The world of video games is diverse and broad, nowhere more so than in the indie community. Among the many, MANY genres of games out there in the untapped wilderness of the Internet, however, one in particular has become a consumer and critical darling: the genre I can only define as Artsy Indie Puzzle Platforming. You probably know the type… a very polished and distinct art style, cutesy characters with a sort of dark twist, a sort of broody, mysterious narrative, mechanics that turn and twist reality in some unusual fashion, an ostensibly minimalist level design that soon reveals diabolical complexity with switches, locked doors and death traps. Braid and LIMBO are two of the most famous examples, and now, we have another… The Bridge.
Longtime readers may remember me mentioning this game before, back in my PAX 10 review in September. Back then, I had the opportunity to play the demo and to speak with Ty Taylor, the lead designer. What began as a project requirement for Taylor’s CompSci Master’s degree and artist Mario Castaneda’s Art minor turned into a full-fledged game… one that was finally released this weekend! If you have a taste for a game that combines Isaac Newton and M. C. Escher in one, read on.
Dropped a Bridge On Him
The Bridge’s narrative is poetic but slightly murky, with little explicit indication of what exactly is going on. You play a dapper bearded gentleman with an apparent interest in physics and a hinted relationship with scientific luminaries like Isaac Newton (indeed, the very first moments of the game involved being conked on the head with an apple). While there is text in the game, it’s all very mysterious and metaphorical, and you can’t shake the feeling that something very bad may have happened and that there is some dark secret behind your character; the basement in particular showcases wall scribbles that wouldn’t be out of place in Portal or even Left 4 Dead. This may have been building up to a reveal, but… well, more on that later.
The game plays out through 30 distinct levels, each with the goal of reaching the door in one piece… easier said than done! In order to navigate the level and its obstacles and pitfalls, the player must not only walk left and right but rotate the level around in a circle, using gravity and the weird bendy architecture to forge a path to the exit. Think of taking a piece of paper and turning it around to get the picture the “right way” up (this is how Ty Taylor designed the puzzles!) The game does a good job of introducing new mechanics – both helpful and harmful – as it goes. First you only have to twist and turn the level so as to walk along the right path; then you are thrown into a level with a Menace ball, a creepy-faced boulder that can kill you with a single touch and rolls around like a demented marble. Then next there are inversions, gates where you can switch your color from grey to white (and vice versa) while being flipped onto the underside of the level, with all the gravity flips that that entails. Lastly, there’s the veil, a strange mechanic which allows you to rotate the level solely to reconfigure the gravity of certain gates, Menace balls, etc. While most of the mechanics are solid and easy to understand, the inversions and veils proved to be somewhat disorientating in some levels, particularly when they are paired with each other; it wasn’t uncommon for me to look at a Menace ball and genuinely have no idea which direction it was going to roll after fifteen flips and veils. As a result, the inversion/veil heavy levels felt a bit more like guesswork than careful, methodical switching… though with some concentration, you can definitely puzzle out some of it and feel like a gorram genius while doing so.
A Bridge Too Far
Each level is on the short-ish side, most of the time spent experimenting with solutions rather than traversing giant levels or puzzles, and the brevity is appreciated. Unlike LIMBO, which had an “open” world where you just sort of had to keep going and going, or Braid’s larger sprawling levels, The Bridge’s discrete stages allow for a briefer, more manageable playing experience, the sort of thing you could do in small bites… a big plus for busy gamers! Designer Ty Taylor confirmed back at PAX 10 that this was a deliberate choice, focusing on a specific concept per level and avoiding what he calls “unnecessary fluff.” I have to say, I like this kind of stripped-down playstyle, and it makes for a more positive and ego-stroking experience to be able to chew through five levels in a row with one’s “brilliant” deducing skills before quietly calling it a night after one level throws too many Menace balls at you.
One of the developers’ best (and worst) additions to the game is the Hint system in the pause menu. Rather than either wasting players’ time with vague, nonsensical hints (e.g. “Think about how gravity works in this room,”) or laying out the entire thing in one go and leaving the player feeling stupid, the hint system offers one step of the puzzle at a time, with further hints only available if the player hits the button multiple times. This is a great way to tackle it as a lot of these puzzles depend on starting in a particular way, or depending on a specific movement midway through the level, and the system allows players to get that little nudge in the right direction, or an idea of where to start, while still allowing them to puzzle out the rest of the level at their own leisure. It keeps the momentum of the game flowing as opposed to having the player hit a brick wall and become unable to advance. Having that as an option during the first three chapters was one of the best design moves ever.
Sadly, the worst design move was the decision to take away the Hint system in Chapter 4. Just when puzzles were at their hardest and most intricate – and the veil mechanic was introduced – the game decides NO HINTS FOR YOU and leaves you utterly directionless. I know this seems like a silly thing to be frustrated about – I’m sure many people don’t even need the hints – but the result is that a smooth, challenging but encouraging experience changed into an exercise in frustration, as becoming “stuck” robs the game of momentum. This, I’m afraid to admit, is what did me in and prevented me from seeing all the game’s story had to offer; I was only able to limp through the last three stages of Chapter 4 thanks to Let’s Play and walkthrough videos, and by the time I started Mirrored Chapter 1 (which introduced momentum puzzles for the first time with no forewarning), I had to break off if I had any hope of writing this article in time for the game’s release (if the developers are reading… sorry, guys, I tried!)
Bridging the Gap
Special mention deserves to be made of the artwork for this game, which is absolutely amazing. Mario Castaneda has really captured the essence of the M.C. Escher lithograph; the sketchy, imperfect lines, the myriad shades of grey, and of course, the insanely twisty and unreal architecture the player must navigate. Columns bleed into floors, curves set you on your head, and hanging lanterns clink and dangle into space as the level rotates. The human characters have a certain element of folksy humanity – the PC will check his watch if left alone too long – yet the blank eyes and flat expressions also help to create a somewhat uncomfortable, curious mood. It also has one of the best “spawning” animations ever as the character is literally drawn to life. There is also a beautiful artistic moment in the “main” ending; I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say that it’s a lovely contrast to the monotone mood of the rest of the game. If there was one artistic false step, it would be the loading screens; while they keep the black and white color scheme, they are drawn in more of a polished, cartoon style rather than the wispy, handrawn sketch look of the rest of the art, and as such they seem oddly out of place in the game.
If you are new to the artsy, physics-based indie platforming genre, The Bridge would be an ideal place to start; it’s compact, intriguing, easy to pick up, and beautiful to look at. If you’re already a fan of games like Braid and LIMBO, this game may feel a little like familiar ground in some respects, but its unique art style and focused level design set it apart and make it a worthy purchase. It’s currently available on Steam, so go check it out!
Have you played The Bridge? If so, what are your thoughts? Any good artistic indie platformers in the same vein you would recommend? Are there any other stupid bridge puns I missed?