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There are two things I don’t mention very often, you may have noticed, the first of which is how I go about finding games worth discussing. It is an exhausting, scary universe, I don’t deny, and trawling through the starlit cosmos of cold, lifeless duds can be a soul-sapping endeavour if the proper precautions are not taken. Play discriminately. Don’t be afraid to follow a crowd, and then, don’t be afraid to shirk it. Know your own tastes but keep an open mind.
Once I’ve found a game that grabs me, I ask myself what’s valuable about it. A deceptively simple question—it’s worth noting, however, that it’s not prescriptive. I don’t need to talk about what the game does, exactly. I don’t need to talk about my childhood, or what I had for dinner over the Christmas. I can if I want, but it’s not a requisite, is the point.
It was on this basis I found Roguelight. Browsing Gamejolt’s desperately categorized library of Newly Added and/or Featured games, this one stood out impressively on the twofold basis of its title being a pun (like ‘roguelite’, ha ha) and its artwork being glorious.
You play her, and you do what she’s doing, which is nocking arrows and treading darkness. It is, as you can guess, of the genre known as roguelite or roguelike or roguelike-like depending on how pedantic you want to be. I have briefly researched the matter and decided I don’t quite care, so: it is a game where you jump around dungeons and kill baddies.
What distinguishes it from its likes is the mingling of offensive and defensive techniques through its use of lighting. Your arrows are both the main light source in the pitch-black dungeons and your sole means of combat, gliding you into an affectionately streamlined game of resource management of health, arrows, level knowledge and visibility. Eventually you run out of arrows and wander blindly through spike pits and ghoulies, promptly die, shop for upgrades, and respawn at the beginning. It is enjoyable to play and that is that.
Which brings me to the other thing I rarely mention: the amorphous and self-explanatory concept of ‘game-feel’. I say self-explanatory but honestly, this term begs for an explanation-no, a justification for its existence. ‘Game-feel’ has the unfortunate fate of being irredeemably wanky-sounding, leading many writers and designers to empty their pockets in pursuit of a suitable alternative. ‘Kinaesthetics’ is often the agreed-upon result, although how that solves the issue of a) clarifying the idea or b) making anyone look less like a shower of bastards is beyond me. Personally, kinaesthetics in relation to videogames seems to speak of the sensation of pushing a button with one’s thumb, which is decidedly not what most people gun for in using it. Instead, what is meant by both ‘kinaesthetics’ and ‘game-feel’ is this: the feeling of a game. It is about as sensible as using ‘food-taste’ to describe the taste of food. Nothing is lost by shortening it to feel.
So, I seldom talk about the feel of a game, largely because such a thing tends to be difficult to talk about despite how crucial it can be to the play experience. Or at least, while we can use gorgeous flowing prose to suggest the fluid feeling of moving through whatever game’s thingamabob, analytical approaches hit a wall when it comes to adapting the same into more technical, drier formats. How a game feels is cursed to lend itself better to demonstration than description.
This was the tact of Jan Willem Nijman of Vlambeer when asked to deliver a talk on ‘game-feel’ (a word he hates, too, and so substituted in ‘screenshake’). In his illustration, Nijman started with the bones of an action game and added decorative elements until it felt sufficiently bombastic—bigger bullets, deeper sound effects, camera recoil—some of which, but not all, invigorated the basic original mechanical aspects by tweaking them to reflect his aesthetic. Despite how Vlambeer is famous for games that are pleasing to play on a base level, Nijman admits he has difficulty articulating what makes a game feel appealing and instead works on intuition.
Fun fact: my own experience of Vlambeer’s shoot-em-up Luftrausers is as follows. First I gorged, and then it repulsed me. I walked away hollow despite the inarguable swish-ness of flying its war-machines. I thought, and I still think, it loved nothing more than the smooth sensation in the instant of play and its vapidity filled me with an emptiness lasting long after that time had passed. Unlike Roguelight something about it just didn’t stick—they’re not the same type of game, I know, but lookit, if the feel of a game is all it takes to make it pleasant, rausing above the lufts shouldn’t now revolt me.
Linssen’s back-catalogue shows he’s an ear for twists on an old formula. Birdsong is a metroidvania-style dungeon-crawler of exploration and backtracking, but sidesteps the need for level memorization by sticking a fisheye lens on the camera to allow the whole map to be shown at all times. It takes a minute but once the concept clicks and you learn how to interpret and benefit from the perspective, it’s a weird and wonderful feeling.
Elsewhere, The Sun and Moon is a traditional platformer—jump; collect the good things; avoid the bad things—whose gimmick is in turning the negative space of terrain into positive space through which players can swim. Javel-ein is an action-platformer restricting you to only one weapon, a javelin to be recovered each time after lobbing it away. Haemo has you painting out the borders of the level by bleeding on them. It’s needlessly frustrating, not one of his strongest games.
For most of the bunch it’s the combination of his little novelties together with the veneer of polish you get from feeling swish to play. His characters move just right, when you press whatever button they flow nicely to where you want them to be. The Sun and Moon is good for this, since moving through terrain feels substantially different to moving through thin air. Each puzzle gives you a twinkle of mastery as you gradually learn to think of it in terms of gravity and buoyancy rather than positive and negative spaces.
And this is why Roguelight is so compelling, why most of Linssen’s games are really enjoyable and clever even for me, who finds jumping to be one of the more stressful modes of videogame transport. Like Vlambeer he taps into some of the more generic types of videogames and morphs their basic mechanics into something enjoyable to play on a surface level. But unlike Vlambeer he carries in his aesthetic the ambition to toy with conventional forms, so welcomes the feel of a game as one of its dramatic components. Lightness and darkness in Roguelight becomes its central tenet rather just a condition of spelunking, distinguishing light and dark as tolerances and affordances. Although we may become blind we’re not necessarily powerless.