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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Friday, May 22, 2020

Quarantine Game Recs: A Fold Apart

My second quarantine game recommendation isn’t quite as long as my first one*, but then again, there’s not really a weird concept like “orphaned game mechanics” that I need to explain. Instead, A Fold Apart by Lightning Rod Games is a straightforward puzzle platformer that executes its simple yet complexly multilayered idea to perfection.

*Although in a lot of ways, One Step From Eden does feel kind of like the exact opposite of A Fold Apart; they just both execute their different visions extremely well.

It starts at the basic conceptual level; the game’s set up is that each level is a piece of paper, where you need to get your character from the starting point to the ending point. Your options to do so are limited, though: you can only walk your character along the path and conquer small height differences. To help cross larger obstacles, you can manipulate the level like an actual piece of paper (to the point where, when I got stuck, I could experiment with a real piece of paper to help me think through it) with various folds and flips. It feels like a simple and obvious idea, but I certainly don’t know of any other games that have tried it, and the puzzles get pretty tricky and creative.

And if it were just that, it would be a pretty solid game; a creative gameplay idea and well-built puzzles making good use of that idea are a strong core. Of course, you can also build off of it to something more, which is the route A Fold Apart takes. The entire game’s art style builds off this paper theme, using an art style that feels like a cross between papercraft art and Pixar-style computer animation, filled with strong, bright color palettes, and it’s extremely appealing to look at.

The story is what ties it all together, though. It’s an extremely intimate portrayal of a romantic couple (genders of your choosing) beginning a long-distance phase of their relationship, and you use the levels to walk them through all the issues that will come up. There’s the sanguine, outgoing teacher Red, and the more melancholic, studious Blue who accepts a prestigious one-year architectural opening some distance away. The pair continue with their normal conversations via messaging, but challenges that come with a lack of in-person contact and general uncertainty in their shared future casts serious questions about what would normally be minor aspects.

The writing is extremely solid in its application, presenting a realistic look at the challenges that arise. With only two characters to focus on, each one gets a lovingly detailed portrayal; you really get a sense for what makes these characters tick. And the disagreements that come up don’t feel at all contrived in the way that misunderstandings in relationships often can be in fiction.

Each set up gives you a clear sense of where the conflict will arise, thanks to your fleshed-out understanding of the characters’ desires and needs. You see a text that you know is well-intentioned, playful banter, and can tell how the sender meant it while viewing their side of the narrative. But you also know their partner’s unspoken insecurities through their levels and monologues, so the small remarks that will cut them the deepest and send them into a spiral instantly stand out in a way that will make you shudder a little as you read them, even before there’s time for the characters to react.

It really is a well-rendered portrait. After a while, it almost feels mean; I joked while in the moment that it felt like I was driving my protagonists to mental anguish just to play more puzzles. But it’s not just the desire for more levels that drives you forward, but also the hope that they’ll finally both be able to talk candidly about their fears and wants, and work to help each other through their current situation, hopefully reuniting in the end.

And of course, there’s all of the extra layers of meaning. Paper works as an apt metaphor for the two sides of the relationship, with the characters feeling on the same page in what they want but unable to see each other eye-to-eye. And there’s some flexibility involved to bridge that gap, bringing the two sides together; origami and papercraft really are perfect metaphors for the story, in addition to being a fun mechanic to play around with.

If there’s a downside, it’s that the game is a little on the short side, but better to leave you wanting more than overstay your welcome. So if any of this sounds interesting, I’d definitely recommend checking out A Fold Apart.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Quarantine Game Recs: One Step From Eden

I’ve been playing more video games than normal thanks to sheltering in place, and it makes for a good topic to discuss during times where many other things are cancelled, so I figured: why not write up recommendations for some of my favorite games I’ve played while in quarantine? Today’s entry is One Step From Eden by Thomas Moon Kang, a Kickstarter project that finally released in back March. So far, it’s been one of my favorite releases of 2020.

One thing I’ve thought about a decent amount is “orphaned” series and their gameplay; that is, major game series that try new game mechanics and formats, but later abandon them, meaning they just...aren’t seen again. Like, sure there are plenty of games where you play as Mario and run and jump on platforms. That will never change. But every now and then, those major series will try a spinoff or something, and those formats are less likely to stick.

For instance, I (like many other people) am a big fan of the first two Paper Mario games, spinoffs from the main Mario series. The second title was a nice expansion on the original entry, but from the third game on, Nintendo went in a radically different direction, and nothing since has really hit in the same way. Anyone wanting more of that was out of luck.

Sometimes with these orphaned spinoff series, if you’re lucky, you’ll see a revival, like Luigi’s Mansion, which took over a decade to release a second entry. Or maybe the company will make spiritual successors that are at least somewhat similar, like Sega moving on from Sonic Riders’ hoverboard racing games to more standard kart racer. But often, these ideas can also end up just as orphaned as smaller series; ask anyone still waiting for sequels to, say, Pokémon Snap or Diddy Kong Racing.

This has been one of the biggest areas for indie games to explore, in my opinion, since most of these ideas still have room to grow and explore. For instance, I’m partially convinced that the boom in 2-D Metroidvania indie titles is in part due to Nintendo’s seeming hesitance to continue the semititular series.* If Nintendo wasn’t sure where to go with new ideas for the series, plenty of other fans were ready to step in with their own interpretations. Other orphaned subseries and mechanics have seen their own revivals (for another example, the original Paper Mario’s influence lives on in titles like Underhero and Bug Fables).

*For reference, the last five 2-D Metroid games have been: 2017’s Samus Returns (a remake), 2010’s Other M, 2004’s Zero Mission (another remake), 2002’s Fusion, and 1994’s Super Metroid.
One game mechanic like this that I grew up with was Mega Man Battle Network’s battle system, where you moved your character around a grid throwing attacks at an opponent on the other side of the screen. It was really interesting, but when the series petered out shortly before the 2010s began, there really wasn’t anything to work with those ideas anymore, making it ripe for someone to take and re-invent.

And that’s where One Step From Eden comes into the picture. Taking inspiration from the old Battle Network series, it improves and expands on the battle system and transforms it into a wonderful new experience.