patchwork doll

Rock Bottom Celebrates Life over Death

by Jed Pressgrove

It would be oversimplification to say Rock Bottom makes death in platforming less of a drag. The game does reject the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” cliche, but only to establish its initial platforming concept. To advance to the next level in Rock Bottom, you have to jump higher. To jump higher, you have to find ways to fall to your death. Missing the lowest piece of ground represents the new platforming failure. But unlike a lot of games, Rock Bottom is ultimately about something more profound than the dynamics of video game death.

Other games like Planescape: Torment and The Useful Dead have tried to make death a part of success, but Rock Bottom surpasses these efforts. It’s still generally preferable to avoid death in Planescape: Torment, and unlike The Useful Dead, Rock Bottom doesn’t feel like a gimmick or a proof of concept. The game also doesn’t present itself as a take on another puzzler or punisher. Rock Bottom aims to be a satisfying, unique experience.

Rock Bottom is clearly the work of a sophisticated artist, not a charlatan exploiting the cynical disposition of contemporary culture (see Ground Zeroes). So many gamers and critics think “subversive” design is enough to call something “genius” — that’s why Rockstar can keep insulting the United States and making fools of everyone with Grand Theft Auto, a series that challenges everything but its own flimsy concepts. Rock Bottom isn’t lazy like that; after establishing its atypical death mechanic, it subverts its own main idea. The game’s platforming reaches a new level of articulation: avoiding death to die at the right time. This is how cliches become poetic again.

Developer Patchwork Doll (led by Amy Dentata) has created a platforming masterpiece that some (perhaps even the developer) might not consider a full-fledged game yet. Although Rock Bottom could be expanded with more levels and another gameplay wrinkle, the current version is a rare triumph in gaming. The ending of Rock Bottom is just as satisfying as the journey, if not more so. Like the conclusion of Grand Titons and the entire Castles in the Sky, Rock Bottom emphasizes the freedom of jumping. It’s a simple but elegant reminder that life is meant to be enjoyed despite struggle.