Venus and Mars in my living room
Narrative manifesto

Garden of delights


I don't do the "play until you're bleary-eyed and pass out in your chair" thing very often these days. I don't have the stamina for it anymore, and "sleeping in" is a luxury I forfeited some time back in the Reagan era.

But there I was at 3am this morning playing PixelJunk Eden, searching for that last seed, hoping to open just one more garden, suffering from a bad case of gamer claw...and loving it. The newest and best PixelJunk game has me utterly in its spell, and I've already begun to notice a low-level anxiety developing inside me over the fact that it will eventually end. If we don't see DLC for this game, I will personally track down producer Dylan Cuthbert and give him what for!

PixelJunk Eden is a masterful collection of opposites: easy and difficult; simple and intricate; stark and sumptuous; soothing and infuriating; innocent and devious. It strikes that perfect Mario-mantra balance of easy to play and difficult to master.

Persistence is rewarded, but luck helps too. Strategy improves your odds, but sometimes having no plan is the best plan. Patience can pay off, but sometimes aggressiveness works best. In the later levels, you will need a savvy combo of all these to survive, but just like the best Mario games, PixelJunk Eden seems to know just when you need a mushroom, er, crystal. Rely on this too much, however, and, just like Mario, the game will stop holding your hand and insist you progress on your own.

At the Game Developers Conference in February, Cuthbert spoke about his desire to establish a consistent design aesthetic for the PixelJunk series based on "simplicity, familiarity, and originality." It's easy to see how these three elements define Eden, but they don't quite tell the whole story. With each PixelJunk title (Racers, Monsters, and Eden) Q Games is clearly growing in its understanding of how to build a unified gaming experience around "simple, familiar, and original." Racers had a distinctive look, but problematical gameplay; Monsters had the look and gameplay down, but the game was mostly a dressed up version of Desktop Tower Defense.

With PixelJunk Eden the series finally makes good on all three precepts. The game is simple to control (once you understand how it works); familiar to anyone who has played a platformer; and it is startlingly, refreshingly original. Lots of games use physics-based movement in all sorts of ways, but Eden is built from the ground up as a spot-on interactive physics experience. Swinging in a perfect centrifugal arc and releasing at just the right moment to drift helplessly through the air, finally landing softly on a plant seed that sprouts to lift you higher in the's a genuinely thrilling experience. And if you're like me, you'll find yourself applying all sorts of completely useless body english to every leap and bound.

And when you barely miss your target and fall helplessly to the earth in a long shattering descent, you will know firsthand how this subtle and beautiful game can mash your teeth into your head.

PixelJunk Eden has another trick up its sleeve. Don't tell your mom, but it's a game about sex. Your job is to pollinate the seeds to make them sprout. So you spread the love; things rise and grow bigger; the beat intensifies with pulsating rhythm; and everything culminates in a peaceful but hard-earned climax when you fertilize the last Spectra and make it glow. No wonder I was up late last night.

I could say much more about this game, including its adaptive use of music by Japanese composer Bayion, its terrific drop-in, drop-out co-op mode, and the clever ways it iterates on itself as you move from garden to garden. Remote play on your PSP, video uploads to YouTube, online leaderboards - all for 10 bucks.

Would I pay $399 to play a $10 game? Maybe. Just maybe I would.