Friday, May 1, 2009

Back to the Garden

After yesterday's heavy post and my recent descent into the abyss that is Far Cry 2, I figure a light post filled with unabashed optimism is in order.

PixelJunk Eden was one of my most anticipated games on the PS3. The first thing I did after setting up my system was download the game, and I am happy to report that I am still playing it today. In a previous podcast, Jorge and talked about "therapeutic" games, which is exactly what PixelJunk Eden has become for me. Like many of my other favorite games, PixelJunk is enjoyable not only in a gameplay sense, but also as a study of the ongoing evolution of a game throughout its existence.

I was surprised by Eden's "floaty" atmosphere: having expected a vertical platformer, I was initially disoriented by the game's gravitational quirks and emphasis on exploration. This garden felt as if it was on the moon: the effects of physics were recognizable, yet quite different from the norm. The interstellar motif is strengthened by the repetitive, orbital motions used to traverse the game's levels.

The clean lines and textureless stalks of the plants evoke the sense that they are shadowy dreams of something real, entities one step removed from reality. While the game centers around collecting pollen, the landscape is infused with sci-fi elements like warp portals. The hypnotic background graphics and the steady beat of the ambient music work to heighten this synthesis of high technology and the natural world. The result is an experience that feels at once organic and electronic.

While there is a large emphasis on exploring, Eden forces the player to hone specific skills in order to successfully traverse the levels. By learning how to harness the Grimp's ability to climb, swing, and fight, the player is exposed to a variety of gameplay styles that work best when combined with one another.

Largely due to its difficulty, Eden was patched in order to tweak the time limits for clearing the levels. Patching games usually worries me for a number of reasons: With patches, can we ever say there is a definitive version of a particular game? What of developer intent? How can we create a system to discuss games when the "texts" we study are continuously changing? What were they going to do to my beloved garden?

When I heard of the impending change, I immediately set to work finishing each stage of the game. In one sense, I felt I owed it the developers to see their game the way it was originally released. More shallowly, I wanted to say that I cleared the Eden before it was nerfed. I obnoxiously announced my progress on Twitter and, as many of my followers know, was able to achieve my goal.

To my delight, the patch was a major improvement on the game. By lessening the time crunch, Q-Games has relaxed some of the game's maddening difficulty, but still managed to retain a sense of purpose during the gameplay . If anecdotal evidence is any indication, their decision to change the rules of the game has led a greater number of people experiencing all their game has to offer. Speaking personally, I can say that before the patch, Eden was a solitary experience, but now Hanah and I navigate the garden together like odd Grimp versions of Adam and Eve.

My affection for PixelJunk Eden continues to grow with the release of a five-level expansion pack, Encore. Not only does this new content offer unexplored gardens, but it also adds new moves and gameplay techniques that feel like logical extensions of the initial game. The Grimp's are not given new abilities, rather it is the environments themselves that offer new experiences (pollen production and gravity control are two such examples).

Mirroring the gameplay itself, it seems that Q-Games carefully gathered user nuggets of user feedback and employed them to fertilize Eden's growth. With any luck they will continue to add to the game (my wish list includes a level editor!), ensuring that their creation remains in perennial bloom.

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