In which I talk about the Meat Circus.
Man, that is a headline of epic jargon….
Both games are built on a foundation of platforming. The mechanics for this platforming are…not necessarily the best. They are not what you play the game for. They’re passable, fine, super OK, and a lot of fun in their own ways (the grappling hook for the thief in Trine, skating around rails and using the levitation ball in Psychonauts are really great platforming mechanics!), but they’re not what you would call the focus of either game.
In 90% of each game, the platforming is something you mostly use to get from Point A to Point B. It is fun an engaging, but always in the way of a toy – it’s fun to play with, to get sloppy with, to try out weird stuff and see what happens. It’s experimental, exploratory play – flinging Raz down a hill on the levitation ball or seeing if there’s any ledges you can grapple with the Thief both scratch the same itch – what Nicole Lazzarro might identify as “Easy Fun” or what MDA theory might identify as an aesthetics of Discovery, Sensation, and Submission or what in the Bartles Types might be simplified as “Exploration.” There’s little risk, and you’re not be tested on timing or precision. In fact, one of the AMAZING things that Trine does is allow you to solve its platforming puzzles in different ways depending on the kind of character or combos you prefer using – rarely does it seem to require you to use the Wizard or the Thief or the Knight (and where it does, it telegraphs that pretty well). In this respect, it is much more in the World of Goo puzzle philosophy than it is the Braid puzzle philosophy, and it’s really, really satisfying.
Both Psychonauts and Trine spend most of their gameplay delighting in that exploration play, the fun that comes from engaging with a mechanic and seeing where it goes.
But then, in the Meat Circus and the Tower of Sarek, both games chuck that to the wind in favor of the bane of exploration play – time limits.
In the Meat Circus, this is perhaps most frustratingly the life bar of Lil’ Olly. As he gets wailed on, you need to cope with finnicky jumps and try to spin around bars and swap camera angles fast enough. The flooding acrobatics test plays into this as well – GO FAST, DON’T MESS UP, EVERY MOMENT COUNTS. In the Tower of Sarek, it’s less frustrating, but still VERY present as the magma fills the tower and you race to the top to avoid it.
Both games are asking you to stop doing what you’ve had fun doing for the last 8-30 hours and instead engage with their floaty mechanics on the Hard Fun / Challenge / Achiever goal. Someone who has played these games up until that point isn’t looking for that kind of challenge – that’s not what they’re having fun doing. If they were, they other 90% of the game would be judged harshly, and the last 10% would be judged ESPECIALLY harshly because the mechanics are not precise enough. The design is fundamentally interested in other things than that achievement.
Which is why those last levels are a mistake. I can see the intent – it’s the last level! It needs to be a challenge! It needs to ramp up the stakes! – and the intent is positive. But I think if a game fires on one play goal for most of its length, it should continue to fire on that play goal. I think this problem is similar to the problem of being over-leveled for the final boss in a JRPG. Games that feature Exploration-centric play for most of the game should have an Exploration-centric endgame, not one that suddenly changes the goals of play.
An Exploration-centric endgame might look like a giant, constantly-changing battlefield with powerful, hidden weapons or abilities squirreled away in innocuous corners. It might rely on resources you can grab by exploring the stage. A time limit is the wrong instinct, but you can be under constant assault from the Big Boss. The setpiece here is something that is solved with going new places and trying new things, not demanding precise performance of a skillset that the game just isn’t designed to be precise about.