Vintage Game Club - Planescape: Torment
Zombies invade Culver City!

Riffing on the flagpole


Grab an umbrella, it's raining platformers. A left-to-right moving system has stalled over game-land, and more side-scrolling adventures are in the forecast; so put a log on the fire, brew some tea, and settle in for the next downpour. 

As for me, I'll walk down the lane with a happy refrain...singin', just singin' in the rain. :-)

Some people claim this wave of 2D platfomers - especially the recent deluge from indie devs - signals creative stagnation in game design. They say games like Limbo, Super Meat Boy, and Kirby's Epic Yarn feed gamers' nostalgia, but do little to advance design beyond mixing in stylish visuals, gameplay tweaks, and self-aware homages. 

I say they're wrong. I say we're witnessing an exhilarating burst of collective creativity among designers, drawing inspiration from video games' richest mine. If you love side-scrollers, this is the best time to be a gamer since the end of the 16-bit era. We're in the midst of a platforming renaissance, and that's a thing to celebrate.

Platformers are our purest gaming expression. Unlike shooters, strategy, or sports games, they draw from no real-life analogue. Their inherent absurdity defines them. We jump and glide and bounce for no useful reason other than the playful thrill of doing it. We reach the flagpole and we're rewarded with...another flagpole. Traversing the Mushroom Kingdom is a psychedelic trip because making logical sense of such a world takes all the fun out of it.    

Designers continue making platformers for the same reason musicians continue recording versions of Body and Soul or 'Round Midnight. Platformers are our jazz: original creations built on a foundation of well-built standards. Familiar, but evergreen; invigorated by the vision of artists who breathe new, personal life into songs we've heard a thousand times.

What is Super Meat Boy if not a medley: a torrid bebop riff on a catalog of great side-scrollers? It's a game rendered through the vision of designers who see the platformer not simply as a genre, but as an idiom. SMB (see what they did there?) isn't just an amalgam of tribute levels; it's a twisted, comic, self-reflexive expression of love.

As long as I'm playing this analogy, I may as well play it out. Miyamoto is our Louis Armstrong. Ornette Coleman is Mega Man; Dizzy Gillespie is Sonic; Billie Holliday is Castlevania; Viewtiful Joe is Chick Corea; and Braid is our Kind of Blue. I just finished Kirby's Epic Yarn (which I adore and will write about soon), and I can't help feeling the sweetness and fluidity of my favorite jazz pianist, Bill Evans.

I know it's silly to make such transmedia connections. They're tenuous and strained. I share them because they help convey the sense of recognition I experience when I play these recent games. From a design perspective, Kirby's Epic Yarn is a 2D wonderland of imaginative world-building, but I rarely play games 'from a design perspective." When I play the new Kirby game, I'm transported to a familiar place that feels like home - but that home has received an extreme aesthetic makeover, and I'm eager to tour every room and experience what these clever artists have done to the place.

Creativity is rarely about pure invention. We all use the same materials. Good artists understand the value of "re-" - as in re-examine, re-imagine, re-purpose, and revitalize. This is the place of intersection for artists across media. It's why I believe there's no fundamental difference between Nicklas Nygren's (aka Nifflas) concept of immaculate simplicity and Miles Davis'. They both ask formal questions about style and structure, and their answers are remarkably similar.

What? Do I dare compare an obscure game designer to one of the great jazz artists of all time? That question bores me.

Layers are added (Another World / Thelonious Monk) or stripped away (VVVVVV / Modern Jazz Quartet). Chord progressions and melody lines; rules and game mechanics - each can be subtly altered or thoroughly overhauled. If the artist makes it swing, we don't ask why. We just play it.