Walking Out of a Coma

Coma is an interesting game.  It reminds me a lot of Little Wheel.

Little WheelLittle Wheel is a concise, point-and-click puzzle game where the player navigates the hero robot on its quest to turn the power back on.  The puzzles are not very challenging, but engaging enough that the player actually is doing something other than simply clicking on to the next scene.  The art style is gorgeously realized (how’s that for a meaningless critique?) with fluid animation and a great soundtrack.  And it wordlessly tells a story.  The point isn’t to solve the puzzles, but to lead the robot through its journey.  The puzzles are merely the obstacles in the plot.

ComaComa, at its essence, is also a story told through a game.  It too benefits from gorgeous stylized artwork and a provocative soundtrack.  And while Coma uses some words, the story unfolds as the player works through the surreal layers of subconscious that manifest as the game world.

Little Wheel’s success lies in the execution of the details, which is where Coma falters a bit.  The moody atmosphere is sometimes too dark for the player to read the environment.  The gameplay modes, while essentially limited to platforming, vary the rules in ways that don’t always bring the player along.  One of the last tasks can be inscrutable if your monitor contrast is too dark and you don’t realize you need to contact a couple of ‘switches’.  There are also a couple of plot points that appear unresolved.

It is a difficult task to balance a mysterious narrative, especially when some of that narrative is delivered by a dishonest narrator.  Red herrings must be handled with care.  While it is not necessary to spell everything out to the player, it is necessary to tie things together enough that the player doesn’t walk away from the experience feeling cheated or that the writing was poor.

Coma’s greatest success, however, is that it incites this type of conversation.  People are talking about the game because of the experience it creates.  There are real lessons to be learned from its imperfections.  I have seen more comments lately for a new classification for ‘art house’ games, implying that there is now a sufficient amount of similar works to warrant such a grouping.  There is a sharpening of the perception of what delineates a game and a passively-interactive story.

Take a WalkTake a Walk surprised me.  It uses a wonderfully detailed line-art style, with very fluid animation, and couples the visual presentation with a rich aural one.  The gameplay is extremely simple.  The player walks to the right, causing music to play.  If the player stops, so too does the music.  If the player goes backwards, the music rewinds (along with points scored).  The player must also jump over obstacles that will interrupt forward progress, and can jump and grab notes and clef markings hanging in the air.  At the end of a piece, the stage ends.  There are three pieces, of varied style, and increasing tempo.

But the truly gamey aspect of Take a Walk is hidden in the achievements.  It doesn’t take much effort to play through the game.  But the achievements indicate a level of perfection that can be attained, illustrated in-game by a flock of birds that slowly gathers around your character the longer you walk uninterrupted.  The number of birds that accompany you seems to be based on your score, and your score seems to be tied to how well your jumps, over obstacles and for the note markings, are in time with the music.  So to perfect the game, you really do have to become one with the music.  You can even play the game with your eyes closed, following the musical cues.

I’m thrilled that game design has developed such that designers can experiment with the emotive implications of games.  But often the response from the gaming community is that the art games are often less game and more interactive mixed-media.  Coma and Take a Walk are excellent games to fuel that discussion.  There is often more to learn from a well-crafted work that near-misses on a few points than the work that sets the bar.  How much gamey interaction is required for a work to constitute a ‘game’? At what point are such elements merely contrivances?

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