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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Monday, November 12, 2018

Iconoclasts Is One of the Best Games of the Year

Few games have hung in my mind like Iconoclasts. Hell, few works of narrative art in any medium have, and I knew I wanted to write about it immediately upon finishing it. But wow, does it feel like a big thing to tackle.

So let’s start from the top. Iconoclasts is a one-man project, the culmination of seven-plus years of work by Joakim Sandberg (also know as Konjak). And yes, he made every part of it; the art, the music, the programming, the story, and the stuff he didn’t know how to do already, he taught to himself, simply because he wanted to make this specific project. This gives the game a unified creative vision that just isn’t at all common in projects of this scale, and it’s amazing in so many ways that I feel I can’t adequately capture in language. And it’s easy to forget while you’re playing the game as well; I did, until I got to the credits, which, to pad out their length to fit in a full “Where are they now?”-style epilogue that plays simultaneously, lists the name of every character in the game after starting with a simple “Game by Joakim Sandberg” and getting through all the testers, special thanks credits, and such in under two scenes.

For anyone who hasn’t ever given much thought to video games as a unique art form, games like Iconoclasts are some of the best examples of the medium. The game has an epic fantasy/science-fiction world and lore that I find utterly compelling, hinting at intergalactic refugees settling a strange, new world and building a entirely new society off of what they had left, with what they find on their new home shaping the new society. Konjak’s art style is beautiful, distinctive, and detailed, giving several unique biomes that feel lush and real. And it all feeds into a story that does what the best science fiction does, using its novums to build a compelling story that explores universal things like society and human nature.

The plot follows Robin, a mechanic (with an iconic, physics-defying wrench-shaped ponytail) who has inherited her passion from her father but lives in a repressive, dystopian theocracy that has outlawed the practice. When caught fixing some of the world’s advanced machinery, she goes on the run from the Agents of One Concern (the local religion), working with various other fugitives as they try to piece together what’s causing the shortage of native miracle fuel Ivory that’s killing their planet. It’s a pretty straightforward general plot fleshed out and enhanced by the uniqueness of the world.

From a gameplay standpoint, Iconoclasts is a rock-solid entry in the Metroidvania genre. The decision to make a wrench one of the key central mechanics is a fun and memorable gameplay decision that ties in nicely with some of the themes, and the boss battles against a variety of large machines stand out as some of the biggest highlights and challenges (although the multiple difficulty settings keep things accessible for novices and challenging for experts). All of them are impressive in their own way, but there’s also a sense of skill in their design that makes them all feel like big and important moments within the story; yet, the important ones get a little extra something to them that makes sure you grasp how monumental they are within the story, which etches them into your mind.

And Konjak’s skill for visual design doesn’t stop with just the setting; the characters are a visually eclectic and loveable bunch, fleshed out even more by his strong writing. Everyone in the main cast is deeply nuanced and relatable, if not likeable in spite of the deep flaws they are each working to overcome. And as mentioned, their exploration through a twisting narrative is an emotional roller coaster, buoyed by some fantastic twists (including an absolutely brilliant one in the final boss of the game that I would absolutely recommended not spoiling yourself on).

If any of this sounds appealing, I would absolutely recommend checking it out. From here on out, I’ll be discussing a little be of story and thematic bits, so if you want to remain totally unspoiled, now would be the place to start playing. I’m pretty vague about most of the specific details; it’s mostly about the big, overarching themes, so don’t worry too much if you’re still unsure and want to learn more, but if you want to go in with a total blank slate to form your own opinions, go check it out first and then come back. Iconoclasts is available on just about any or any game platform (I played the Nintendo Switch version, and it ran perfectly smoothly on that), so you have plenty of options if I’ve piqued your interest.


--mild spoiler break--


Somehow, Iconoclasts walked the line of being a work about an oppressive dystopian society facing an upcoming apocalypse without ever feeling too depressing to me, which is impressive given how dark that combination of words is. I think a big part of this is Robin, with Konjak turning the “silent hero” archetype of video game protagonists into actual characterization. Unlike most of those silent player characters, who are usually left silent to allow the player to imagine themselves as the hero, Robin is decidedly not you. Her silence becomes a mark of her implacable determination and mostly a personal choice, with a handful of exaggerated motions conveying most of her thoughts, and speech bubbles consisting of just a single icon (used to great comedic and/or storytelling effect,) as the exceptions that prove the rule.

It also makes for a great foil for the rest of the characters in your party, allowing them all to bounce off of her in ways that tell you more about both parties (especially once you realize that Robin isn’t just a cipher for them to exposit at, but someone reacting to them, and in turn generating responses). All of them expose their vulnerabilities to Robin in ways that endear them to you, and make the few times you get to choose how to react to them feel more impactful as a result.

The gameplay effect on your decisions is limited to a key impactful moment at the end, but even before I knew that, the choices I was making in my interactions felt actually difficult because of how well they capture a spectrum of plausible responses to a multi-faceted issue, and because of how immediately it became clear when I picked a “wrong” response that hurt another person in my party in some way. These were all nuanced characters with reasonable (if not always ideal) motivations that I wanted to help, and the gameplay makes it clear when a not-well-thought-out choice negatively affects them.

And make no mistake, that is a key part of the game. Failure is one of the reoccurring themes of the game, and it’s handled in a mature way without just dumping misery on the player, and not downplaying things like hope and optimism as a counterbalance (in a way, it reminds me a little of The Last Jedi, which I really liked for similar reasons). Failures define and drive just about every character in the game, from things like failures to protect their loved ones (both in a physical sense and not), or failure to fulfill their societies’ prescribed roles for them. And this intersection of failure and expectations in turn makes a few of the scripted failures the player is forced to encounter especially haunting moments within the game, particularly with regards to a couple of significant end-game characters who succumb to these forces. Of course, it also deepens your appreciation for the ones that successfully push back as well.

And just under that surface is an examination of what exactly makes those failures; are they really a flaw, or unrealistic expectations foisted upon them by society that the characters are (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) pushing back against? This second question is of course what gives the game its name, and what makes the final twist that I alluded to earlier so interesting, as it comes during the final boss and calls everything you know about the game’s world into sharp question while also providing a resolution that still feels pretty satisfactory about asserting your place in the world.

And all of this is merely scratching the surface; I have so many other themes that I have listed in my notes that I would love to expound upon, like knowledge, exploration, and learning; self-acceptance; parent-child relationships; and the clash of cultures and morality. All of those have some interesting threads that could be tugged on, but they feel way to specific for a general overview like this, so I encourage anyone who finds this interesting to look into Iconoclasts more. It’s given me a lot to think about and stuck with me in a way that few other pieces of art have, and I can’t recommend it enough to anyone interested.

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