Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Series of Cubes: Portal's Ancestors, Spiritual Successors, Bastard Children

I downloaded Three Sprockets’ Cubemen the other day, and I’d be lying if I said it was anything but its aesthetic that drew me in. That’s surprising, because I’ve played my fair share of tower defense games and at this point I’m a bit bored with them, looks and all—there’s a limit to the surface-level makeovers developers might use to prop up its sagging appeal (Dungeon Defenders notwithstanding). But hey, Cubemen is different, they said: your “towers” have arms and legs, little cubey heads, agency, (family, friends?) and they’ll soldier around the map for you, shifting all sorts of dynamics and things.

But all that fell flat, and honestly it was "the look” that opened my wallet. In that Cubemen revealed my embarrassing, enduring affection for the clean lighting and crisp geometry that can of course be traced to a single source: Portal.




... Which can be traced back to the simplicity and symbolism of the games of yore, classics like Marble Madness

Now, some rambling: back in the proverbial "day," games made the best of their technical constraints by conveying complex ideas with idealized shapes. Marble Madness married a very basic visual geometry with a clever imitation of 3D movement, and voila -- a "physics-based" game emerges years ahead of its time, and it just feels so right. Because I looks so right for how it feels. Am I making sense?

The visuals are powerfully and directly symbolic; they're just stand-ins for the more expressive systems that make up the real meat of the game, namely friction, gravity, inertia. To convey phenomena like that convincingly (without the benefit of modern physics engines) the game needed to streamline its visual presentation to underscore, to somehow make more real-feeling the central system. Form empowers function.

Like I said, that streamlining was partly out of necessity. As technology progressed that approach became less necessary -- complex systems could be presented and understood without enthralling the entirety of the game's aesthetic.

So, modern games that mirror that blunt geometry can have entirely different motivations for doing so. They (generally) don't need to simplify things for us -- they just like how it looks; it gives them that retro flair, right? No, it feels wrong, because while the retro-blocky look might warm our dorky hearts, too often that look doesn't fit with the actual mechanics of the game; it doesn't flesh out, highlight, strengthen the systems.

But, aha! Portal! Here comes a concept we're utterly unfamiliar with -- player-placed rips in space. The game has to teach us how to get along with its unprecedented physics. We need to think with Portals. To encourage understanding, Valve presents an ideal Euclidean space that highlights angles, distances, depths -- the currency we deal in as we earn our escape. The space is ideal for the learning curve it establishes while boasting that comforting simplicity of Marble Madness-era gaming as a bonus, not as an developmental jumping-off point. And hey, it also feels a little sterile, but wouldn't you know it, that sets up the player-as-lab-rat positioning, which sets up the fatalistic humor, which charms the player into investing more in the story, which encourages further play... and on and on and on. Portal was so unbelievably wonderful because it all held together so perfectly; its aesthetic, mechanical, and thematic approaches came together in perfect harmony, and that siren song coaxed our bills from our wallets and our hearts from our chests. In a good way.


Where do Portal's imitators go wrong, then? Well, they co-opt Portal's optimized presentation without providing a good reason for doing so. Cubemen tried appealing to that visual simplicity, but because we're all so familiar with Tower Defense mechanics, it made no sense at all -- even the 3D view felt superfluous.

Same goes for Q.U.B.E. -- why are we solving these puzzles from the first person? A lot of the challenges involve standing over puzzles that play out on the floor, negating 3D's importance entirely. Why is the "facility" (I wouldn't be calling it that if I wasn't thinking in Portal's terms) falling apart, and why is it presented as a sterile test environment at all? The puzzles don't necessitate that simplified space, because the concepts would be easy enough to grasp in a more complex context. There's no narrative justification either -- you really do just want Portal's run-off, then?

Lest we think I'm being a little hard on the indies -- sometimes they appeal to the retro look because its cheaper, and that's fine -- lets look at English Country Tune. Talk about complex concepts -- ever-shifting gravitation, long-distance magnetism, poking little holes in things and flipping the things around to poke the right holes in the right places... This is seriously mind-bending stuff. It's rare for gamers who have grown up having their spatial intelligence tested and perfected, but for once we need all the help we can get -- hence, the space is simplified, optimized for understanding. Not only that, the neon colors and the bizarre, abrasive soundscape underscore the discomfort of sheer, open-mouthed befuddlement. Harmony! A screetchy, maddening tritone, but a harmony nonetheless.

Suffice it to say, a game's "look" should somehow serve its systems -- not just the narrative, not just the tone, not just the marketing. The systems, the mechanics, the gameplay should be directly affected or Made Better by The Look. Anything else feels cheap.

Possible Exception: Cthulhu Saves the World. I know its just catering to my basest gamer instincts but damn that shit is delightful.


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