Twelve million, five hundred fifty thousand, eight hundred twenty-one blocks away, if you want to get technical about it. The name comes from the distance a player must travel in Minecraft to reach ‘The Farlands.’ This is a place where the mathematical rules that control the rendering of the land break down, resulting in spontaneous, foreign, alien features. On top of that, movement becomes aligned to a grid, meaning that the algorithms that smooth out player movement also collapse. Everything feels laggy, although it isn’t. At roughly thirty-two million blocks from the starting point, the variables storing the player’s position overflow. If the game didn’t freeze and crash long before then, the player would likely cease to exist. Such is the ominous nature of the Farlands.

I adopted this name for two reasons. Firstly, the Farlands represent a point at which a game is no longer a game. Defining characteristics are erased, strange and spontaneous problems arise, and things fall apart. In the case of the Farlands, this is caused by events outside of the player’s perception, i.e. the programming and fine-tuning of aesthetics. I adopt this name because, in this blog, I will not simply be reviewing games. I will be picking them apart, defining what about each game makes it a game, and what parts of it fail to meet its own criteria (When it is no longer a game, so to speak.). I will pull apart the inner workings of, not only the aesthetics of the game, but also the psychological effects it has on the player (These would be the ‘events outside of the player’s perception.’). In my reviews, I seek to find the ‘Farlands’ of every game, as well as the reasons behind them.

This is not a video game review blog. This is an insight into the psychological connection and philosophical implication between gaming and the human mind.

For those who are curious, the second reason I chose this name is because Minecraft is pretty fantastic. And I like obscure references to things.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Everyone has heard of this incredible game. Its beginnings go back to a final project at the DigiPen Institute of Technology by the name of “Narbacular Drop,” created by only seven students. Immediately after graduating, the entire team was hired by Valve to produce Portal, a game that ended up bundled with bigger titles such as Half-Life and Team Fortress 2. It didn’t need to hitch a ride on these other games for its success, though. Portal became the selling point of the bundle, and it was labeled “Game of the Year.” The incredible success of this fresh-out-of-college game spurred the production of a sequel, and now, download content.

What made the game so vastly popular and such a tremendous success is this: Portal was the first game in a long time to do something that was truly new. The concept of a first-person puzzle game wasn’t even a real genre before this, and the idea of portals completely destroyed the notion of what a puzzle game should be. Normally, to cross a pit, you would need to find some blocks to make a bridge with, or find some obscure button to bridge the gap, or fight through a room of monsters to allow access. With Portal, just shoot a portal here, a portal there, and you’re done.

The portal gun itself is something that, if introduced into any other game, would be completely devastating. If you think about it, this doesn’t really apply to any other items from any game. Any weapon in one game would just be a weapon in another game. Most power-ups don’t even apply outside of its game. But the portal gun is something that would allow for beating Super Mario Bros. in a few shots, warp past boss fights in a standard FPS. The portal gun is something that requires a genius mind to be able to limit, and the crew behind Portal did a brilliant job of that.

It wasn’t simply the addition of portal-proof walls, but the puzzles themselves. Regardless of limitations on portal placement, some rooms are simply unsolvable unless you guide an energy ball to a receptor, launch a box to a button, and propel yourself through a slanted portal. In some cases, all at the same time. Through the use of these components, the game does a very nice job of placing limitations on what is quite possibly the most overpowered item in gaming history.

Now, let’s back up from the reality of a first-person, portal-based puzzle game, and look at the obvious: This is a portal-based portal game. This is something that has never been done before. The idea of using portals to solve puzzles is something we humans are not accustomed to dealing with. The game’s tagline, “Now you’re thinking with portals,” holds a good deal of truth. People don’t know how to cope with the concept of folding through three-dimensional space (portals).

The learning curve of the game is a very shallow one, though, and allows all varieties of players to learn and enjoy it. The first few rooms show how portals are used to easily solve puzzles that would otherwise be very difficult. It starts out by showing the player the limitless potential the portal gun has, and proceeds to challenge (and add to) that knowledge. It’ll show you that you can use it to get boxes to otherwise inaccessible buttons, and then make it increasingly difficult to do so. It’ll show you how to use portals to direct energy balls, and later, hide the target receptor behind a series of doors with timers thrown in. Similar to Tower of Heaven, it creates the illusion of loss of power, yet, with Portal, you have more power over space than you could ever dream of. Once the player breaks through the illusion, it feels like that power increases, and the player is allowed to sit in a state of ecstatic awe for a brief moment, and then the next puzzle awaits.

The selling point of Portal was, very clearly, the portals. They introduce an entirely new way of thinking, a completely new logic. In every other game, there is a very solid “game logic.” There’s a locked door. Go find a key. There’s a forcefield. Go blow up a generator in the next room. This doesn’t apply with Portal, and Portal logic goes against all the things that common logic has taught us. Once you start “thinking with portals,” the game becomes a different kind of challenging. How many different ways can you get though a room? Do it with the least amount of portals. Do what you can to “break the system,” so to speak. Solve the rooms in ways they were not meant to be solved. What’s even better is that the team that made the game knew of these alternative solutions, but decided to leave them in for the clever players to find. It creates a sense of “breaking the rules,” and it feels great.

The logic of this game has stimulated the creativity of many, resulting in hundreds of custom maps, all made by increasingly brilliant originality. Each successive map results in more and more groundbreaking creations, because, like the original game itself, they all encourage people to do something new. Outside of the gaming world, there are always conversations revolving around “what would you do with a portal gun?” The logic extends past the game, and into the real. It provokes conversation everywhere. It stimulates originality.

Portal is hopefully the first of many games that present new logic. The first of a new generation of games.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Amnesia - The Dark Descent

Since we’re on the topic of horror games, let’s jump to one of the more ‘traditional’ titles. While Amnesia appears to be your everyday zombies-in-the-dark kind of game, it is rather far off. The uniqueness of this, which is why it is appearing on my blog, comes from the fear of implication. The number of times you actually encounter the sentient creatures that seem to stalk you can be counted on one hand. The rest is because you think something is after you.

For the parallels between the style of fright and the game itself to be seen, I will explain a bit of the storyline. The character, Daniel, has drugged himself so that, for whatever reason, he cannot remember anything from his past. He only leaves himself with a note, telling him that he needs to kill a man named ‘Alexander.’ The reason for all of this, as will be explained by more notes the character left himself, is a mysterious orb. It contains untold power, yet causes demons and shadows to follow him, trying to kill him.

As you can see, the self-induced amnesia, combined by the paranoia of death around every corner, now mixed with the prospect of killing a man, will certainly make the character completely terrified of the dark, and his sanity probably isn’t stable.

This is the selling point of the game: Sanity. If you remain in the dark for too long, the walls start to ebb and flow, creepy, demonic voices and sounds seem to come from all around you, and, if you can’t get to a light, you will collapse and presumably die. The only real danger throughout the game is an absence of light, which can be fixed anywhere there’s a candle or oil lamp. There are a few areas where you have to sneak around zombie-esque creatures, but aside from those rare occurrences, the rest of the incredible fear is simply pure psychology.

My first run through the game, I couldn’t play for more than an hour or two at a time because the feeling of insanity seeping from the game made me paranoid of everything. Right before I would stop playing, I would be hiding in cover in any room with a light, treating it as a safe haven. When I finally left the room ten minutes later, it was in a frantic sprint to the next room, looking every single direction, and then lighting another candle as soon as I found one.

Of course, the only real dangers are simple puzzles. The rest, as previously stated, is just bogus. The necessity for light and the fear of failure naturally makes every bunch of candles, every lamp and lantern, into a safe haven. It gives the player a natural drive towards light, and, consequently, away from darkness. This is spurred on by the distortions to the surroundings and the threatening sounds of the shadows. I’ve noticed that, when going insane, the creatures can be seen in the distance. It is a terribly frightening image, and with the walls closing in and the sounds of rattling chains getting closer, death feels inevitable. This makes the frantic desire for light even stronger, making darkness seem even more threatening in comparison. Next time the player is left in darkness, the already strong fear is then expanded again by the melting walls and screaming ghouls, sending them back to the cover of light. It is essentially a vicious cycle that makes the shadows seem more and more threatening, the light more and more beckoning, and it is this reason that extended amounts of playtime are so difficult.

But none of the threats are real. The zombies only exist in the mind of insanity. A slamming door, although startling (and is certain to cause some entertaining moments of berserk fear), is still just a door that is now closed. A zombie that attacks whenever you touch the water is simply a recreation of the “the floor is made of lava” games we have all played as children. On its most basic level, the player must go through a fairly simple maze. If it gets dark, light a candle. There is really nothing more to it than that.

Amnesia is one of the few horror survival games that really stick out because, even as I write, repeatedly, that the game isn’t really dangerous or scary or anything more than a maze, I’m thinking “this isn’t true at all.” The psychological tools of recreating pure dementia work so beautifully with this game that it efficiently convinces any who play it that they will die. The cycle of “light is good, dark is bad” that builds into “light is heaven, dark is instant death” makes everything more and more menacing the more the game is played. Even on my second time through, this cycle still completely snagged me, and even though I know there is no harm, I can’t play it for long.

This game is a haunted house. While there is rarely any chance of harm, the illusion of harm makes it impossible to believe that. However hostile this game will seem, it can’t hurt you. It’s all in your head. Amnesia is a game that is played out within your own mind. The more it is played, the deeper into your mind the fear and horror gets lodged. Sooner or later, you will leave. Then you’ll remember that there aren’t really any difficulties in the game, nothing trying to kill you, and you’ll go back for more.

The game will keep calling you back for more.

Saturday, August 27, 2011


[Free game: Download here]

This game is the fastest and easiest way to destroy your happy place. I will try to leave this analysis as spoiler-free as possible, but even if I had spoiled it for anyone, I believe that the shock and horror at the turn of events will still grip any player, which leads me to the psychological tool used in Eversion: Fear.

It isn’t fear in the traditional sense of “things that go bump in the night.” There are no zombies, no demons, no Saw-esque traps. There is no gore, and there are minimal surprising happenings. It is fear in the distortion of reality, the distortion of what we believe things to be. It is fear caused by deception and false security. It is fear because, up until the very end of the game, things do not stop getting worse.

As I played through this game, there were two thoughts running through my head. The first was “My happy place is dead.” The second was “How many levels of Hell must there be?!?” Now, before you continue reading this, play the game. Just start it. You don’t have to beat it, although I would understand if it pulled you in until the end. The very first screen is over-the-top happy. Vibrant colors, cheerful music, Smiling, dancing mushroom enemies. The sun is shining, the flowers are singing, and everything is just wonderful and happy. Little do you know that you just began your journey through the nine circles of Hell.

The art is eight-bit. The sound is of the same vein. It’s immediately brings to mind the classic Mario games, and already, the player is expecting a Mario-esque game, where everything is happy, the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and it’s a fairy-tale ending. It all leads you down a path that you’ll think you’ve been down before, and the game takes full advantage of that fact, exploiting every flaw in the assumption, similar to Depict1, but on a much more psychological level.

Also, the game starts very similarly to Limbo. There is a main menu, but upon starting a game, there is no story, there are no plot devices. There is just a happy little blob (you), a map, and gems which you will naturally feel obligated to collect. It drives the player into the game, not with a storyline, but with a gripping control method and desire for the usual everyday platformer. It starts out, taking advantage of the player’s assumptions to pull them in, then keeps them in the game by completely destroying their expectations.

Within the first level, you will encounter a new element in platformer games: An “eversion point.” Here, you can ‘evert’ the world, transforming it into one that is slightly different. My immediate reaction to this was “Oh, it’s a bit like ‘Link to the Past.’” I suppose that was right, but only in the concept of ‘light’ and ‘dark’ worlds. With this… Well, I strongly recommend everyone to play this.

When the player reaches the later levels of the game, where they are constantly submerged in a middle level of Hell, two emotions will begin to surface. One is fear, simply due to the violent distortions of everything. This fear will drive the player to wish for the usual again, part of them searching for an eversion point to take them up a level, to a happier place. The other emotion is one of curiosity. How much worse can this get? What could possibly be warped next? How satanic can this game appear? The curiosity urges us to play through the rest of the game, delving deeper and deeper into the unknown. At the same time, we are fearful of what we may find down there.

From a philosophical perspective (or, I suppose, religious), we want to meet Satan. We want to come face-to-face with the embodiment of fear, either to see that he exists, or to see what the limit is to pain. We are always told that Hell is a terrible (pardon the understatement) place, but part of us always wants to test that. Well, just how bad can it be? But, of course, none of us want to end up there to find out. Humans have a natural desire for chaos and destruction, yet we fear it. To embrace this side of us, however, is marked as “inhuman.” Those that do become serial killers, psychopaths, rapists. The “human” thing to do is to fight against the desire, to fear it, to discard that part of us. And we do. So effectively, that many will argue that the desire was never there. This game brings that desire back. Well, how bad can things really get? What lies in wait down there? With this game, we will find out.

What makes this game so completely gripping, yet at the same time, chilling, is that it revives a primitive desire. It revives the thirst for chaos and mayhem. It reminds us that we want to meet Satan. And, by the end of the game, we do.

I cannot say much more about this game, for fear of spoiling the moment for those who wish to play it. It is, on the most basic level, another Mario. Fight through the levels to save the princess. Except, with Eversion, we must fight through hell and back to do so. The very end of the game shows us that things are deceptive. They aren’t always what they appear to be, and very rarely are.

The first ending, the one awarded to those who do not collect all the gems, reveals human nature in the modern sense. It shows what happens to those who don’t give in to their primitive nature, and it’s an ending that will likely trip you up. The second, better ending, shows us a world where we do give in to the primitive side. We are happy, yes, yet the world is in ruins around us. Yet if we are happy, nothing else should matter, right? Some would argue yes, others no, some, depends on the cost of happiness. It all comes down to our own morals, and we should all come to our own definitions regarding this ending.

Eversion is amazing. I have never been so shocked and fearful of a game that dragged me to the end of it, and I doubt any game will match this. It destroys what we think things really are, it perverts our world, it sends chills down our spines. Eversion introduces us to our primitive side. It introduces us to Satan.

Friday, August 26, 2011


Everyone needs a good sandbox game every once in a while, and what makes it all the better is when it’s an amazingly violent one. Violent games have always been great in modern society. With all the bills and mortgages and payments and dead-end jobs and bothersome managers, stress in this day and age is higher than ever before. It transitions to anger, either directed at individuals, or at the world. Violence is the natural transgression of anger, and at the point where we just want to scream, we can just cut dozens of people in half instead.

There is a plotline in Prototype, and it’s a gorgeous one if I say so myself, but the game is set up so that the main storyline is optional. You can advance to the next portion of story immediately after it’s unlocked, or you can complete a section, run around a city killing everyone and everything for hours, and then proceed to the next. You play through the game at your own rate, playing how you want to, using it as an emotional outlet of stress, or just enjoying the sheer power the character has.

Which bring up the point of character balance, or complete lack thereof. Most games are toned so that the player is always one step behind where their opponents are. They are always on the lower end of the spectrum, fighting difficult fights. Or, if they are higher on the chain, it is because of hard, diligent work, and they won’t stay there for long unless they keep working for it.

Prototype is not like most games. The player starts out ridiculously overpowered, able to destroy a tank in three blows, pull helicopters out of the sky, and cross Central Park in two to three bounds. Buildings aren’t even an obstacle, since the character can run straight up them, launch himself off the top, and glide for miles. However, the controls and the movement can get a little frustrating, due to the sporadic camera angles at times and the delicacy of combos. This can result in accidentally jumping off a building, performing the wrong attack at the wrong time, or activating the wrong ability. All of these can result in death, if not handled properly, but it is something that the player learns to cope with, just so they can enjoy the sheer power they are endeared with.

And it gets even better. From the start of the game until the end, every kill goes towards making the character even more overpowered, giving him “devastator attacks,” which affect entire areas and can take down an entire army. This insane amount of power makes the game easy, yes, but it does so in an incredibly satisfying way.

Whenever an opponent is killed, time slows down to allow the player to savor the moment. Blood splashes up in slow-motion as units fall into separate pieces, and after an adequate amount of time, gameplay resumes. This slight delay isn’t enough to hinder gameplay, but it also isn’t so brief that it isn’t noticed. This, coupled with the insane amount of power, creates a feeling of superiority, a “check out what I can do, and you can’t do anything to stop me” kind of complex.

After a long day of always being put down by others, nothing feels better than to end up on top. Not just on top, but towering over everyone and everything else. It is commonly said that games are used to escape reality, and Prototype is the greatest escape a game can offer.

Even though the player is given this enormous power, the game is still just as difficult or as easy as desired. This goes past the standard difficulty setting of “easy, medium, hard.” There are areas of the city that are incredibly difficult to destroy, yet the reward is usually pretty substantial. The player can avoid these areas if they choose to. In addition, there are dozens of minigames scattered throughout the map, each one with bronze, silver, gold, and (after completing the storyline), platinum milestones. Platinum is, of course very challenging to achieve, but again, it isn’t necessary. By mixing and matching the difficulties that this game presents, any player can be satisfied by the challenge that they are presented with.

The completionist will find Prototype to be a moderately easy game at first, maybe with a few rough patches, but it will quickly get challenging, as the difficulty curve rises exponentially. For hard-core gamers (Which most completionists are), this presents a very enticing challenge. The casual gamer will find this to be an entertaining “do whatever you want” kind of game. A sandbox game, if you will. The style of the game lives up to the character within the game: A shapeshifter. And, like the character, it changes to match whatever the player is interested in at the time.

The most impressive aspect of Prototype is that, although completely overpowered, the game can still be challenging. Players will die. Many times. The challenge comes from, not the difficulty of the opponents, but the sheer number of them. It is, at many times, one versus one hundred. This allows for the satisfaction of tearing apart wave after wave of zombies and military grunts, yet also provides the threat of being overwhelmed. The game is set up so that, the more you fight, the more will fight you. The longer a battle goes on, the more tanks and helicopters the army will bring in. If you want a challenge, stay and destroy them all. If you don’t, it’s pretty easy to get away by running in one direction until the heat dies down.

Prototype is a nice gem of a game. It is challenging, it is relaxing. It has an immersive storyline, or a casual sandbox mode. It is tailored to casual and hard-core gamers alike. It is a wonderful outlet of stress. Prototype is the shapeshifter that can meet anyone’s needs and desires.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Time Kufc

[Flash game: Play here]

The puzzles in Time Fkcu is built around concepts that bend the spacetime continuum, such as time travel, multiple dimensions, freezing time, and cloning. Not only are these elements used very well in the gameplay and storyline, but the dialogue all throughout the game embodies some fascinating theories on the topic.

The intro shows the “you” from the future, pulling the current character into a box, saying that you will learn so much, yet experience so little. The entire game takes place in this ‘box,’ and it all starts very abruptly and spontaneously. The player is hooked by the absurdity of it all, but it is something you must experience for yourself.

Let’s start with the title. This game is called Time Kcuf. It is also Time Fkuc, Time Ufck, and Time Kfuc. All of these are correct, because, as the developer explains, just because the letters are there, people will see the title as something it isn’t. This game is not called Time Fuck. It is everything except that, yet the human mind is trained to see only that title. Simply because of the way the mind works, we will see things only as associations to other things. It is rare that we see something precisely for what it is, instead of what it looks like.

This is just the beginning of the philosophies presented in the game, and we haven’t even reached the main menu yet. As soon as we do, the oddity is impossible to ignore. The music is very off, in a strangely pleasing way. The visuals are so off-the-wall and full of static that every area of the game feels like something’s wrong. But this is just as it should be. The entire game feels surreal. In one of the levels, you are told that time only exists in the same dimension as you. This would mean that time is a construct of the mind, and upon embracing this realization, reality seems to feel off.

If time is only a construct of the mind, what do our everyday actions really mean? What allows us to move from one moment to the next? If the answer is ‘nothing,’ then how is anything possible? The idea that time is an illusion shakes the very foundations of everything we know. The only solid explanation if such a scenario is real is that we aren’t really doing anything. If time is a falsehood, then so is our reality. Everything is taking place in our heads. Or, I suppose, my head, since I am the only thing I can be certain exists. The nonexistence of time leads to a very solipsistic view on life. So it is only natural that a game that tears down our concept of reality will feel unusual.

Throughout the game, as you progress through the puzzles, solving them by jumping around different dimensions, playing with the flow of time in some, while using objects from one to destroy the boundaries of another, The future “you” from the next room is telling you how you will die, how life is meaningless, and a large variety of nihilistic theories. As the future “you” progresses, he forgets why he’s in the box, who he is, and says that he only entered the box because you told him to. This should be unusual, because it was the future that told you, and you are his past. This only puts emphasis on the idea that time is not what we think it is.

Then there’s the entire confusion with “Stephen.” When he first makes an appearance, there’s no idea as to where he came from, or why he’s there. He represents an opposing viewpoint. When we are initially presented with a view that is different from our own, we want to destroy it; remove it. It is a tumor, and so is Stephen. As the viewpoint gains support, it begins to eat away at your own. Eventually, Stephen will disappear, and you are left with a strange confusion, as illustrated by the future character. “Hey, it’s me. You… Or Stephen. It doesn’t matter either way…” At this point, you are unsure as to which viewpoint is correct: You or Stephen. You are still convinced that only one of them is correct, though.

Upon completion of the game, the player merges with the future. Or perhaps it’s Stephen. In either case, it represents the merging of two opposing viewpoints. It isn’t that one is right and one is wrong, but that both of them share a piece of an ultimate truth. Once this is seen, it is no longer an argument, but a collaboration of thought. A pursuit of truth.

I have spent far too much time on the philosophies presented within this game, but that’s part of what makes it so intriguing. Every step you take, there are new concepts, new things to think about, both implicitly and explicitly stated. This game appeals, very strongly, to intellectuals, and this plethora of multiple lines of thinking is an incredible psychological hook to thinkers.

To those who are not so inclined to think, the pure oddity of the entire game creates a unique “What is going on” feel. It isn’t repulsive, as the case would be if the unusual nature was completely random, but this game is constructed using structured oddities. Every spontaneous event, every “why did that happen” moment is created from a strict formula that leads the player deeper in. It is this formula that makes the absurdity understandable, and allows players to follow it. It creates the feeling of self-discovery, as if they are figuring out the intricacies of the game on their own, and it produces a very fulfilling feel.

I will admit, though, that the puzzles get radically difficult for many people, and require a more determined mind to get past them. Yet, as is the case with all difficulties, the more challenging a situation is, the greater the emotional payoff will be at the conclusion of it all. For those who know this, it can be just the driving force they need to finish the game.

And, as great as the game is, the ending is neat, but not quite impressive enough to be ‘the big payoff.’ The final scene is open to as much interpretation as the rest of the game, so there are still loose ends, at least in the philosophical context. It requires some thinking to come to your own conclusion, similar to Limbo, except it starts you with a storyline, so you are not allowed to think as openly. Something feels unknown about the ending, but if you consider it, it is simply just another cyclical game. It replays the intro, except now, the roles are reversed. This cycle repeats endlessly, because there are infinite ‘you’s going through this loop. Time is not real, and so, the events of the game can repeat forever.

The final “you” is left to leave the box, and as he runs, he sheds off all the parts of him that he does not want to be. He becomes who he is, who he desires, simply because the events of the box taught him how to. But this is only one conclusion. Perhaps the “clones” that run off in all directions are more timelines, and each one goes off to create more and more boxes, perpetuating the storyline even more so. Despite everything this game did right, despite the incredible collaboration of thought that went into this, the ending is still a flaw. The game is great, and the ending is perfect for those who enjoy thinking. Intellectuals. But for everyone else, it is a cliffhanger that will not be resolved.

I suppose that this is simply proof that not all games are meant for everyone, and as true as Time Kucf makes that, I still believe that a truly exceptional game is one that will blow the minds of everyone. Something that literally every person can get an incredible, although not necessarily identical, experience out of. You shouldn’t have to be in a certain division of intellect to enjoy a specific game more or less than another division.

Don't Look Back

[Flash game: Play here]

There is something I’d like to note before starting, here. If you have any desire to play any of the games I analyze, it would be in your best interest to do so before reading my views. Doing so will give you the same viewpoint I had while writing this, and it will put you in a position to agree, disagree, argue, or defend my points. Also, reading the analysis before playing the game will ruin many moments that I discuss, as a large part of psychological gaming stems from surprise. So please, keep the gaming experience untainted by the information I disclose, and play the game before you spoil anything for yourself. This applies to all of my analyses.

This is a neat, cyclical game, based on the story of Orpheus. It the story, he goes down into Hades to retrieve his wife from the king of the underworld. The king allows her to leave with Orpheus, but only under the condition that he does not look back until he returns to the land of the living. Just before they get back out into the sunlight, he forgets himself and turns to look at his beautiful wife. She fades away, back to where she came from, and Orpheus dies alone.

This game barely follows that. Early in the game, the player finds a gun, and will proceed to slay everything in their path. After killing the king of the underworld, the player works their way back out of Hades. This game is drastically more violent than the myth, yet I suppose such a change is necessary for the enjoyment of the general populace. I am not criticizing this change; the game is still pleasant. I just wish the developer did not feel it necessary to stray from the original story to please the players.

The psychology of the game is not perfect, but is still quite decent. A common trademark of psychologically strong games is simplicity, and this game certainly has that. The controls are alright, but they aren’t the best. Jumping, in vital moments, feels delayed, and can easily lead to frustration, and the game gives you no support with nothing to combat it. What is handy, though, is that fact that dying respawns you at the beginning of the screen. There are virtually no setbacks in death, other than needing to kill the creatures again. This may help a bit, but in the more difficult areas, simply leads to repetition of frustration.

But perhaps there is a point to be made here. A journey into hell to retrieve a lost love would certainly be a nerve-wracking trip, and there is no doubt that Orpheus made the trip with a heavy heart. It is clear that the intent was not to recreate the character’s emotion in the player, because if it was, then the frustration would be accompanied by a sense of compassion and empathy. The frustration wouldn’t be so much an emotion felt by the player, but an emotion that the player feels for the character. This is not the case.

Yet, even still, the lack of explicit storyline provides sufficient driving force for the player to battle through the challenging, frustrating areas, and they can rest easy, knowing that there is nothing that can happen to send them back to fight through it again.

Upon defeating the king, the player must then climb out of the underworld, followed closely by a female spirit. Every time the player turns back, though, the spirit fades away and the screen is restarted. It will take a differing amount of time for different players to figure out what they are doing wrong, but when they do, it creates an incredible ‘aha!’ moment. All players will realize the meaning behind the title of the game, some will realize the sorrow that comes with not being able to see the person you yearn to be with, and the mythologically educated players will realize the storyline, where you came from, what you just did, and where you are going now. They will also realize that the loss of the spirit will be inevitable. This wonderful moment of realization is one thing that the game succeeded in doing. It gives the player a great burst of joy, and perhaps self-confidence and pride, and allows them to happily finish the game.

The ending is just as brilliant as the stimulation of the moment of realization. When the player arrives back at the tombstone, they will see themselves still standing in front of it, just like at the beginning of the game. After the player does a double-take, both the spirit and the other “you” vanish, leaving only the character in front of the tombstone. The implication is that it was all wishful thinking on the character’s part. He envies Orpheus for having the chance of retrieving his loved one, and only desires the same opportunity. The entire game is really an “If I had the chance…” scenario, played out in the wishful thinking of the character. With this concept, perhaps the original Orpheus myth was not butchered, but only referenced in modern day thinking of a depressed individual. It would explain the gun, as well as the desire to shoot everything that comes at the player. The violence is born of hate, which, as unusual as it feels commonly accompanies sorrow. To quote an anonymous person, “Hate is only depression directed at someone.” In the context of the game, the person responsible for the death would be Hades himself, so he sets out to destroy him.

Overall, it’s a decent game. The controls could be smoothed out, the lack of knowledge could be constructed better (see Limbo), yet the principle psychological element, that moment of realization, was done very well. If the game had not been so hastily made, as it certainly feels at times, that element could really shine. Don’t Look Back was definitely built around that idea, yet because all of the focus was on how to present that single moment of realization, the other parts were neglected.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Sorry, this is not a flash game, so I cannot give you a link to play it at. It is, however, a very artistic, unique, indie game, and you are welcome to buy and enjoy it.

This game has bothered me for a while. It isn’t that the graphics are bad. They are actually brilliant, all black and white and extra-grainy. The edges of the screen blur out of focus, and the visual feel of it all is that of an old-timey horror movie. It isn’t that the ambience is poor or sketchy. The sounds are sinister, startling, mystical, foreshadowing. Every sound in the game is placed in just the right place to trigger that “jump” from the player. In a secret area of the game, you have to avoid obstacles in pitch black darkness, relying purely on sound. And it’s doable, because the sounds are placed appropriately.

What bothers me so much about this game is that, I cannot, for the life of me, identify what it is that draws the player in. The art and sounds are both great, but the sound’s effectiveness isn’t noticeable until later in the game, and the art isn’t enough to pull a player in alone. There needed to be something, somewhere, which my conscious mind was missing but my subconscious mind couldn’t let go of.

I begin pondering the definition of ‘limbo,’ and have decided on the umbrella definition as ‘in between two opposing states.’ In the context of Inception, it is the state between awake and dreaming. In the context of this game, it is the state between life and death. In the popular game of Limbo (How low can you go?), it is the state between standing and lying down. So whatever it was that I was missing was between two states. That would go along nicely with the theme of the game, and it would also explain why I couldn’t find it.

Wait, why am I running through Limbo? Where am I going, what am I looking for? Who are these people trying to set traps for me? Why is this spider so adamant on killing me that the only way to stop him is to pull off all his limbs and push his head into a pit of spikes? None of these questions are ever answered. The end of the game loosely implies a reason, and the game developer states that a boy goes into limbo to look for his sister, but purely in the context of the game alone, there are no answers. There isn’t even a notification that the character is in limbo. Once the game starts, he just wakes up in a field. There isn’t even a main menu. The first time I saw one was after I beat the game.

It seems that Limbo has no storyline, and that the ending scene ties up loose ends that we didn’t even know were there. The end, being as vague as it is (There isn’t even dialogue), allows players to come to their own conclusions about why the boy’s sister ended up in limbo in the first place, and how the boy got there. There is an end to a story that doesn’t exist until the conclusion of it. The storyline itself is in a state of limbo, between life and death, in a sense. Between existence and non-existence. Between ‘constructed in the game’ and ‘constructed in the player’s mind.’ The unexpected lack of storyline causes the player to naturally come up with their own theories. The game itself does nothing.

For a game to do nothing, psychologically speaking, would seem to be the trademark of a boring, poorly-made game. Except, these games that do not actively incorporate psychology into their mechanics, or they do not have elements that do, they don’t create a void of psychological grip, as in Limbo. They create psychological repulsion. The mechanics cooperate together in a way that is borderline offensive to the instincts of the player, and effectively pushes the player away. To create a void of psychological grip requires mastery over all the mechanics, aligned in such a way that they cover up the lack of other components that would otherwise actively draw, or repulse, the player.

The problem with actively drawing players in is that it is easy to identify, and as soon as it is identified, the player says “Woah. That’s pretty neat,” and, having concluded the addicting mysteries, walks away with a pleasant taste in their mouth. With a void, such as that in Limbo, it prevents the player from identify the addictive properties, and with an unresolved mystery, they don’t walk away. They keep looking, and are drawn in by the fact that nothing is drawing them in. In this regard, psychological gaming is a magic act. Reveal the secret, and you lose the audience. Keep it well hidden, and they will always be asking for more.

Regarding this unusual ‘nothingness,’ the excellent control is possibly the most well-crafted mechanic that aids in covering the lack of captivation. The boy moves as a human would, never coming to a complete stop, but not sliding enough to jeopardize situations. In addition, he can jump what seems like an extraordinary distance in situations that call for it, or very small hops in situations that don’t. Swinging on vines and chains is done in a lifelike way, gaining momentum in a slow, yet steadily increasing manner. The boy behaves like a boy, and it makes it very easy and entertaining to continue playing.

The artistic and highly creative scenarios may be equal to the beauty of the controls. The puzzles span tasks such as using a dead body to set off a trap, rolling a spider carcass into a pit to be able to safely cross it, to using one machine gun to destroy another, and flipping gravity to give you access to otherwise inaccessible areas. The puzzles are incredibly diverse, from simple, clichéd, methods, to completely radical solutions that require you to think outside the box and act as you would in real life (Which is always very different from in games, if you think about it).

These techniques of covering an incredibly captivating void of captivation work out very well for the designers, as well as the players. The lack of storyline, the lack of explanation, the lack of everything you expect in a game, leaves players not only asking “why,” but forming their own reasons as well.

Note: If the art and sound and controls and movements weren’t enough, then hey: There’s 3D, too (Press Shift + 3 + D, to enable, Shift + 2 + D to disable).

Monday, August 22, 2011


[Flash game: Play here]

Ever since I discovered games like this existed, I’ve wanted to see one that completely destroyed all the rules. Something that took what the player thought they knew, something that seemed cliché, yet ended up flipping the entire clichéd notion of a game on its head. Depict1 is that game. It takes all the basic rules that gaming has taught us, such as ‘spikes are bad’, ‘shiny things are good’, ‘falling off the map kills you,’ and inverts them. Now spikes help you, the gems kill you, and falling off the map is the only way to proceed on in some cases. This is a game that lies to you every time text is displayed on-screen.

It doesn’t only lie to you about basic game mechanics, either. From the very beginning, even the controls it gives you are wrong. “To move, press the arrow keys.” Seems reasonable enough. But it’s wrong. There are actually two ways to move: One is given to you on the first screen of the game, the other is very common to FPS gamers. Throughout the rest of the ‘learning the controls’ phase, everything you are told will likely get you killed.

It becomes apparent very quickly that you can never trust what you are told. On top of that, since what you are told coincides with what you expect to be told, you can no longer trust what you know. Had the commands not been lies, it would all be very logical, yes, but that’s the interesting part: Logic is flawed. The ‘logical’ thing to do is to repeat something, because that’s the way it has always been. Jumping up will always result in coming back down. Holding your breath will always result in feeling light-headed. The ‘logical’ assumption is that the things that have happened a specific way a series of times will always happen that way. When logic is spelled out that way, it just feels wrong, doesn’t it? It sounds stubborn. Unwilling to change. And it is. When something extraordinary happens, we usually dismiss it as “impossible.” It isn’t ‘logical’ for something like that to happen. The Earth isn’t flat, but round. Nonsense; blasphemy; illogical. The Earth isn’t the center of the universe. Impossible; delusional; illogical. ‘Logic’ is simply humanity’s way of coping with the concept that we aren’t as important as we wish we were. “You’re crazy. Out of your mind. Illogical.” The “logical” thing to do would be to prevent ourselves from ending up trapped by patterns and assumptions, such as ‘logic.’

The game essentially points out everything that is wrong in the human mind, all rolled up under the umbrella definition of ‘logic.’ The player won’t instantly feel that logic is wrong, of course. They will feel cheated, as if something else is wrong outside of the game. Or, like me, they’ll be completely astonished by the fact that someone was brave enough to tear apart common logic. More emotional players may argue with the game, saying that things shouldn’t work this way. Well, why not? Because they haven’t in the past? Change is a commonly rejected thing.

As the game progresses, amidst the lies and falsehoods and deception, there is a sense of discovery every time the player figures out how to advance. To directly contradict what you are told to achieve what you want gives a guilty pleasure of disobedience. Every action in the game, after the player gets sick of the lies, becomes a way to spite the ominous voice. Winning the game becomes an action of personal vendetta against the misleading of the mechanics. To complete the game is to put an end to the “illogical” mechanics and irritating lies.

I do not like giving gameplay advice, but I will here: There are two endings. One is cyclical, with the underlying meaning that lies lead us in circles. The contradiction of lies (the player’s actions) leads us in circles. At the end of everything, all that is left to do is start over. The only safe decision is to do nothing. Towards the beginning of the game, you come across a “caged” creature. The voice talks about him, later. What is he doing? He’s probably still in his cage. While he is safe, he is unmoving. No progress. Yet, where we have to start over, he is still in his cage. The only safe action is inaction, but where is the fun in that? Take a risk.
The second ending is the confrontation of the alter-ego. Confrontation of everything we don’t like about ourselves, confrontation of the things we want to destroy. In place of truth: lies. In place of trust: suspicion. Once these attributes of us are destroyed, once we overcome them, we are free of the loop that is our lives. This could mean that we only live as long as we are misguiding ourselves, or that the very definition of ‘life’ is ‘to be led astray.’ We live our lives until we realize that we can escape, and then we die.

Also, an interesting note: “Depict one” is an anagram for “deception” and “poetic end.” Both of these relate to the game, and to life. We live lives of deception, living on because we are still deceived. The end of life, the end of such repetition and lies, would indeed be a poetic one, because, in the context of this philosophy, there is only peace in death.

This game is cryptic, foreign, ominous, and very disorienting. Any game that can flip common principles on their head like this is a well-made game. I applaud this game, and its blatant disregard for what we humans call “logic.”

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Company of Myself

[Flash game: Play here]

This may be my personal favorite out of all the games that fall into the ‘artistic’ category. In fact, it was this game that got me started on the entire ‘psychological games’ kick, and it was this that changed my view of gaming. It’s easy to understand the beauty of the storyline, the music, the melancholy yet innocent tone with which it is all delivered, but it’s a bit harder to understand where the beauty comes from.

For starters, it’s told from a very unique viewpoint, which I will not explain just yet, since it is not revealed until the end of the game. Before the game begins, it runs the player through a brief prologue, explaining that he is now alone, and that where he once had the company of others, now he only has the company of himself. The simplistic, matter-of-factly way in which the narrator tells his story leads the player into the character’s mind, and, if played from an emotionally open viewpoint, allows the player to see through the character’s eyes.

The tutorial levels, where you learn the controls and rules of the game, are presented in an amusing fashion, where the character becomes completely infatuated with the goal object. Through the character’s eyes, every object is a person. A chance at companionship; a chance at escaping loneliness. With this emotional perspective, completing each level becomes a desperate struggle to escape isolation. Maybe not as dramatically as it sounds, but players will find themselves wanting to complete each level for a new reason, other than ‘to beat the game.

The gameplay revolves around a unique, yet not overly-challenging concept: The ability to clone yourself.
If you were to run to the left, stop, jump, and then clone yourself, it would mimic those actions while you are free to act differently. Throughout the game, players must rely on their clones to succeed.

This presents a clichéd philosophical idea: If you could go back and start again, what would you do differently? With your past “clones” aiding you, with that analogous ‘prior knowledge,’ you can reach where you couldn’t before, and without having to go through the same actions as your past “clone.” Knowledge of future occurrences would allow us to skip over them, jumping past things that we were already aware of. Theoretically, with enough “clones,” enough “prior experience,” we can achieve anything we wanted in a fraction of the time. Viewing the future would essentially be identical to time travel.

The game progresses to the point where he is explaining what happened to his second passion, Kathryn. This sub-story paints a picture of flawless love and cooperation, not only with words, but in how the two must rely on each other to get past obstacles. It is the very definition of a solid relationship, and, combined with the elegant storytelling, the image becomes very vivid, embedded in the player’s mind. Two key words are repeated, time and time again: ‘Perfect’ and ‘mutual.’ The very symbol of joined happiness. Kathryn is now a part of everything.

And then, she’s gone. Plain and simple. Through necessity, the player must erase her from the story, and the guilt and pain that the character feels is shared by the player, because it had to happen. And the player is the one who did it. In the explanations afterwards, where he is detailing how scarred he is because of the incident, the sense of empathy is overwhelming. The player shared in the experience, giving them the same mindset and perspective as the character, and we can all imagine, if not understand, how painful it is to lose someone so dear to them. The fact it happens so abruptly causes a double-take. One move. Now she’s gone.

What if we could start over from a different perspective? Undo everything we’ve done, start from a fresh slate, in a different place, as someone else. The guilt of what happened will cause any ordinary person to wish they didn’t exist, that things didn’t happen. Directly after it does happen, you gain the ability to start from a different perspective. A different place. As the character retells his sorrowful story, the player is able to share in it through their actions and necessary sacrifices. The player feels everything the character does, and it is beautiful.

The epilogue after the game sends empathy through the roof. You learn of who he is, what he’s been through, and how he has lost, literally, everything. I will not explain it, because the ending caps a brilliant game with a perfect ending, and everyone should experience this ending themselves. After the credits, there is a single message that will make things even more emotional, as it expresses that things stated in the epilogue are not true, and that he simply wanted, needed, someone to listen. That’s all he needed, and it is the last thing he loses.

What really puts the icing on the cake is the music. It is repetitive, yes, but the minor chord progressions, the mystical triad of higher notes in the second part, the ominous base octaves, the staggered, loosely-defined rhythms, all contribute to form a musical score that just feels sad. This goes beyond hearing, and all of the parts combine to make a bittersweet whole. While letting the game run in the background as I am writing this, I feel almost lonely and disheartened, from the music alone.

The game is crafted beautifully, and is a dramatic success due to its ability to integrate the player into the character’s shoes. By telling the story, endearing everything in a lovable way, and then forcing the player to live through the story as it takes a turn for the worst, it forces people to become emotionally linked to the game. It forces them to share in the character’s pain as he loses everything.

This is what a beautiful game feels like.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


[Flash game: Play here]

Loved is not merely a game. It is a psychological torture chamber. From the very beginning, even before a title page, it demeans you in a very simple, yet strangely effective way. “Are you a man or a woman?” Man. “No. You are a girl.” Good girl.

There is no storyline. There is no plot to follow, no defined character, not even graphics at first. You are a black silhouette thing, and you are told what to do, every single step you take.  Jump over that pit of barbs. Good girl. Obey the commands, and you will be rewarded by improved graphics (although colorless), easier obstacles, and a sense that you are pleasing someone. Disobey, and watch your world lose definition, yet gain color and uniqueness.

In this game, if you are emotionally invested in it, you are broken down and recreated. Not on a grand scheme, of course, but you feel belittled, insignificant, and as you progress, more defined in who you are and who you want to be. From the very beginning, you start from nothing. You are not a well-defined man, or an emotionally-sound woman. You are a girl or a boy, the inverse of the gender you chose. The title implies lack of knowledge; naivety. The switch in gender adds a flavorful touch of insult, and you start the game with no idea of what’s going on. All you have to go off of is the voice.

In the beginning, it will be only natural to obey. Jump over that pit of barbs. Well, that sounds reasonable. The voice is advising you in self-preservation. You’ll go along with the voice. Touch the statue. It’s a checkpoint you will be sent back to if you die. Then, things get strange. Travel the lower path. But it’s much more difficult than the upper one. Throw yourself into the barbs. Wait, what?

It all comes down to trust. If the player sees the voice as a ‘lover,’ as implied in the title (and explicated at the end), it will seem that the voice is speaking with good intentions, regardless of how little actually makes sense. If the player sees the voice as a malicious, controlling fiend, then from that point on, it will be impossible to trust its advice. You will start contradicting the commands just out of spite.

This switch in trust brings up an interesting concept: What is trust? Absolute trust in the guidance of another being is ultimately blinding. You will only do what you are told, fearing the unknown consequences if you don’t, embracing the fact that you are pleasing an individual person. The world around you becomes well-defined, rigid edges, simplicity at its finest. Everything becomes black and white (literally), and there is no concept, or even curiosity, over what exists outside of the commands jurisdictions. Your world is black and white. Good and bad. Acceptable and unspeakable. Colorless. The only choices you will make are the ones you are told to make.

Now, consider the other side. Disobey the voice, discard trust, and do what you want. Act for yourself, make decisions when and how you want to, regardless of who is accepting of these actions and who isn’t. True friends and significant others might not agree with all your actions, but they will respect them and your confidence in self-identity. Take the path of yourself, and things will no longer be black and white. Nothing will be nearly as defined; you will get lost from time to time. But there is no right and wrong, no black and white. Only the color that your actions have produced. You are free to live life as you will, and with no concrete destination in mind, you cannot get lost. You will be wherever you want to be in life.

Loved puts these concepts into artistic forms, as were partially described, and the player is free to gather any and all meaning from the shift in color and definition.

The ending provides a strange twist in delusion: Obey the voice, and you are confronted with a single message: “I loved you, always.” Do we love someone simply because they do what we ask? Do we love the person, or the control we have over the person? Too many people need to consider this question, because, in at least one sense, we all love having control over people. This game should cause you to reconsider your definition of love.

Disobey, and you are met with “Why do you hate me?” It is easy to let our emotions get the best of us, and simply because someone does not act as we want them to, we jump to the radical conclusion of ‘hate.’ It is completely irrational, of course. It isn’t a matter of hating someone, but of valuing their own beliefs over your desires. Real people are this way, and from an irrational perspective, every real person will “hate” you.

Loved not only emulates emotional growth within the player, but also brings up the interesting contradictions between love and control. Between what we want and what we want others to want. This game can make people think.

Friday, August 19, 2011

One Step Back

[Flash game: Play here]

Yes, it’s another flash game. Until I get a better grasp of the psychology of gaming, these will be my… “Practices,” so to speak. I am not being too critical of games yet, because I am not yet knowledgeable enough to know what is and isn’t good. Right now, I only know what is good. Once I have a solid definition of this, I will begin pointing out what isn’t good. Until then, it will appear as if I love every game, which is true enough. If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t write about it. Anyway, it’s playable here, if it interests you.

This game is built around a lifestyle that all of us have experienced. In everyone’s life, people go through a phase of ‘attempted perfection.’ We all have at least one point in our lives where we will avoid making mistakes, doing everything we can to be loved, fearing things that could put this acceptance in jeopardy. We fear mistakes, shy away from past errors, and run from things that have harmed us in prior times.

This phase lasts different amounts of time for different people, but sooner or later, we will all realize that running is not the answer, that imperfection is natural, and trying to attain perfection isn’t. We will learn that mistakes make us who we are, teach us how to live life, and, if we wish to proceed into the future, we must first come to terms with our past.

For me, I’m somewhere in-between. I strive for perfection, but not by avoiding mistakes. I have recently learned, and attempted to mend my past. Some of it was a success; other parts will forever be lost. I need to learn to accept that I am no longer in control of the things we have already done. Every action has a consequence, and, good or bad, and we need to be prepared to live with it. I believe that everyone passes through this middle-ground on the path to self-discovery.

One Step Back puts these life lessons into such a vivid illustration that it is hard to ignore the message. The between-level dialogue states the typical, ignorant perceptions of a person living a life of attempted perfection, and perfectly so. It expresses delusions such as “there isn’t enough time”, “fame and money are everything”, “the past is a thing to be feared,” and so on. All of it is agreeable, in the sense that we have all passed through this point in life, or are at this point in life, or acknowledge that this point in life exists.

The levels start out simply, and the goal is kept simple: Get from point A to point B without running into your past selves. “Avoid your past.” Contact with a past self results in restarting the level, so it becomes very clear that the past is bad. The first few stages are easy, as they are practically straight lines, and you never even have to turn to face your past. Some events in life are like this. Do something fairly simple, ignore the consequences, and never look back. After you pass the halfway point, the goal switches from the ‘attempted perfection’ phase of life to the realization that follows, and the goal changes to collecting your past, not letting any of them escape you. In these simple levels, or simple scenarios in life, there is no problem. Just walk backwards, from point B to point A, and you’ve succeeded quite easily. These actions in life don’t require any consequential negativity, no guilt, no sorrow or anger. There are simple actions that were meaningless in this context.

But the levels get harder. In the later ones, it becomes quite difficult to get from point A to point B, and doing so without confronting your past becomes so difficult that it results in radical, often playability-reducing actions during the second half. In life, when dealing with more delicate or life-changing actions, we will do anything to avoid a past mistake, and it becomes very easy to make new ones, worse ones, that we will never be able to live down. By trying to live a more perfect life, we make things worse. Looking back on the situation, we recognize the irreversible damage we have caused, and it requires immense willpower and mental endurance to move past it. Our biggest mistake in life is avoiding mistakes.

As the player progresses backwards through the levels, confronting all the past errors of life, they get easier and easier, as the more difficult mistakes are repented. As we come to terms with what we’ve done, the mistakes we’ve made, we come to realize that the past is something not to be feared, but cherished. It makes us who we are, and who we were becomes irrelevant. Once we realize this, we gain an open mind about our past, acknowledge it as what it is/was, and can easily move on into the future.

This game’s beauty comes from its simple, but necessary message, made more powerful by the simple, yet friendly music, the simple gameplay, the simple mechanics of the interface. In this way, it delivers a second, more obscure message, which I believe everyone needs to know: Life is simple. What makes it seem so complicated and menacing is the fact that we are all trying to avoid confrontation with our pasts, and, like in the game, make radical, complicated, and downright stupid actions just to avoid. If we let what has happened, just happen, then we will see that the path from point A to point B is really quite linear. The final line of the game wraps it all up very nicely: “I beg to differ when people say you can’t escape your past. You can… I just won’t.”

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Tower of Heaven

[Flash game: Play here]

Now, seeing as this is my first analysis of the psychology of a game, I’m starting with something that just blew me away. Yes, it’s a flash game, but in my experience, nearly all games that really reach the potential of what a game can do are simple, brief, flash games. Why they don’t start indie games and attract big labels is beyond me. But anyway, let’s get this analysis rolling.

The graphics, at first glance, may be seen as sub-par. Others may see it as nostalgic. These eight-bit games are not common, and the ones I have found do an incredible job of taking me back to the days of the Gameboy. Tower of Heaven does this astoundingly well, and the author even used the same color scheme as the original Gameboy.  The music was incredibly well done, and brings to mind games like Link’s Awakening, and occasionally Megaman. We’re only at the main menu, and already, the nostalgia is stronger than most other games even come close to.

Upon starting the game, the player is presented by an ominous voice (in the typical Gameboy RPG fashion) that threatens to smite them if they move slowly. The controls are kept very simplistic, allowing the player to focus more fully on the gameplay. The character moves very acutely, doing exactly what the player has it do, and as simple as it is, it create a slight sense of complete control. By the player reaches the end of the second level, they have very easily fallen straight between spikes in a pit. Everything feels great, and the controls never fail.

The next level is, of course, more difficult. By the third level, the ominous voice starts giving more and more rules to play by, the first of which is “Thou shalt not touch golden blocks.” This new rule is introduced with a gentle learning curve, but the rules continue to build as the player progresses. This simple act starts taking away part of the player’s control, and in the later levels, it will definitely create a suffocating feel. Still, at this point, the player is in complete control.

The next rule, “Thou shalt not touch blocks or walls from the side,” does not take any control away from the player. They are still in complete control of their actions, and the actions of the environment (Those that are out of the player’s control), are still very minimal. Yet, with this much control, it is very easy to accidentally touch the sides of blocks, as it is not something that players are used to avoiding. They will likely die a series of times here, and if they get frustrated, they will be removing control from themselves. When we are frustrated or angered, we act irrationally. In this case, doing the same thing repeatedly, expecting different results. Of course, it is impossible to perfectly replicate an action, and so, any success with this method is due to luck. The game begins to create frustration in a player, and, while not directly taking away any control, triggers the player to give away control to rules of luck. With a game like this, stay calm and enjoy.

Speaking of which, the music was excellently composed to reduce stress produced by the game. Although it is repetitive (As any background music will have to loop), it does not feel like it is. There are an oddly large number of things a player can focus on in the music alone, and doing so is the game’s way of allowing a player to combat the self-inflicted loss of control.

The next rule teaches a player to read between the lines. “Thou shalt not walk left.” Naturally, the door is on the left of the player. If you can’t walk, what do you do? Let’s run though a list of what this game has done to a player right now:

-          It gives the player complete control over the circumstances of the game.
-          It forces the player to give away control, due to frustration.
-          It gives to player a way to get it back, through music and art.
-          It stimulates creativity with very “strict” rules.

This game is playing with emotion, in the full sense of the phrase.

As the game progresses, it adds more and more variables that are out of player control. What the player must realize is that they are still in complete control of what happens. The game creates frustration, takes it away, suffocates control over the situation, and dares you to question it.

Towards the end of the game, the player end up breaking out of the tower, contradicting the ominous, omnipotent voice and destroying all the rules. It generates a great sense of relief, as if new freedoms have been bestowed on the player. They are free to do anything, now. Just like… At the beginning of the game. There was always control over the character, but at the beginning, there was no control that the environment had. And now it is that way again. The levels continue to increase in difficulty, but it will all feel easier, simply because the environment lost control over the character.

Overall, the game plays, very drastically, with control and lack thereof. It creates the illusions of helplessness, only to remind the player that they truly were nothing more than illusions. On top of that, the ending is fantastically poetic. My take on it is that the gods had a tight hold on the world. They were blinded by the idea that they were acting purely out of good intentions, yet failed to realize what they had done to mankind. After the end cutscene, when color floods the screen and the eight-bit repetition is replaced by a fully orchestrated wonder, it is due to the separation of the heavens and Earth that made beauty.

But this is only my take, although it fits nicely with ancient mythology. On the artistic side of this, the restoration of color and music ends our trip to the golden age of gaming, bringing us back to the present. This game is a gem of the golden generation.