Month: February 2018

Topsoil Review — The Order of Disorder

by Jed Pressgrove

In Nico Prins’ Topsoil, you play as a farmer with only 16 tiles of soil at your disposal. Each tile can accommodate one type of plant, and for the best score, you must keep the same kind of plants next to each other. As in so many puzzlers (from Tetris to Dr. Mario), the goal is to avoid disorganization, which inevitably leads to a cluttered screen and failure. What separates Topsoil from its predecessors is an underlying sense of peace that typifies the pleasure of interacting with the natural world. This serenity flows through the entire game despite being juxtaposed against the randomness of nature that spoils one’s best-laid plans.

Topsoil is a game of turns. During each turn, you must set in place three randomly generated plants, then you must harvest crops. Harvesting is how you score points. Plants of the same type can be removed with a single harvest, provided that the plants sit either above, below, or to the side of each other. The more plants you harvest in one turn, the more points you score. Certain plants are worth more points, but such plants take multiple turns to grow and can only be harvested when fully grown. Thus, they take up precious real estate as you attempt to keep the garden tidy and organized. But if you plan carefully and get lucky, you can achieve a series of successful harvests, and when you pull up a bush or tree or flower that has a bird on it, you not only receive extra points but also get to hear chirping and wings flapping — signs of simple life that beg to be appreciated in a game without a soundtrack.

Every satisfying harvest comes with a price, though. Each time you remove crops, the color of the soil changes. Evoking terms like the “circle of life,” blue soil turns into yellow soil, yellow into green, green into blue. So in addition to trying to position similar plants by each other, you must think about how harvesting can affect the probability of your survival as a successful farmer, as you cannot harvest, say, three adjacent pine trees if they are on differently colored soil. Because each turn requires you to set in place three randomized plants, your game is over if you only have one or two empty tiles left at the beginning of a new turn.

The cycle of Topsoil becomes more unforgiving as you advance, mimicking how the real world becomes more complicated as you get older and how nature has plenty of tricks up its sleeve (as sports analysts often say, “Father Time is undefeated”). At first, you only have to organize three types of plants, which means you can more easily cover up mistakes. The 16-tile board is made up of four columns and four rows, so at the beginning of the game, it’s mathematically impossible to have a four-tile row made up of four different species. After a few turns, however, the game gradually introduces new plants, forcing you to think of how placing a single plant may prevent you from aligning a group of uniform crops on like-colored soil.

Topsoil can seem especially unfair when it randomly gives you a disproportionate amount of plants that take multiple turns to grow. How can you plan when tiles upon tiles are unusable as seeds take their predetermined number of turns to transform into something that can be harvested? Still, Topsoil is never frustrating, thanks to the lack of a time limit, the lack of music that ramps up when you get close to failure, and the delightful “plop” and “tick” sounds that accompany even the paltriest of harvests. Topsoil is a mature puzzler where incoming failure mirrors my dad’s cold but comfortable refrain, “Everyone’s gotta die.” You can start to see the end in Topsoil well before it happens and at your own pace — disappointment tempered by calm knowledge and soothed by the order of the natural world.


Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy Review — The Indie Ego Saga Continues

by Jed Pressgrove

Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy comes from that type of game developer who desperately needs you to think he’s smart and aware.

The game takes a classic challenge (climbing a mountain), makes it ironically difficult (you play as a guy in a pot who can only use a hammer to swing and push himself to new platforms), and taunts players with patronizing songs like “Poor Me Blues” and “Whoops a Doodle” when they lose progress.

Foddy himself speaks to you along the way. He opens with some talk about the “intensity” of starting over, such as having to redo one’s homework after accidentally deleting it, to prepare you for the ordeal he has created. “Feel free to go away and come back. I’ll be here,” Foddy says.

In terms of mechanics, the developer takes his inspiration from a Jazzuo game called Sexy Hiking, and he points out that some players never get past Sexy Hiking’s first obstacle, a dead tree. He then shares this view:

“There’s a sense of truth in that lack of compromise. Most obstacles in videogames are fake — you can be completely confident in your ability to get through them, once you have the correct method or the correct equipment, or just by spending enough time. In that sense, every pixelated obstacle in Sexy Hiking is real. The obstacles in Sexy Hiking are unyielding, and that makes the game uniquely frustrating. But I’m not sure Jazzuo intended to make a frustrating game — the frustration is just essential to the act of climbing and it’s authentic to the process of building a game about climbing.”

Here, Foddy pretends that he and Jazzuo know something intimate about climbing. It seems Foddy has never known the pleasure of, say, climbing a tree as a child, which can be challenging without being frustrating. The frustration of these games is that they transform climbing into something that is strange at best and idiotic at worst.

Who knows whether Foddy’s observations are sincere, but they’re certainly annoying in their oversimplifications. In another bit, he philosophizes about “trash culture,” i.e., the idea that the Internet churns out material that we’re ready to throw away within seconds, all so we can go on to the next trivial bit of content. This culture welcomes “friendly” games, but Foddy points out that games were once more demanding. “Players played stoically,” he says, “Now everyone’s turned off by that.”

With that quote, Foddy romanticizes the past and denies part of the present. Has he ever watched the Angry Video Game Nerd, a satirical YouTube sensation that represents the rage of many youngsters who threw their controllers during the 1980s and 1990s? And has he seen the influence of Dark Souls in modern gaming?

Foddy’s lack of historical credibility recalls Davey Wreden’s insufferable commentary in 2015’s The Beginner’s Guide. Wreden, Foddy, and others (like David OReilly and Toby Fox) represent a wave of smart-assed artists whose contempt for the status quo leads them to create games that would be better off as show-and-tell projects in game-design class. If there’s anything the indie gaming world needs to get over, it’s these guys.