When I returned from a brief and console-free trip home this Sunday, the first thing I did was download the full version of Pixeljunk Eden. (I had to run yet another firmware update just to get into the store. The PS3 has too much computer in it and not enough console) I am glad for the brave new world of online distribution, where it is possible to obtain games like this for 10 bucks without leaving the house. I haven't invested a lot of time in it yet (there are some non-videogame related duties to be discharged here at the house of Clu), I've had the game on my mind ever since I started playing the demo last week.
A while back Michael Abbot discussed how modern video games have begun to widen their expressive range; when they were tethered to the arcade there was an imperative for a video game to challenge the player as much as possible for the shortest amount of time. A life at the arcade was likely nasty, brutish, and short unless you were very good at the game. With the transition to home consoles and the PC long ago, games broke with the design imperatives of the arcade; this led to the creation longer and less death-intensive experiences in the long-form narrative genres like adventure and RPG games.
But what we are seeing recently, it seems to me, is the flowering of a new design aesthetic within the short-form arcade game. Pixeljunk Eden retains the simple and easy-to-master mechanics of an arcade game, along with the short-form play length-- you can learn the game's mechanics and play a level in five minutes. But in lieu of mercilessly barraging the player with difficult obstacles in that time, Eden allows the player some air to breathe. It brings some leisureliness to leisure. Traversing the platform-style gardens is a matter of making a series of long, swooping leaps from plant to plant as you swing from the end of a line of silk. Rarely had a video game felt graceful to play. Rarely have I felt that excelling at the game is a matter of making just a few, carefully plotted actions rather than many quickly plotted actions, but Eden's gameplay has this very feel to it. Because pollen-collection is the basic goal in the game, sometimes your best course of action is just to hang on the end of a branch and wait for the wind to blow the pollen your way. The gameplay itself conveys a sense of tranquility; although you always feel like you know how to progress you seldom feel a sense of pressure.
The game's visual and audio aesthetics represent a skillful fusion of form to this content. Through the art style and music, the game reinforces the sense of calm created through the play mechanics. It is as if the game's art staff thought: “what does it feel like to play this game?”, and then sought to reproduce this feeling in visual and aural terms. The monochromatic color scheme, which favors bright blues and greens, gives the screen an uncluttered look, and the music has a loose, unstructured quality which suits repetition.
While the individual gameplay and artistic elements of the game are clearly borrowed from other games-- Rez, Everyday Shooter, Bionic Commando-- the sum of these elements and their implementation is really novel. They reflect an attempt on the part of the designers to do something different to the player. Games have been very good at creating certain experiences-- fear, empowerment, amusement-- but they have rarely sought to inspire the sort of peacefulness that Eden does, and I think this in itself is an achievement.
The emergence of the downloadable space in this console generation has been a real blessing for the console gamer who wants to see new and innovative efforts of this kind. (I know there are things on the PC that would blow my fragile mind, but I just can't seem to get into playing games on the object I use to check email recently.) Sometimes you saw a real standout like Katamari Damacy, but the economics of retail distribution just don't seem to favor unusual short-form games like Eden. I'm hoping that this space might become a safe-haven for games of this kind with offbeat and artsy ambitions for the medium. I would never have thought that the game I have been anticipating the most for a long time is coming to Xbox live arcade this Wednesday.