New Year’s resolutions was to play more independent and experimental games. Well, we’re officially one month into 2011 and I’m slowly-but-surely making some headway in terms of expanding my horizons. I have a bad habit of ignoring the critical side of my brain while playing browser-based games. It’s probably due to the amount of hype mainstream titles get and the fallacy that expense always means quality. To fight this inclination, I’ll try to offer some quick critiques of the smaller games I play. This week, I’ll talk about Fig. 8.
Fig. 8 subtly undermines the expectations of an experienced player. The opening screen shows a bicycle in profile on what appears to be a two-dimensional plane. The simple instruction of “Your race begins to the east” is on the left side of the screen, while the right shows that the arrow keys will move the bike. When the game starts, the bike flips towards the screen, creating a top-down perspective. Suddenly, the simple arrow controls become more complicated, as they rotate the bike’s front tire. This turns the game into more of a driving experience, as the player must steer the bike like a vehicle rather than just guide a sprite along fixed vectors, as is the case in many 2D shoot ‘em ups.
Like many games, the Fig. 8’s instructions about how to play are visually represented within the game. However, instead of an overlaid HUD, these instructions are physical obstacles that must be avoided. Fig. 8 plays with the fact that players have been consistently trained to process instructions and information as separate from the active part of a game’s world. The ammo readouts in BioShock, the map display in Dead Space, even the 1up count in Super Mario are all visually represented on screen, but they have no direct impact on the games’ dynamics. Fig. 8 unexpectedly gives these normally-ethereal numbers actual weight.
Progressing through the game’s terrain also flaunts several common game conventions. The space itself seems to be modeled to resemble drafting schematics. Sketches of what appear to be buildings and machines compose the course, but the player is never shown a large view of the environment. Instead, a bird’s-eye view must be mentally constructed. Even after playing through the game a few times, I’m not sure what this macro picture would look like.
Getting a good sense of the surroundings is complicated by the automatically-scrolling screen. Although many 2D games hurry the player along by making them keep up with an constantly-changing screen, Fig. 8’s motion is not necessarily bound to a certain axis. The screen scrolls diagonally, forces the player into strange corners of the screen, and gives little warning as to when a change in direction is coming.
This can make for some frustrating moments, but replaying sections reveals multiple paths through the course and encourages exploration. It quickly becomes apparent that using the accelerating and breaking abilities is key to dealing with the landscape and the screen’s ever-encroaching boundaries. Knowing when to use the gradual turn and when to sharply yank on the handle bars is surprisingly reminiscent of physically riding a bike. Gently tilting to one side makes for steady, yet gradual turns, whereas rotating the front wheel yields sharp changes of direction. Knowing when to use all of this is crucial in progressing through the course, as even the checkpoint circles requires the player to make a full loop around them in order to activate them.
All of this reflex-based gameplay is juxtaposed against a relaxing, minimalist aesthetic. Simple art composed of clean lines gives an orderly feel to the world. The calm music evokes a leisurely afternoon in the French countryside, but the mechanics are a constant reminder that Fig. 8 is not about daydreaming. The tricky obstacles require the player to be as sharp as the game’s font, and the point tally is a constant reminder that style is being rewarded.
Fig. 8 was exactly what I was looking for in my project to expand my gaming horizons: It’s initial appearance first led me into familiar assumptions that were subsequently challenged by unique spins on familiar rules. As I played Fig. 8, my ears were enjoying the lovely tunes and my eyes were appreciating the streamlined figures. At the same time, my fingers were sweating while simply trying to perform the maneuver for which the game was named.