Friday, March 26, 2010

The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom, An Odd Piece of Pie

Last month, Leigh Alexander updated her blog with a brief riff on the current trend of difficulty in indie games.  Speaking with developer and author Ian Bogost prior to the Independent Games Festival, she asked him for his thoughts on the indie scene.  She writes, “His answer was, ‘You mean the puzzle platformer scene? It's awesome, isn't it?’” 

It may sound reductive at first, but Bogost is not spouting falsehoods.  One of the most well-known independent releases was Jonathon Blow’s Braid, a game that is nothing if not a puzzle platformer.  And a pretty damn difficult one, at times.  But that difficulty can be incredibly rewarding.  Discussing the value of brevity in game design, Andrew wrote:

“I could only wrap my mind around four or five of Braid’s puzzles in one sitting – playing much longer, I just couldn’t think the way the game wanted me to think. It’s a game that rewards patience and thoughtfulness in a way that Mario never has – rather than quick, precise button presses, Braid demands creative thinking and problem-solving skills.”

And those processes of creative thinking and problem solving are integral to the game’s albeit indirect narrative about a man learning from his mistakes.  A man attempting to bend time to fit his version of the story, only to find out that he’s been mistaken all along.  In Braid’s case, difficulty is required to make the overcoming of the obstacles that much more rewarding.  And without pointless repetition, the puzzles retain unique flavors, imparting their own gifts at their own pace.

So far I’ve been discussing Braid exclusively, but it’s about time I opened things up to include the newest time-bending indie platformer on the block: The Odd Gentlemen’s The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom.

You see, Winterbottom is also a game that requires creative problem solving.  It, too, is a puzzle platformer.  There’s even a central character who bends time to accomplish his goals, only to realize his misdeeds after it’s too late.  Fortunately for both Braid and Winterbottom, the similarities stop there.

Whereas Braid and other games centered on time mechanics (PoP: The Sands of Time, for one) often include the rewinding or fast-forwarding of time, Winterbottom deals exclusively with the creation and manipulation of clones.  Blurst’s Time Donkey, the Clank levels of the most recent Ratchet & Clank, and the browser title Chronotron all come to mind.  Spawn a clone or two, navigate their level with their help, achieve your objective.  In P.B.’s case, the objective is pie.

I can’t boil it down any further than that.  The dude loves pie.  I can’t confirm if this is actually the case, but P.B. may just as well stand for “Pie Burglar.”  The guy lets a town nearly burn to the ground because he’s too busy stealing pies.  I have to say I admire the dedication to his craft.

Everything goes awry one day when P.B. gets a taste of a crazy time pie, which sends him through some kind of wormhole into a world where he can create clones of himself.  It’s crazy, I know.  But it’s all lovingly rendered in a black-and-white silent movie style, replete with humorous title cards and kickass music.  Whenever you create a P.B. clone, the sound of film passing through an old reel-to-reel projector plays.  Sets of levels are grouped into “movies,” complete with their own charming posters depicting one of P.B.’s various misadventures.  Levels are cleared by collecting all of the pies in each scene of the movie.  The film motif culminates in the final world: a behind-the-scenes look at all of the mischief P.B.’s caused on his hunt for the magic time pie.  The fact that said magical pie looks like it has a face posed to perpetually taunt the pastry thief seals the deal. Wisely, Winterbottom innovates with each movie.  At the beginning, clones do your bidding perfectly.  Then you must collect pies in numerical order.  Then the pies can only be snatched within a certain window of time.  Then your clones start disappearing when a timer runs out.  It gets crazy.  To further discuss clone mechanics would ruin some of the game’s more delicious surprises, but be prepared to hit a few logical walls as you acclimate yourself to each new mechanic.  I often felt overwhelmed by the introduction of a new gameplay wrinkle, but I grew to believe it was more awe at the ingenuity than an actual inability to comprehend.

Were I to nitpick upon compulsion, I’d point to the discrepancy between levels with open-ended solutions and those with single-track solutions.  Each puzzle imposes its own constraints – whether it be a clone time limit, the number of clones, or something to do with pie collection – and successfully improvising within said constraints conjured a specific type of joy in my heart (and taxed brain).  Some levels, however, did not allow for a lot of leeway.  There was a right way and about a billion wrongs ways.  Guess which were easier to find.  I’ll confess to checking YouTube walkthroughs on two of the fifty story levels, simply to confirm that what I was attempting was correct – I was just bad at the execution.  Puzzlers often succumb to the “Guess what the developer wants here” problem, and Winterbottom’s at its best when it eschews that pitfall by affording the player options.

Pie-burgling aside, I’d be remiss if I neglected to comment on Winterbottom’s superb opening sequence.  Watch the video below, paying careful attention to how the world changes beneath P.B.’s feet.

A different type of time-bending is at play here.  Even though the player’s platforming remains unbroken, the environment constantly shifts, creating the sense that P.B.’s embarked on a substantial journey to track down this pie.  He’s dashed out of his house, run along rainy rooftops, jumped off a cliff, and clambered up steps to a magical clock.  It’s a montage, one of the oldest techniques in film, rendered in fluid gameplay.  I’d say I want more people doing this, but then I’d know they were just copying Winterbottom.  It has to start somewhere, I suppose.

On paper, Winterbottom sounds simply like the next logical step in difficult, time-traveling indie platformers.  But the whimsical presentation and fresh mechanics set it apart from the pack.  It’s not subverting genre conventions as a means to deliver narrative (Braid’s got that covered).  It’s taking you on the strange journey of a burglar with one hell of a sweet-tooth.  It’s silly.  It’s brain-teasing.  Plus, there’s pie.

You can pick up The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom on Xbox Live for 800 Microsoft Points – that’s $10 for those of us in the real world.