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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Lenna's Inception Is One of the Best Games of 2020

Let’s start by getting right to the point. Playing Lenna’s Inception by Bytten Studio has been my favorite game experience of the year, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you’re at all a fan of 2D Zelda games and games like them; or enjoy things like Undertale and their style of storytelling, meta-awareness and genre commentary, and decision making, I cannot recommend this highly enough. It’s still only for computers rather than consoles at this point, but it is on both Steam and, and like with Underhero, it was a part of the massive Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality from earlier this year, so once again, if you contributed to that, you already have it!
I want to give people the chance to go into the experience mostly blind, as I did, because while I think learning spoilers doesn’t necessarily ruin a work of fiction, in retrospect, this is one game that I really did appreciate going in knowing relatively little other than “it’s good”. So I’ll set a warning for “minimal spoilers”, for things that you might not get out of a trailer but would get with a little bit of playtime (you know, things that are okay to read if you aren’t the type to rush out and make purchases based on my word alone), and a later one for “maximal spoilers” that discuss late-game developments (you should definitely avoid them to not ruin the surprise, and I’ll just casually reference things like you have a working knowledge of the game, so they may not even make sense anyway).
Let’s just start with the basics: in gameplay, Lenna’s Inception is a top-down, 2D action-adventure game in the vein of classic Legend of Zelda games*, with the added twist of being procedurally generated. I think it does this very well, and if your major concern in looking for games to play is how it feels to play, know that everything it needs to do to work succeeds in spades.
*Side note: I’ve never really liked this genre name, as it’s sort of vague and doesn’t do as good of a job at quickly explaining the style in a way that other genre names do, for a few reasons. And it feels like there are more of them than there used to be, between things like Blossom Tales, Reverie, and Sparklite, so a better name would be helpful. Maybe I’ll tackle this issue in its own article eventually, but for now, I’ll make do with what we have.
Story-wise, the setup is a bit of a send-up of the classic Zelda formula. You play as Lenna, local schoolteacher in the Kingdom of [randomized name that also serves as the seed for how your world is laid out, which is a nice touch]. One day, she steps outside of her classroom for a moment, and finds that she is unable to return because her school has become a garbled mess of glitched-out pixels (another homage, this one to the other big story inspiration, but I’ll get to that later). You seek out local hero-of-legend Lance to help return things to normal, but in typical meta-storytelling/parody tradition, things immediately go sideways, and Lenna has to take action into her own hands.

--minimal spoilers warning--
If you’re a regular reader here, you might remember that “procedurally-generated top-down Zelda game” is a similar approach to the one taken last year by Cadence of Hyrule. There are some major notable differences, though. The way the two games generate their worlds are very different, noticeably so in the overworld but especially in dungeons (weirdly enough, the non-Zelda game has the more Zelda-like dungeons, with Cadence of Hyrule leaning a little more into its other series, Crypt of the Necrodancer, in this regard). Cadence leans more heavily into music, obviously (Lenna’s Inception does have a kickass soundtrack*, it just doesn’t tie your movement into the beat of a song).
*For some samples, here are the titular theme and the standard boss battle music.
But there’s also the fact that Cadence of Hyrule is still a Zelda game. That’s not bad or anything, and it’s distinct enough within the series to be worth playing even if you’re not as familiar with the series, but it does mean that if you’ve ever played another Zelda game, you’ll have a pretty good idea about how the game will go.
Lenna’s Inception is its own beast, and makes the most of that freedom to great effect. The first and most obvious difference is the setting; whereas Zelda takes a pretty traditional stock fantasy setting, complete with standard groups, settings, and items, Lenna’s Inception takes more of a fantasy mishmash of whatever it feels like, giving it a more distinct identity. Sure, you have a sword and shield and magic potions and such at the base, but it doesn’t limit itself to there. You also have a bicycle, and a lighter that throws fireballs, and a cellphone to dial for help… Even at the base level, growing beyond the stock fantasy tropes allows Lenna’s Inception to flesh out its world more.
For instance, Lenna is, before leaving for her adventure, a schoolteacher. Does Hyrule have a school and teachers? There’s nothing disproving that, but also nothing specifically pointing to it. Or you have the skeletons; there are skeletons that Lenna must battle, but also some of them are just traditional non-playable characters who run the game’s bank. Or in other areas, where the Zelda series focuses its lore on the basic mythic story tropes (for example, the myths of the goddesses of Hyrule, and the reincarnating hero), Lenna takes a much more grounded approach that hits very differently (you learn that the local hero of legend is also from a long line of heroes, but it’s a more mundane generational thing rather than Link sporadically reincarnating, and you even get to see Lance interacting with his dad, the prior hero of the kingdom).
And of course, that’s only half of the world in Lenna’s Inception. The story area where it really sets itself apart is in most everything else beyond that initial setting. That inciting incident I mentioned, of Lenna’s school becoming glitched and sealed off? It’s only the first sign of what’s to come, and as the story unfolds, you face more and more of it. 
Lenna’s Inception is much more meta-savvy than most games, and leans on the fourth wall in its own distinct way from most others. That fear of spreading corruption tinges the ongoing developments as you explore the kingdom and its nooks and crannies, and colors the rest of the game. It’s a really effective sense of cosmic horror ticking in the background, and a unique type of existential threat to work into a game. 
If that type of setup sounds interesting to you, once again, I cannot recommend the game highly enough, and I’d encourage you to take a break now. I really want to dig into the game even more, but it requires going even more in depth on this element in particular, and in a way that might take out some of the fun of digging through it in the game itself. So read on at your own peril.
--maximal spoilers warning--
So let’s finally talk about that big “other inspiration” I alluded to earlier. It’s probably not hugely shocking to say that Pokémon was obviously a huge influence on Bytten Studios; the series is nearly two and a half decades old and has outsold every game series that isn’t Mario or Tetris. If you’re interested in video games and under a certain age, Pokémon probably played a massive part in your childhood.
And in fact, if you clicked around their website above, you may have noticed that their next game is even their own take on Monster Catching games, Cassette Beasts. I’m really curious about the upcoming/just-starting crush of indie games in this genre, including titles like Monster Sanctuary, Temtem, Monster Crown, and Nexomon Extinction, and there’s a good chance I write more about some of these in the future. But right now, Cassette Beasts might now be my most anticipated game period, let alone in this burgeoning genre.
But back to Lenna’s Inception: it doesn’t display its Pokémon influence in the way those games do, by working within the same genre or featuring cute collectable monsters. Instead, they look at one of the weirdest elements of (especially early) Pokémon games, the glitches. This probably sounds really weird to anyone who wasn’t there, but the first few Pokémon titles had massive fan sub-communities dedicated to poring over and dissecting every inch of them, in a way that no other game I can think of has.
See, the original Pokémon games were beautiful messes of code; there were a lot of big ideas crammed into not a lot of space, and things often burst through those seams by accident. Seriously, just look at this list glitches from the first generation of games. And it leant those games and added aura of slightly ominous mystique. You, too, armed with just a guide that you found online, could break the game and find a rare Pokémon that wasn’t supposed to be in the game, or fight a Pokémon that just wasn’t supposed to be, or maybe even find yourself transported to a digital hellscape. And the rumors that sprung up took on a life of their own; anything seemed plausible when the actual glitches were caused by random things like talking to specific characters or using HMs at just the right moment.
But it’s not just that Lenna’s Inception gives very specific, loving shout outs to this weird aspect of Pokémon that I wasn’t sure was remembered by a larger audience (fun fact: once you play Lenna’s and beat the sixth dungeon, look up the Pokémon Item Underflow glitch). That’s cool, but anything could do that, and if that was all it did, I would have laughed and had a good time, but probably not written an article like this.
But it goes a step beyond that. It inspires the player to recreate those weird hunts for breaks in the game that fans would go wild discussing back in early Pokémon communities, and I honestly didn’t know that was a thing a game designer could even attempt to recreate. It also utilizes that subtle feeling of horror, that sense of “I have broken the game and seen something I’m not supposed to”, and made it a deliberate theme of gameplay.
The game eases you in, giving you items with strong effects early on. Most of them are temporary potions, but sometimes, if you’re lucky and explore everywhere, you’ll get a magic tunic with similar effects, giving you weird, game-altering effects ahead of schedule. Maybe you’ll use those to break the game’s sequence early, using explosive potions or fire tunics you let you pass obstacles before you have the normally-required items.
Then, the second half of the game ups the ante. The dungeon bosses start getting distorted (complete with a kick-ass remixed theme).  You get a regular stream of any potion or tunic you could ever want. The game starts giving you more powerful items and encouraging you to use them in unconventional ways, from warning you what to do “if you get stuck” with a wink and a nudge, to explicitly telling you to hunt for glitches with your new gear.
And then, you get to the final dungeon, likely with at least a few sidequests unfulfilled and a couple of item slots still empty. But you’ve explored most edges of the map and might not know where to go next. And then the final dungeon knocks you for an absolute loop.
Most of the dungeons have their limits, given that they’re procedurally generated and have to be able to fit together in a number of possible ways. But Bytten Studios locked in a definitive version of the final castle, which is one of my favorite dungeons in any game like this. It slowly nudges your understanding of what is allowed further and further, ending with you needing to use things like screen wraparound effects and traveling within the black space between floors to get to the end of the level, at which point, if you hadn’t made the connection yet, you go “Oh. I could have been doing this everywhere else in the game too”.
So now you reach the final boss, beat it, and get an unsatisfactory, bittersweet ending… but you also know a lot more about the nature of the game, and now you can move on from exploring every nook and cranny of the map to exploring the impossible nooks and crannies-between-crannies, the negative space of the game. 
And that in turn results in even more secrets and explorations, and maybe you can even figure out all of the puzzles you missed in your first run of the game and secure an actually-happy ending this time by pushing against the game’s rules in other ways. Things that looked like weird edges or dangling narrative threads become immediately obvious bits of foreshadowing to massive secrets. 

Truly, second runs of Lenna’s Inception are rewarding in a way that I don’t know any other roguelike or roguelite I’ve played are (and with its most recent update, I’m considering starting yet another run, despite just finishing my first two runs and having a ton of other games in my backlog, just to see what new things there are). The experience of just playing through this game and learning what it’s about and how to break it is a trip and a half, and I loved it in a way that I didn’t think was possible to intentionally re-create.


Maybe that nostalgia is a part of my love for Lenna’s Inception, but I was having a blast even before I made that connection. And the fact that the developers managed to recreate such a specific and tailored feeling, to evoke that level of emotion in me, to leave those ideas working through my brain hours after I stopped playing, that’s something that only a handful of games can say. I’ve played a lot of great games so far this year, but Lenna’s Inception still manages to set itself apart even within that stellar class of contemporaries. 

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