The most satisfying waters to be explored in the new ocean of downloadable entertainment made possible by current generation consoles are those that are home to artsy and innovative games which previously had no platform for successful promotion.
I'm talking about titles like Braid for Xbox 360, a bedeviling meditation on love and loss; the PlayStation 3's Flower , which explores the dreams of blossoms and offers a subtle environmental commentary; and the Wii's World of Goo , a unique, physics-based puzzler with an anti-consumerist vibe.
You can add to that list Lucidity, a new game from LucasArts released last week through Xbox Live Arcade (and Steam for Windows).
This hauntingly beautiful game is essentially an interactive storybook. It has a striking collage-like art design not entirely dissimilar to the style of children's book artist Eric Carle (of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? fame) and a playful score in which meandering piano melodies, tinkling chimes, and the drawn out vibrations of stringed instruments are underscored by a ticking metrinome seemingly meant to remind players that, despite their sublime surroundings, time is always creeping on.
The narrative begins with a cute little girl named Sofi who is visiting her nana's house and reading her favourite stories. She soon falls asleep and begins to dream that she's adventuring through these stories, collecting fireflies along the way. Unfortunately for her, the dreams slowly become darker, scarier, and more perilous.
Each of the game's 40-plus levels begins with Sofi penning a note to her grandmother that expresses her wonderment, her fears, and, in some cases, her sadness. Her nana responds at the end of these levels with a postcard that offers the sort of comfort and advice that only comes from a life long lived. Bits of grandmotherly wisdom include: "Dust bunnies are just like problems, the longer you ignore them the bigger they get," and "You can't outrun everything. Think about the tick-tick of an old clock. Even after it slows and stops, time keeps moving forward."
It's a beautiful, intelligent, and slightly melancholy story sure to be appreciated by mature children and young-hearted adults alike.
Where do we fit in? It turns out we are entrusted with keeping little Sofi safe in her waking dreams, though we haven't any control over her. She slowly but reliably skips forward, looking at the fantastical scenery surrounding her. Our task is to make sure that she doesn't run into any obstacles, such as briar patches and forest animals that grow more monsterish as the game progresses. We do this by placing items like stairs, bridges, and springboards in her path.
Here, unfortunately, is the game's single-and somewhat significant-snag.
Players are fed these navigational aids randomly, which means there are times when what we're given is of virtually no use. We can store one item for later use (rather like storing a tetramino in Tetris), but that doesn't do much good when we're faced with a steep wall and given a stream of items including bridges and slingshots designed to move Sofi forward horizontally rather than vertically.
Eventually, the game begins to feel more a matter of luck than skill, which is always frustrating. Thankfully, the levels are short enough-no more than a few minutes each-that starting over from scratch whenever Sofi's dream come to a crashing halt isn't a deal-breaking issue.
Still, it's an unnecessary blemish on an otherwise magical experience.
Lucididty's gorgeous aesthetic and philosophical nature guarantees it a place among the artsy, innovative elite in downloadable gaming, but it simply doesn't deliver the sort of satisfying playing experience offered by some of the titles with which it shares company.
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