January 18, 2014

Review: Anodyne

Anodyne is like a dream: a swirling miasma of surreal images and feelings, at once foreign and familiar. One's sense of reality vs fiction blurs, and although the events that take place are disjointed and nonsensical they nonetheless can provoke an emotional response.

Unfortunately, completing Anodyne is much like waking from that dream. One might reflect bemusedly on the abstract narrative which just took place, but doing so only underscores how fleeting and trivial it all was. Of course, there are those who desperately grasp at a flickering image or ominous phrase in a vain attempt to wrest some profound symbolism from the experience. Ultimately, though, it was merely a silly spark of imagination. It was fun, but there's not much to talk about when it's over.

Let's set aside the meta-game analysis for now, though, and get to the basics. Anodyne is an indie adventure title by the talented two-man team of Sean Hogan and Jonathan Kittaka, with strong emphasis on puzzle-solving and exploration. Many compare the game to Zelda, specifically Link's Awakening, and rightly so: it has a very similar feel, and reaches for the same goals. Play is centered on expanding your map, combing areas for hidden secrets, clearing monster-filled dungeons, and using your head to overcome obstacles. There's even a Link wannabe NPC in a green cap, hacking at a bush gleefully with his sword in the hopes of finding money. Of course, you don't get to fight with a sword -- your weapon in this game is a simple broom, infusing every moment of combat with self-effacing modesty.

There's also a potent twist of Earthbound present, as Anodyne has a quirky, self-aware and subversive sense of humour. Interacting with the game's cast is sure to be met with off-kilter non sequiturs and funny monologues for their own sake. At times it feels like Anodyne is trying too hard to churn out the jokes and referential gamer humour, but for the most part it's delightfully whimsical.

The wonderful sprite art is made to resemble something that might have appeared on the Super Nintendo or Gameboy Advance, with bold colours and squat figures who aren't afraid to show off their chunky pixels with pride. Areas are presented one screen at a time, scrolling over to the next scene when you walk to the edge of your field of view (another nod to a classic Zelda format).

Unlike Zelda, though, Anodyne seeks to do more with less. It's a roughly 6 or 7 hour game, so it doesn't have time to drip-feed you an arsenal of magical tools and weaponry. Combat and puzzle-solving are accomplished through maximizing tight economy of two different broom upgrades and a jump ability. You can also pick up and put down clumps of dust with your broom, which can be used as makeshift rafts on bodies of water, or to block some enemy projectiles. Having been trained by Zelda to always expect another item or power from each dungeon, I was honestly a little let down that such discoveries were never forthcoming. Still, if you can get that unfair expectation out of your mind, there is a lot to appreciate in the physical puzzles and challenges this game offers, using what assets it affords you. The dungeon environments really are quite crafty, and satisfying to master.

Don't expect an entirely happy-go-lucky picnic in a fantasy land, though. Anodyne  gets unsettling -- downright nightmarish -- at times. The veneer of cute, retro nostalgia only serves to feign innocence before things get dark. At one point, you'll walk along a sandy beach and approach a fisherman sitting on a dock. You shove him into the waters and dive into the swirling portal of crimson his death left behind, to find yourself in a hellish, blood-red maze of brambles and faceless behemoths. The dungeon in this area is guarded by a self-loathing race of ancient, octopus-like demons who describe their reluctant existence as "born from pain to die in pain."

Some dungeons have rooms full of wandering, mindless humans who say nothing and can't be interacted with at all, save for shoving them out of your way. Another area is a suburb rendered in a grainy grayscale, haunted by shadowy ghosts and populated by oblivious townspeople who won't talk to you until you stab them to death first.

The contrast in imagery fosters a growing mistrust in the protagonist, as if the version of reality being presented in the game is becoming increasingly inaccurate. It has much in common with Silent Hill at times, with objective reality periodically giving way to an alternate realm of horrors which other characters seem not to bear witness to. As cute and quaint and peppered with goofy jokes as Anodyne is, it's also a disturbing, isolated journey. Even the most friendly and helpful of personalities are essentially static cut-outs, aware only of their own little worlds, leaving you to face existential monstrosities on your own time.

Sean Hogan's soundtrack also contributes to the atmosphere very effectively, eschewing the bombastic, "video gamey" melodies one might expect from an old-school action RPG in favour of downplayed, ambient pieces. It really is in service to the game's mood, making peaceful moments gentler and more beautiful, and hostile environments that much creepier.

As fun as the game is, it lacks cohesion, in both story and a sense of direction for the player. You guide silent protagonist Young, who is instructed by a hooded figure called Sage to go protect the land from evil. This quest is never really clarified, so you just sort of go out and do things, fight monsters, and explore where you can. Soon enough, you begin to amass a collection of cards featuring the game's cast, and encounter gates which block off areas of the map and won't open until you've attained a requisite number of cards. As you clear areas, you find warp pads which link back to a network of portals in a central hub area.

Most of the roadblocks are easy enough to open, with cards naturally coming to you at an appropriate rate. However, what you may not realize until it's too late, is that in order to enter the final area and complete the game you must find every single card available. To me, that seems pretty fussy, and rather demanding of a game that completely fails to make any sense, let alone be bothered to provide me with a motive for my quest. Even after doing the necessary backtracking and finally beating the game, the story still never comes together. Why do you fight monsters and collect cards? Apparently, because they're there.

I wasn't going to say it, but if the shoe fits...
Anodyne's plot, if it has one, is too impenetrable for its own good. Each chapter remains self-contained and frustratingly abstract. Certain lines might stick out as portentous foreshadowing or poignant insight in the heat of the moment, but nothing ever comes of it. Whether it represents a symbolic journey through Young's subconscious, or just a hodge-podge of silly stuff sewn together as a masturbatory experiment, the resulting narrative feels like it's written as a self-reflexive exercise for the creators' own amusement. In this respect, it reminds me a lot of Braid -- a game to enjoy for the puzzles and mechanics, but if you are waiting for all the loose threads and deep-sounding monologues to actually add up to something in the end, you'll be in for a disappointment. It's trying way too hard to wear the "cerebral, indie art game" hat, but not trying nearly hard enough to paste together a coherent plot. I challenge anyone to explain who the final boss of this game actually is, without resorting to speculative hypotheses woven entirely from wholecloth.

It's a shame that the story issues hold this game back from being something great, as the rest of the package is really impressive. The visuals and sound are done expertly, the exploratory elements and dungeon sequences are fun to solve, and the writing is genuinely punchy. There's enough in the moment-to-moment action to keep the player motivated, but once you reach the end, don't bother to look back and trace how you got there. Even the most basic questions -- Who is Young? Who is Sage? Why am I doing any of this? -- goes completely unanswered. It's like trying to complete a connect-the-dots picture, but the dots aren't numbered, many dots are missing, and you have to add several dots yourself.

Do I want to see more from the people who made Anodyne? Absolutely. They've proven they can produce a quality game with clever level design and addicting mechanics. Am I glad I bought the game? Yes. It was $10 on Steam, and I did have a great 6 or 7 hours of fun. Would I recommend this game to others? Yes, but to a very specific set of gamers. If you enjoy retro graphics and gameplay in the style of Zelda, this game is for you. Just don't try to read too much into the words of the game's verbose NPCs, though -- none of it actually refers to anything. Just treat it as you would a dream: an amusing puff of imagination, but not something that warrants revisiting or deeper analysis.

Anodyne Review - Living Myth


  1. I played this game and have to completely disagree with your review. Yes, there was no explicit "reveal" about the plot, and there is a lot of abstract imagery and dialogue that are never spelled out in concrete terms inside the game. But if the devs had included something like that, it would have ruined the game entirely.

    Imagine that you are taking a modernist literature class or visiting an art museum. You read a book that's odd and doesn't make a lot of conventional sense, or you see an abstract painting that looks interesting but doesn't have conventional representations of things like people or objects or scenery. If I were to take the approach you took in reviewing Anodyne, I would have to say the book or the painting were interesting but ultimately nonsense because the author or artist didn't hand me the meaning within the work. There was no chapter at the end of the book "explaining" all the metaphors and themes and there is no plaque next to the painting "explaining" the meaning behind it's abstract imagery. This would be patently absurd; the effectiveness of abstraction in literature and visual art is that it doesn't spoon-feed you its meaning - the point is interpretation and the mapping of personal significance onto a work. If the artist or author simply *gave* you the meaning, the live connection between the viewer and the work would be killed - it would just be a static statement that you take no part in. Pardon me, but this kind of rote realism has been done to death, especially in games. It's time to accept abstraction in games the way it is accepted and indeed celebrated in other art forms. To deny it would be to deny that games can aspire to art, and to do this would be to remain an immature child in the face of a genre advancing into its own.

    Honestly, your assertion that "none of it actually refers to anything" is ridiculous. Just because you refuse to (gasp) interpret a work like it deserves doesn't mean that it's devoid of meaning. A respectable review would interpret the themes therein and then bring that interpretation under criticism. Instead, you just vapidly assume that there is no meaning because it wasn't spelled out in the game. Go and study literature or art and you'll realize that any critic who used this method would be laughed out of the room. The work deserves more, and game criticism deserves more.

    1. Actually, the art world has had its share of debate regarding pretentiousness and inaccessibility. And a lot of Modernist art was created to express very specific values and emotions. Modern art movements would release "manifestos" that dictated what the best and most cutting-edge art was "supposed" to do.

      But, that's a bit beside the point. The fact is, what we have here is a plot with events that don't connect with each other in any rational way -- at least, not when taken literally. So, we either have to accept this about the game, or find some other way of determining their meaning. Some players have opted to construct their own potential narrative around what little information is given, effectively writing the story themselves. That's valid, as long the interpretation doesn't contradict the actual content of the game. But, I feel that it's asking a lot of the player to put this kind of effort into salvaging a story that supposedly the author couldn't be bothered with telling themselves. Sometimes it's worth putting the clues together and finding multiple possibilities, but in order for a game to ask that it has to first prove that the process will be worth it. My personal opinion is that the game has not earned that trust, which is what I find pretentious about it.

      A number of people have offered interpretations of the game, some more consistent than others. For example, some people think the big wall boss who yells at Young about still playing Nintendo is representative of his nagging mother -- which makes it rather strange that the creature wouldn't know his name, calling him things like "Ying."

      Interestingly, there's a bit of a discussion on the Steam community regarding what the game is supposed to be about. One guy suggested he thinks it's about clinical depression, to which the game's actual creator responded and shot that down:

      "no, it's not about a depressed guy....etc....epic journey - at least that is not what i had in mind.
      i've always seen anodyne as an exploration of thought processes / spaces of thought related to friendship and what we do for ourselves to maintain them and what we do for the friends to maintain them.
      i don't think it was conveyed super well though, but i'm totally fine with that by this point in time."


      So, I guess some interpretations are more "correct" than others.

      Hey, I'm open to having my mind changed. It just hasn't happened yet. In particular, I've yet to read an interpretation of "Briar" or "The Briar" -- arguably the most important figure Young encounters. Data on this character is remarkably scant, or is completely invented from scratch.

  2. This game gives me old school gaming flashbacks!