Platformer-With-a-Twists Considered A Bit Harmful

I finished Thomas Was Alone the other day and it is a very polished and well-executed game. However, I finished it only after turning it off in extreme and crippling boredom several times, I played several of its levels with the sound off just to escape the story, and I left the experience wondering about the use of platformers as an expressive form.

In some ways, Thomas Was Alone has the best trick ever when it comes to the expressive platformer. It almost entirely eschews the idea of a mechanical twist (though it has a bit of that too, which is fine, which is fine) in favour of overlaying a very well crafted and extremely well acted narrative layer. So it literally is pretty much boxes jumping around on boxes (and a bit of water), but with good writing and voice acting. So it literally is pretty much an insanely boring platformer (insanely boring), but with great (narrative) aesthetics.

I’ve also played a few other platformer-with-a-twists lately, including paste’s Ludum Dare entry Contraste (your contrast level affects the platforms you can touch) and some others I can’t even remember anymore. Plenty of those arty ones that are all like “IT’S A METAPHOR!” There’s a real emptiness going on with all these games. They’re often quite intelligent mechanically, they definitely work, but it just feels like there’s nothing “really” going on with them. It feels like they literally only exist to be a platformer-with-a-twist and nothing more. I feel okay saying these things because I made All’s Well That Ends Well, which embodies these thoughts perfectly, and because I keep having ideas for platformer-with-a-twists every day (and promptly shelving them).

So I guess it’s secretly pretty hard to make a platformer that’s of much interest (to me). One of my favourite games of all time, VVVVVV, is a platformer – why does that one work and not these other ones? Is it its sheer scale? Well, maybe. Is it Terry Cavanagh’s extraordinarily good level design? Definitely could be this. The design of VVVVVV doesn’t just utterly revolve around the gravity flipping mechanic, it’s not just visual gags about the need to flip gravity, it treats flipping gravity as the natural mode of motion. The narrative/fiction of VVVVVV is excellent too – Viridian is a wonderful hero, full of hope and bravery in a way that totally works with the mechanics of braving all that danger. So maybe VVVVVV is just the total package.

Maybe platformers are just kind of done now? (Unlikely.) Maybe it’s just that hard to make a good platformer, particularly given the historical context? (Very likely.)

In which case, maybe the rest of us should stop dicking around on the edges of this thing and either commit to tackling the form with the seriousness it actually deserves or, god forbid, work on some different kind of game designs. Games that don’t involve the basic 2D side-on view with jumping (or a variant) and minimalist-physics (or a variant). Imagine how great those non-platformer-with-a-twists could be! Imagine if the ingenuity spent on soulless platformers was put somewhere else. Punchout clones? Top-down explorers? Interactive fictions?

I for one plan to put my money where my mouth is. Right after I make this cool idea I have for a two-player platformer where you…

19 July 2012
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