There’s a tiny orange box moving around the screen of the PlayStation Vita. Its name is Chris. It is an ordinary square — perhaps even less than ordinary. This square doesn’t jump very high, can’t float and it has largely committed to going through its digital life as a grump. That is, until Chris meets Laura. Laura is afraid of her powers. Laura is also a box — a long, rectangular pink-ish box.
Five months into 2013 and gamers have already been introduced to a bounty of impressive characters and worlds. Not all have been a success, such as the recent digital interpretations of Kirk and Spock in “Star Trek” or the thick-skulled gunners of the most recent “Dead Space.” Others, such as Elizabeth in “Bioshock Infinite,” brought an emotional center to the usually mechanical first-person shooter genre.
Yet few of the people and places we’ve met via games this year have the ability to break your heart in the way that Chris and Laura can. They don’t ever speak — none of the main characters in “Thomas Was Alone” will do any typical communicating — and their thoughts are relayed to players via a narrator. It’s as if someone is reading aloud a book and player actions — in this case, moving a series of boxes around the innards of what is described as code for a computer program — dictate when a page is turned.
In a couple of weeks all eyes of the gaming world will be focused on power players such as Microsoft and Sony. The two companies will be coming to Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in June with new hardware designed to dazzle and control your living room. Sony has already announced its PS4, and Microsoft will unveil its Xbox successor at a May 21 event in Redmond, Wash.
Yet as the current generation of games gives way to the next generation of games, what’s impressing today is not glimpses of new technology. Increasingly it’s the little games that matter, as the online stores of home consoles, PCs and mobile phones are putting an emphasis on expanding our relationships to games rather than trying to wow us with photo-realistic graphic engines. Since players will soon be grappling with whether it’s worth dropping hundreds of dollars on a new system, it seems an important time to point out that the most impressive titles of late are the ones that do very little.
Downloadable games such as “Thomas Was Alone,” “Toki Tori 2″ and “Year Walk” are all heavily stylized and, on the surface, very simple. They’re also all budget-friendly, and in the case of “Year Walk” can be had for less than $5.
Another commonality among the games is that they explore themes of connecting — how characters within games interact, how players interact with the characters in games and, at times, the sheer loneliness and difficulty of making any connection, physical or digital. They lead us into these worlds via tiny “Pong”-like boxes (“Thomas Was Alone”), optimistically chirping chicks (“Toki Tori 2″) and a man with a stubborn and foolish desire to learn his future (“Year Walk”).
They also all manage to personify simple game mechanics. Laura in “Thomas Was Alone” has the ability to turn any box she comes in contact with into something more akin to a super bouncy ball. This, we’re told, makes her suspicious of Chris. She fears “he is just using her like all the others had. They’d all bounced, too, and disappeared when her back had turned.” If only Chris wasn’t too shy to tell Laura he was in love.
“At some point,” the narrator intones, “he would definitely tell her.” Until then, players continue navigating a cold, techno-world of platforms and evil pixels, helpless themselves to intervene in the tragi-romance unfolding before them. All the game’s action is due to poor Thomas, the little red box the game is named after. Thomas sets off the journey, himself just wanting to find some friends in the computer mainframe a human has trapped him in.
Technically speaking, players of Mike Bithell’s “Thomas Was Alone” can’t do very much. They can slide and bounce boxes around platforms. But it’s not more than five minutes into “Thomas Was Alone,” released last year for Macs and PCs and last month for the PS3 and Vita, that a world that could have been lifted from an old Atari title becomes an allegory for daily life. These look to be just an assortment of platforms and challenges but Thomas notes that the world can “let him down at any moment,” not, in his mind, the person holding the controller.
And thus, never before have tiny boxes felt so lonely. Players can nudge them toward the end of a level but can’t set them free and can’t teach them how to hold hands, no matter how much we’re told the little fellers yearn for each other.
“Toki Tori 2″ and “Year Walk” operate on different ends of a spectrum. “Toki Tori,” available for the Wii U and PCs, is charming and kid-friendly while the iOS title “Year Walk”is spooky and explores more macabre territory. Yet each has created some rather time-consuming puzzles using songs and solitude. While there’s a whole litter of forest critters in “Toki Tori,” in which players control the game’s namesake, a young chicken trying to save its forest, learning how to communicate with each is the crux of the game. They ignore Toki Tori, or kill the bird, unless a song or scare tactic is mastered.
Players are blessed with only two controls — jumping and singing — and this means tasks are nominally solved by stomping and chirping around the screen. Toki Tori can at once scare a fuzzy bug into the mouth of a frog or sing a crab-like creature to its side to help the chick move across dangerous terrain. Plenty of time, however, will be spent alone in the dark, trying to find a way to lead a disinterested light-shining bug to a gaggle of scared-of-the-nighttime frogs. Navigating through the game, it felt as if Toki Tori was begging for help rather than singing for it.
“Year Walk,” while also requiring the memory of songs (take notes) is more existential and part game/part graphic novel from experimental Swedish studio Simogo. It’s first-person, but not in the format most common to gamers. The cold, fantastical world is navigated by swiping left, right or up and down (draw a map), and all sorts of disturbing creatures are to be found, such as a horse-like person or an odd, floating ice queen.
The look is inspired by the work of Yuri Norstein, much of it appearing to be hand-drawn paper cutouts long lost to Nordic winters. The protagonist Daniel insists on setting forth on a year-long journey, one that will inspire hallucinations and supposedly allow him to see his future. The myth is that many have taken this journey, “to see if they would be healthy, to see if they would be happy … to see if they would be loved.”
“Year Walk” begins with a warning. “We are not supposed to know what happens in the future.” No, as few would have believed that some of the most exciting modern games would be available on an iPhone or involve little more than a jumping box.
– Todd Martens
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