Sunday, July 15, 2012

Review: Fotonica (Mac)

Running is not fun.  I remember being forced to run cross-country as a requirement for the basketball team in middle school and hating every minute of it.  I was able to get out of it one year, which was indeed glorious.  Despite this, 12 years later I trained for and raced in the 2010 Chicago half-marathon.  One could look at this act as masochistic (excuses aside, perhaps it was), but in reality I just wasn't very creative with my choice of exercise.  Afterwards I concluded that 13 miles is as far as humans are meant to go and vowed never to attempt to run beyond that distance.  Sure I was getting solid exercise and felt healthy, but the act of running remained as much of a drag as it ever was.

The vast majority of people in the world know how to run, itself being an iteration on one of the early milestones of an individual's existence: the first step.  In contrast, the core physical action needed to play video games is the button push, though the actual sophistication of a full control scheme often requires coordination of multiple button presses with complex timing.  This dynamic is not that far removed from the stepping/running analogy in that it takes behavioral reinforcement and muscle memory to be able to graduate from one action to the other.  The difficulty in achieving this proficiency should take partial credit for the reactionary influx of motion games: attempts at more closely tying core physical actions to those already known and understood by individuals, thus decreasing the learning curve.

On a mechanical level, the game Fotonica brings the systemic understanding of simple body motions into the realm of video games.  If you can press a computer keyboard button, any button, you can play Fotonica.  In the game you control a runner from first-person point of view by holding down a button to run, and releasing it to jump.  The goal is to vault from platform to platform, collecting pink orbs until leaping off a final plank into a glowing void.  Scores are tabulated based on how fast you ran and how many orbs you grabbed.  Fotonica seeks to replace "step" with "button press" in my analogy, but it's not a perfect substitution since the action of running remains at the same complexity as the button press; the relationship between the two is consequential.  A more accurate equation for Fotonica's architecture would be "button press = run."

Santa Ragione, the developers of Fotonica, have put quite a pretty wrapper on their title's minimal core mechanic.  Not to be too reductive, but to say the game looks like a mash-up of Mirror's Edge and Rez simply hits the nail on the head too accurately to ignore.  The world consists of hollow, white wireframe structures floating in black space.  A flurry of abstract shapes zoom past as you progress forth.  As you run, wireframe hands alternatively jut in and out of frame, increasing in frequency along with your running speed.  When landing a jump, green and purple color separation vibrates out from everything to heighten the sensation of impact.  An options menu allows you to turn off the hands, flat-shade everything, and turn your path into a simple tiled line, eliminating distractions and becoming ever more focused on depressing and letting off your button of choice.

Sometimes while playing Fotonica, it felt and looked like I was operating a training simulator for some other game, something more complicated.  This brings back the issue of whether or not the game has made virtual running any more fun than actual running.  The two are difficult to directly compare, but I do know that I enjoyed Metal Gear Solid substantially more than MGS: VR Missions, even if they did let you play as the cyborg ninja in the latter.  Fotonica can feel very treadmill-like, but without the benefits of actual exercise; sort of like I'm working out my MacBook's CPU.  In the game's defense, the sensation of speed exceeds simulation velocities, allowing you to perform actions beyond human capabilities, which does carry a satisfying edge.  The visual style, coupled with the ambient electronic soundtrack creates a cool, other-worldly atmosphere that remains a pleasure to exist in, even if your ability to explore it is quite limited.

When I go for a run outside, I like to listen to music or podcasts as a bit of a distraction, but in Fotonica, I found that I play better when I simplify the visual design as much as possible.  With the complex graphic style turned on, you'll encounter parts of levels where you run through pipes, which are pretty psychedelic to behold, but very difficult to find your bearings within.  Toggling on the "Pure" visual style makes those tubes appear as two layers of platforms, one "in" the pipe, and one "on top."  So, to play Fotonica well is to be closely in tune with the mechanics, and to play it better, you need to eliminate obstacles.  The minimal design approach compliments this zen sensibility.  Become one with the spacebar.

On the subject of PC game controls, I appreciate the idea of a one-button game.  Growing up on video game consoles, not only am I used to holding a controller in my hands for gaming, but have been privy to incremental adjustments to the evolving layouts of peripherals through decades of hardware generations.  Never being much of a PC gamer, the idea of using a mouse and keyboard for action games might as well be the control panel of a jet plane.  It's not immediately apparent to me how to get everything to work, and I haven't put in the practice hours to refine my abilities.  So, I see the prospect of someone saying "forget all that, just use this one button" as having certain surface appeal.

On one hand, Fotonica is a triumph of accessible game design, but on the other, it's a button-pressing exam.  It's a game that upon objective reflection of what I've physically spent my time doing (pressing and releasing a button over and over), leads me to label Fotonica as more of a "in-between" game, than one to sit down and really concentrate on.  This makes sense as so many touchscreen and mobile games offer similarly approachable control schemes, and are ideally played while waiting for something else in our lives to occur.  In these situations, people without games impatiently tap their toes or wrap their fingertips to bide their time, but the game-inclined among us can not only play games to occupy that space, but continue to utilize those same physical actions for something else.  Fotonica never set out to make running fun, but it does a lot to improve what it means to press a button.

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