DreamPunk: Lost Boys

Posted on August 7, 2011 by


I’ve discovered a new niche of video games which I shall call “Art Games Featuring Lost Boys Which Make Me Cry.” The past few years have each yielded quite a few passion projects, independent games which come in from the edge of the map without a blockbuster agenda. Call them hoity toity or highbrow, but I love when anyone produces something unexpected, thoughtful and unapologetic. Long after I tire of space marines blowing up aliens, I will still be engrossed in the journey of a young boy across a fantastical landscape.

Braid, Limbo and Bastion all come from a place of perfection in terms of art design, story and game mechanics. I have nothing ill to say about any of these games. Each one drew me in with its own particular style. But what I really want to talk about is the emotional payload of each. I’m going to spoil the ending of each game, so stop reading if you care about what happens.

Braid’s opening scene sets up the classic video game tale: your girl has been captured by the villain and you must rescue her. As the game unfolds, you are presented with a series of interior monologues filled with longing for a girl, presumably a real person the designer was pursuing. They seem to have little to do with the game until the end. The main game mechanic in Braid is the ability to alter the flow of time, moving it backwards and forwards to solve the puzzles. So, at the very end, when you think you are about to rescue the princess, you are instead treated to a shocking revelation: The opening scene of the game was playing in reverse. Now it plays again, in the correct direction, and you see that the girl wasn’t captured by the villain. She is in fact running away from you into the arms of the knight who will protect her, the one she really wants to be with. You spend the entire game so self-assured and self-absorbed that you never consider that the princess doesn’t want you to rescue her. Masterfully done.

Limbo had a similar twist, although a more ambiguous one. In Limbo, you are trying to find your sister and perhaps rescue her. It is never really clear how the two of you came to be in Limbo. The game leaves a lot up to interpretation. You encounter your sister on two occasions. Each time she is sitting in a sun-dappled glade, blissful and in no apparent danger. On the final occasion, the last moment of the game, she hears you approach. She turns and gasps. That gasp was an ice dagger in my heart as I realized that she was probably never in Limbo and now she sees the ghostly apparition of her brother looming towards her.

I finished Bastion a several days ago and it still sticks with me. I want to hear that narrator all the time, telling the story of my daily life. And the music! I bought the soundtrack the day it was released so I could listen to those gorgeous songs again. There are two big decision points in the game. The first one just seems like a Voight-Kampff test to determine if you were human. You can either hold on to this devastatingly overpowered weapon that annihilates your enemies, or you could set it down and pick up the broken form of Zulf, your enemy (who had every right to want revenge), rescuing him. I picked up Zulf and moved, slowly, without any defense or means of fighting, out into a battlefield full of enemies. But they all stopped attacking and stood in silence as I carried Zulf past them and to the exit. It was such a moving scene. The second decision you have to make is to either reset the world so that the Calamity did not occur or to move the Bastion and fly into an unknown future. I chose to reset the world, and, of course, the Calamity happened again and I began back at the beginning.

I think I’m drawn to these games because there is romance in having a singular purpose driving you forward from the left side of the screen to right. And while having a goal is great, sometimes you realize in the end that your goal is not what you expected or wanted. And, of course, appreciate the journey instead of the destination. Once you reach the destination, it’s over.

Posted in: Andre Monserrat