Transcript — Small Games with Big Vibes
This is the transcript of a Youtube video, which can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/Rt0h6wEvCkM
FAR: Lone Sails belongs to a class of postapocalyptic fiction I’m increasingly appreciating — one that doesn’t offer any explanation, that resists the pull of exposition and lets the past be as distant as a forgotten dream. Don’t get me wrong, lore and elaboration are not a bad thing, but all I really need is scorched bricks and chewed-up landscapes, snapshots of life from the other side of some wordless disaster. For its part, the set-up of FAR: Lone Sails doesn’t go beyond a grave and a photo. But this game is more than just another Limbo-like indie platformer that mistakes a muted colour palette for true darkness, or a thin veneer of spookiness for an immersive atmosphere. It may not be revolutionary, but it’s a cut above most other indie games you might reach to for a comparison.
For a start, its gameplay has backbone, one made of steel and cable and concrete. Unlike most spoopy indie games that fail to translate theme to gameplay, FAR: Lone Sails brings its mechanical motifs of fallen industry and a metal world gone to ruin into its, OK I’m just this once going to use the word gamefeel. The way you thump and clang and grind through this steampunk nightmare feels just right, as peculiar contraptions yield to your mechanical manipulations and steel girders groan under your bulk.
The other reason this isn’t your average push-the-stick-right-to-advance side-scroller is that it’s not just you that’s advancing across this desiccated landscape, but the steaming titan you’ll drag and coax and occasionally accidentally set on fire. It’s a pain in the ass to drive, at least in the beginning, but it quickly becomes clear that it’s also your one precious lifeline in this dangerous world of dust and desolation, a lifeline that can be stretched but never broken. There’s such a wonderful physicality in how this grimy hunk of metal responds to your clumsy pilotry, hissing and steaming and smoking in a way that feels so recognisable if you’ve ever seen a science-fiction movie involving an intrepid hero piloting a lovable rust bucket just barely holding together. Except, you’re that hero. This game lives in the relationship that develops between you and your strange machine as you slowly learn exactly what actions to take in what order until you’re flying expertly around your ship pressing buttons and pulling switches like a far-future Han Solo, maneuvering your pile of junk in a way only you know how. It may wheeze and whine and short-circuit, but it will not give up on you, as long as you don’t give up on it.
But this video is called small games with big vibes, and FAR: Lone Sails has some serious vibes. And, hell, I’m going to cut straight to the moment when I went all in with this game. It comes about two thirds of the way in, after you’ve entered a gigantic ship, one you’re pretty sure is way bigger than anything you’ve come across so far. You push a button, and…well…I’m just going to let this clip play through. It’s perfect.
This moment is FAR: Lone Sails’ masterstroke, but it’s just one among many that stopped me in my tracks. Because this game avoids the trap that many other indie games of its ilk fall into of focusing on more mundane frights and sights. Like Playdead’s brilliant INSIDE, it knows that a creepy setting and a restrained colour palette don’t have to mean you need to sacrifice a sense of wonder. FAR: Lone Sails knows when to give you a moment to stop and breathe in the soaring structures and beached leviathans and cresting sunrises, when to zoom out and really hit you with that feeling of frailty and smallness, the terrifying reality that the only thing keeping you from being blown to smithereens is four walls of thin metal.
You’ve got to love a game that has this much confidence in its own vibes. Because even at the end of the world, when you’re steaming ahead at full speed with the wind in your hair and a storm suddenly gives way to a clear starry sky, it’s enough to make you stop and smile.
I used to love puzzle games, for a long time, until I didn’t. The more I played them, the more they started to feel a bit samey, nothing but endless variations on the same fundamental theme of ‘move shapes around on a screen until you get it right and then do it all again, and again, and again’. I know that saying this is incredibly reductive, I know puzzle games are varied and excellent and ingenious in the way they riff on this basic theme, but even so, the mental and emotional experience of playing most puzzle games has started to feel homogenous and hollow. Notwithstanding the exceptions that prove the rule — the joyful gravity of Portal, the euphoric epiphanies of The Witness — genuine surprise is hard to come by in even the most lauded of puzzle games. I’m moving a sausage, I’m moving a train full of aliens, I’m moving a snakebird, but the artistic flourishes are only skin-deep, and it all may as well be plain shapes on a blank background for all I care about the sausage or the train or the bird I’m endlessly maneuvering.
On its face, The Pedestrian would seem to be yet another game about moving shapes around — in this case, wall panels and the little stick figure within them — until you put the right thing in the right place and then move on to do it all again, but straight from the beginning, this game feels different. It’s downright brazen in the way it plays with perspective, orientation, embodiment, framing. Not just within the hard boundaries of its puzzles, where directional logic is relative and a door could be an entrance or an exit, depending on how you connect up the panels, but in the interplay between the puzzles and the wider world they take place in, the way foreground and background play off each other in a dynamic duet. During puzzles, the panels are the obvious point of focus with the wider environment providing a pleasant, ambient background; but at other times, the shot draws the eye towards the vibrant character of its anonymous city. In this way, The Pedestrian is a series of ever-changing frames within one continuous, unbroken frame, playing with perspective like one of those paintings within a painting — only more impressive.
Because The Pedestrian is visually gorgeous and augmented by a beautifully dynamic soundtrack. We’re here to talk about vibes, after all, and my gosh do this game’s environments deliver on vibes, from the trembling pressure gauges and flickering lights of the subway to the buzzing of the city streets above, the long leafy shadows of afternoon slowly deepening into the soft orange quietude of evening. And then, as you ascend to the rooftops, this. Neon lights, illuminating your path in seductive shades of red and blue and purple. This was the level where I honest to goodness just put the controller down and sat with the vibes for a while. At times, the music just stops, and lets you solve puzzles to the sound of the rain pattering around you. It’s perfect.
But most wonderfully of all, The Pedestrian is tactile, material, truly situated in the charming humanity of its environments in a way few other puzzle games are. The panels you’re confined to might be anything from a piece of sketch paper to a road sign to the screen of a very well-loved Game Boy ripoff, and their surfaces are clean, soiled, smooth, rough, scratched, warped, askew, you name it. All of a sudden there you are, appropriately smudged and indistinct, on a chalkboard, or trapped behind the grate of a WALK sign. During one particularly cheeky puzzle, a key you need to obtain is almost entirely covered behind a post-it note someone’s thoughtlessly gone and slapped on. This isn’t some distant avatar on a cold, abstract board, this is a world you can almost reach out and touch. How good is it, then, when you find out you can touch it. Delightfully, impossibly, the world outside creeps into the enclosure and your actions bleed out from the edges. Sparking plugs become circuits to be manipulated, buttons activate lifts and trains. These little moments feel transgressive, like you were a drawing coming to life and jumping off the page.
So of course, in the final level, you do just that. In perhaps the best, and certainly the most transgressive moment of the game yet, a person appears — the first one we’ve actually seen — and carries the stick figure outside to a stunning sunrise. Not a puzzle in sight — nothing but a big, beautiful sky and the tops of skyscrapers peeking out from above the clouds. Except there is a final puzzle here and well, I won’t spoil it, but it feels very appropriately meta.
The Pedestrian seems to have something to say about the beauty of the world we live in, like it’s inviting us to look beyond the confines of obligation and habit that box us into our tiny lives. Is it a commentary on gamers, and how we let so much of our lives be dominated by the four walls surrounding our computer screens? Or is it a broader meditation about how easy it is to get hemmed in by troubles and to-do lists, so that we forget to expand our horizons, to reach out and touch the world around us? This game reminded me how often I struggle with a feeling of confinement, of stagnation, like I’m living in an invisible cage. How I think to myself some days, I need to get out of here, I need a change of scenery. I need…a vacation.
Wide Ocean, Big Jacket conveys a truth many of us know too well — that “getting away from it all” is harder than it seems. After all, there is no getting away from ourselves. And throughout the course of this little family camping holiday, what we see is each character’s insecurities creep out of hiding. Mord doesn’t know how to make the transition from tween to teen. Like the titular jacket, the grown-up world feels big and ill-suited to Mord, but she’s trying her best to grow into it. Her boyfriend — shy, socially awkward Ben — is already planning his parents’ probable divorce. Not everything is rosy in the adult world, of course — Brad’s having second thoughts about their decision not to have kids; Cloanne isn’t. I see a bit of myself in every member of this family — the rambunctious Mord who likes to let completely loose, the anxious Ben who has a hard time chilling out, Cloanne’s ‘cool aunty’ energy. I desperately love them all.
With its crude caricatures and big bold fonts, Wide Ocean, Big Jacket may be simple in a lot of ways, but it’s far from simplistic, and within its limitations it’s even disarmingly nuanced. Boisterous Mord talks in all-caps because of course she does. Ben’s lines sometimes slip into capitalisation, conveying his inability to relax in the company of strangers. My favourite line in the whole game might be, “I Don’t Know If It’s Up To Me to Relax”. And the clumpy character models are unexpectedly expressive, from the aggressive way Mord skewers hot dogs, to Ben’s stiff awkwardness and the adults’ more laid-back style — all of it feels just right. Why would you need to be told that Ben’s finally relaxed into the company of his girlfriend’s family, when you have this shot. It’s perfect.
There’s something charmingly impressionistic about Wide Ocean’s blocky colours and choppy character animations, something about the way it jumps abruptly between scenes and conversations that make it feel like the video game equivalent of a vacation slideshow, right down to the candid shots that are far from perfectly framed, but manage to capture the characters in their most real, unguarded moments. Wide Ocean, Big Jacket feels like going on a holiday, but it also feels like the act of remembering a holiday, the way the tight little scenes are surrounded by empty space, like you’ve pulled a blank on what the weather was like that day or what the view was in the distance. But you do remember telling lame jokes around the campfire, and the time you tried and failed to pee in a bush, and the search for The Perfect Stick — the wonderfully mundane moments you’ll treasure forever.
These are some real, dare I say…vibes. Comfy, cozy holiday vibes, that make you remember exactly how a chill vacation in the woods feels — like nothing exists beyond the light of your little campfire, and there’s nothing in the world to worry about except whether you’ve got time to sneak in a swim before dinner. Like the entire world has been…what’s the word?
There is one exception. When the adults go to bed, Mord and Ben decide to go for an impromptu walk down to the water. You’re strolling, you turn the bend and boom, a big open sky. When I reached this scene, I had to stop and think about why this moment felt so impactful, and that’s when I realised — it’s the only time in the game you see the sky. I like to think, consistent with my interpretation of this game as a representation of memory, that you’re seeing the sky here, because it’s what Mord and Ben will always remember when they think back to this moment. Hey, remember that sky, and like, how huge the stars were? Also you get to cartwheel on the sand as many times as you want, and I like that.
Wide Ocean, Big Jacket may be a small story, but it’s got a big, wide heart.
OK, I think I’d better ask the question some of you may have been asking yourselves for the last 20 minutes. What do a post-apocalyptic steampunk side-scroller, a puzzle game about street signs and a family camping holiday simulator have in common? Absolutely nothing. Or…so I thought. My original goal for this video was to talk about a few short games that have no bearing on each other, just three games I happen to think are pretty cool. But when I put them together, I found three games connected by many threads, not least in their humanity, character and charm.
Three games that understand the importance of zooming in on the intimate moments of small lives, three games full of lovingly rendered details that have zero bearing on gameplay progression but give their worlds a delicious feeling of tangibility. And it’s notable to me that every one of them has one very special moment in which the scene opens right up. So I guess these games also understand the importance of zooming out, of giving you just enough of a glimpse of the wider world to draw you in, but never so much as to wrap things up too neatly. Every one of them ends with an open question, with the feeling that even as this story has ended, another one is already beginning.
But what I might love most about these three games, as well as countless more indie titles, is that they blast apart the myth that immersion is synonymous with photorealism, because the simple fact is that you can be pulled head over heels into another world, be charmed and delighted and terrified and awestruck and everything in between, by the sheer power of an exemplary vibe.