“Beneath the Surface” was a great theme. If you made a game that said, this is a game that seems to be one thing, but beneath the surface it is another.“, then you have my love. So far, @jezzamonn’s Generic Adventure Game is the game that nailed that one the best.
The game starts with a beautiful misdirection, playing on the investment of player into avatar. For the first moments of the game you play a generic hero who can press ‘A’ to kill an adorable slime for XP. The slime is the player, but the player won’t understand this right away.
Misdirection stands in a clique at the heart of game design, facing inwards and passing around a pipe. Unlike the rest of the elements of play you might encounter in a game, a misdirection can be experience meaningfully exactly once by each player. It is a narrative technique, but it is one that is expressed purely in the meta world of interface. There is no dialog or plot twist: we are set up to expect one thing, and then we press an arrow key and the wrong thing happens. Simple, but so, so effective.
Swapping us into the role of the slime also locates us as “back-stage”, which is thrilling. It suddenly doesn’t matter as much that the slime moves slowly and jumps without vigor, because, ostensibly, the slime (the player) is not at the center of this game’s action. The heroes move at a reasonable pace, but we understand that our role is not to run and jump. Our role is to reflect, to criticise, and to absorb. The slime’s behaviour mirrors this with its doubts, and existential questions.
Now, confused and unsure of what to do in the game, we are left alone to be a helpless slime for a while. Amnesia and helplessness are go-toes of the game-to-brain API. The player does not, by default, know what has happened in the moments leading up to the game or what the game’s objective are. Allowing the player to stew in this uncertainty is always great, and many of the classic JRPG characters we know and love made it into our brains this way.
Eventually the game explains: hold shift to dream.
As long as you hold shift, you are playing a different game: you jump higher and move faster, there are no heroes to kill you and the landscape is lush, verdant, soft, and anti-aliased. You can hop around and explore, and the game generally just feels better. Meanwhile, on the surface, you are dying repeatedly.
For me, this is a new trick: a game that sucks, in which you can hold shift to play a fun game. What a totally rad idea! I can’t help by imagine all the places a game could go from there: perhaps the slime unlocks deep and ancient secrets, or saves the world (perhaps the player sometimes forgets they are holding shift and that this is a dream); perhaps there are gates in the dream world that lead out to the aether beyond worlds, and the slime loses its connection to its body, only then learning to appreciate what it lost; perhaps the slime meets a spiritual guide that teaches it to bring its dream self into the real world. Perhaps!
When your game starts with such brilliant underpinnings, where you take it is of little consequence. Generic Adventure Game does not disappoint.