Sunday, July 15, 2012
Review: Fotonica (Mac)
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.
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.
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 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.