2018 is closing down (as I write this at least), and there were games. Games and games and games. There is the added problem that I mostly missed out on. There are always more games. Then there is the history of games. I grew up roughly from when games were playable, and given the privilegeto have a swarth of time to do deep dives on entire romsets.
But even with the history of video games, there was a constant stream of high class video games in 2018. I held off on buying many, with the idea that I would buy them the day I would play them. Then there just keep being other video games to play, when life wasn’t also being there.
So I never got around to buying Iconoclasts, instead it dropped in my lap thanks to Destiny 2 being free on Playstation Plus, and a deal on Plus causing me to re-up my Plus sooner than I had expected. So now I had a stream of free games coming whether I ask for them or not.
And this month, that free torrent includes Iconoclasts. The sole creator’s previous game, Noitu Love 2, I loved. I think. I have positive feelings about it. I beat it in a session. But then I never returned to it. I never thought about it again until now. I wonder about that. I’m thinking about thinking about video games here.
Iconoclasts constantly made me think about other video games. I would think about how maybe I should get over myself and like Super Metroid. But I hate the one way passages in Super Metroid, which well, now that I’ve played it a few times through is probably less of a problem. Iconoclasts has platforming-puzzle-things. Where if you fall down you have to run three rooms around back to the beginning to try again.
Iconoclasts has little critter enemies that climb walls, like Metroid. They are placed in ways to be inconvenient but never challenging. A lot of the other enemies are tiny puzzles to solve. Which well, I think about the adventure games maxim of “use everything on everything.” The enemy doesn’t seem to be dead yet. Have I used all my verbs? Think Rudie, what other verb + verb do I have? For all the flash and verb and animation, it never registered with me what exactly was doing damage and what wasn’t.
There are lots of little bits of animation. There is a lot of Paul Robertson in this game. He didn’t even work on it to my knowledge. Paul Robertson worked on the Scott Pilgrim game, which you can’t buy anymore. That game had some great sprite work. Iconoclasts has…detailed spritework. I felt like I should notice it and yet I didn’t. One human working on each piece for days, weeks, months, years. Shouldn’t I be noticing more? The reviews mentioning lots of little details. My eye isn’t being caught.
When I was looking really hard, I saw there was some serious parallax scrolling going on. Shouldn’t that have impressed me? At the very start of the game you see a flash of a Spire. “That’s where I am going,” I thought. Hours later, that’s where you end up even if the protagonist didn’t exactly mean to go there. You never see the Spire between then and the beginning.
In Disney Theme Park design, they design the whole parks around “the weenie”. A big giant set piece thing that you can see from almost anywhere else in the park. Epcot’s Space Ship Earth is the biggest example of this. A big giant golfball always looming, always in the background of the shot. It grounds you. You can also look at the big thing and go, “let’s go over there.” In car-driven America, you don’t get to often see a tall thing in the distance and then go there.
Iconoclasts has a forest, a desert, a deeper forest, other levels. Even when the game makes clear what your goals are, you don’t get to see the tower you are supposed to be going to*. I think about old video games that has your character on a mountain looking at their goal. I think about how FFXV revisits this idea in a shot that made me spit across the room.
*: I pay attention when I play. If they did show the tower, and I didn’t notice it well…
That’s the game world design, let’s think about the world. The planet is dying (in game and in real life). In game however, the fuel Ivory is being drained and everyone is saying they are running out. I think about naming your in game fuel after a real thing that has resulted in the murder of beautiful giant creatures to a point where they are almost not around anymore. We at least have a specific name for why we kill elephants. It is ultimately just a stand in for any kind of energy that this planet is running out of.
Iconoclasts tries to give people quirks and unique dialog. It succeeds, but it succeeds in an English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) way. As someone trying to live their life in another country forever, I am constantly frustrated with expressing myself. Even if I say something eloquently, I am only getting 70% of my meaning across, and I had to make several substitutions that maybe a native can parse. It’s not exactly poetry, intended or accidental. So almost everyone says something in a round-about way.
Another article pointed this out, and it is maybe the most striking cumbersome line.
“Chasing agent Black, you’ve been looking for the forest tower”
This is in your pause screen, to let you know what your goal is. I don’t need to deconstruct that sentence, not for free at least. Every piece of dialog feels strained. “I need to say this!” And when it doesn’t feel strained there is that Northern European ESL Internet humor. Haha one of the characters smells bad. Hah. It isn’t funny, but more I get this nagging suspicion that these little traits are here instead of an actual personality.
Which, hey the game’s characters eventually reveal their personalities outside of the sprite work. Except it is still through that film of ESL. You can hear a pastor/cult leader speak passionately and process what they are saying and realize it’s bullshit. Here, multiple characters give that impression, however it is garbled enough that you 70% get what they are going for. It’s not poetry.
Your goal for most of the game is moving forward. That’s thankful. I almost forget there is only so much you can do with Search Action level design. That isn’t Iconoclasts‘s fault. I always think, “there is only so much you can do with Search Action level design.” That’s why I haven’t touched Hollow Knight or Dead Cells. Maybe it was a reason I hadn’t played Iconoclasts yet.
Noitu Love 2 and every conversation about Noitu Love 2 brought up comparisons of Treasure. Treasure loves maximizing a verb set. Iconoclasts is by the same person that played and thought about Treasure and made Noitu Love 2. Yet during Iconoclasts, I kept wondering, “is this the best way to challenge this verb set?” The wrench is awfully particular when you hook on to bolts. It is in fact a frequent puzzle point. The game is more puzzle than action. Yet the puzzles are just like the action. Exhaust your verbs. There are even tiny clever secret uses of the verbs.
I think about Cave Story. Cave Story grabs me every time. The story is clear and confusing. The verbs are rich. You feel like you are getting away with something. In Cave Story you are moving forward and circling back. This comparison is maybe the most unfair, but here I am thinking about Cave Story.
The developer kept talking up Monster World IV, a game I have played to completion. This was after I lost patience in the Ice Castle. If I remember, that’s about 60% of the way through. It is long. It is frequently boring. There are many screens with one thing to do. And yet at the beginning, it is immediately charming. The way our hero girl wiggles her butt when she’s opening a treasure chest. That you get a blue companion animal that keeps growing, and you begin to wonder if that is a bad thing. There are things to like about MWIV even if it has failings as a game.
I gritted my teeth when I heard that MWIV was one of the big inspirations for Iconoclasts. Then I heard that the developer had never even beaten MWIV. What a uniquely video game inspiration. To only play a game off-hand for maybe two hours, and then declare it an inspiration. It isn’t even that hard of a game. You would just need to keep playing to beat it. I keep wondering what that means, an uncomplete MWIV.
Iconoclasts has a story to tell. It eventually turns and says “In this story, there is something that is to be told.” Okay, I’m trying to hard to imitate the writing style. The story is messier than I expected. I liked that. But again I felt like I was reading an original work written in a second language. I got it. I think. Or at least I nodded politely until it was over.
There are little tics in talking about video games. “This game has too much backtracking” is another way of saying “I had to navigate an area multiple times”, which is another way of saying “maybe it wasn’t that fun in the first place, that I didn’t want to do it again.” So the credits roll in Iconoclasts. I return to the title screen. I have NG+. I have Boss Rush. I try Boss Rush. I die on the third boss. I sit back. I close the game. I delete it.