at best, but I’d like to offer three possible suggestions for future platformers.
Ezra Jack Keats, The King's Fountain
1. Look to other art forms for aesthetic inspiration
For the most part, 2D platformers seem to draw their aesthetic influence almost exclusively from older video game worlds, with perhaps a bit of the cinematic tendencies of a Tim Burton thrown in as well. Why not look beyond the medium for influence (beyond Burton, that is)? Ico did it -- at least with its cover art . Why not platformers? The designers of these games clearly have a knack for the atmospheric. Perhaps branching into new territory could help? Some art already lends itself perfectly to 2D video game adaptation or inspiration. Take for example the work of Ezra Jack Keats, the legendary children’s author and illustrator. His watercolors for The King’s Fountain look like a Castlevania game if it were created by thatgamecompany. Or, take his work on Goggles, which is set up almost like a screen from a 2D platformer but with a diverse cast of characters in a semi-urban location. Of course, Keats isn’t the only artist from which creators could draw inspiration, but his work stands out because it already looks like a 2D platformer. If the genre is going to be referential, it will have to branch out or die slowly.
Ezra Jack Keats, Goggles
2. Do something with all that atmosphere
Limbo is a game that oozes atmosphere. In the true postmodern tradition, however, it goes nowhere with all of its creepy spiders and dying children. It's mostly a surface cool that drives it. While I’m all for abstract art and open interpretations, couldn’t the designers give us a bit of substance to work with? Both Braid and Closure attempt to tie game mechanisms to abstract concepts, but for the player, the link doesn’t induce much real reflection. Is 2D platforming a genre that is capable of such inspirations? If not, what types of ideas and experiences work best with the 2D platformer, a genre centered as much around created worlds as on platforming itself? Games don’t need philosophy, but when the designers themselves are screaming for it (Closure could also have been called Descartes's Brain: The Game), then it seems appropriate to suggest that they back up the ambition with more than just a nod to substantive content.
3. Meld with other genres
This has been done before, of course, and genre-crossover is now a staple, not only of videogames, but of virtually all art forms. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and its many handheld sequels melded RPG and adventure elements with those of the 2D platformer, as did Metroid and the sequels to Zelda, among others. What hasn’t been done is to mix the relatively new trend of atmospheric, indie, philosophy-lite platformers with the elements of a more traditional exploration-based game. Judging from the amazing level of craft and talent that many of the platforming developers have shown, I can’t imagine that a more complex experience is beyond their grasp.
It is my hope that these suggestions will spark discussion rather than be read solely as criticisms. I offer these words not because I dislike such games but because I believe that they have tremendous potential. The achievements of the developers behind Braid, Limbo, Lost Winds, Closure, and every other new wave platformer are in some ways amazing, and I hope that they continue to take the genre further. I want to love these games again, but for the moment, they're just "kinda cool" and a little boring.