Babel (2010 game review)…

Babel (2010 game review) after the break…

Babel (2010 game review)…

The history of drawn images and computer gaming share an unlikely parallel: Each started out as crude 2-dimensional depictions of reality. Ancient Egyptian artists were apt to always display the two arms and legs of humans, even when the resulting pose was uncomfortably realistic. Early computer games were also less then gracious with their graphics, with flat pixel squares representing everything from dragons to knights. Even when pixels became small and plentiful enough, computer characters were hardly adept at being displayed in 2.5 dimensions. It wasn’t until holograms and polygons appeared in their respective industries that the third dimension could honestly be conquered.

For the computer gaming industry, though, an entire gaming genre called “side scrolling shooters” and “top-down shooters” would emerge while hardware inventions and software prowess had yet to make our 3D first person shooters practical. These side scrolling shooters, such as “Jumpman!” and “Super Mario Bros.,” existed in an impractical world where two dimensions reigned supreme but depth was forbidden: The world existed on a balance beam with no chance to fall off from either side.

Marrying a third dimension onto a traditional two-dimensional gaming genre should have been an epiphany that even game designing neophytes could imagine. Game designers did seize upon the opportunity of a third dimension for side scrollers: Characters and levels quickly became polygon-laden. A genre called “Third-person shooters” also emerged, popular with the console gaming crowd as a heir apparent to the traditional side scrollers. Both of these types of games, though, failed to be a true successor to side scrollers: Replacing sprites with polygon equivalents in side scrollers didn’t solve the “depth” deficiency in side scrollers, it just made them prettier and third-person shooters, for all intents and purposes, were not side-scrollers anymore but merely first-person shooters with a different camera angle.

Yet it wasn’t until a preview of a game called “Fez” by Polytron Corporation where the third dimension was both introduced both as a realistic element as well as a crucial game play element. In “Fez,” the player is still constrained to a 2-dimension game field but with a twist: The world is actually three dimensions, with a rotation of the world yielding a significantly different two-dimensional game field as a result of how the three-dimensional world is created. It’s a little hard to explain in text, so here’s an example: Look directly at a rectangular box, making sure you see one side of that box and one side only. Then, rotate the box to another side. It’s sort of like the movie making technique of “forced perspective,” where objects far away are made purposely larger or smaller so that, at a certain camera angle, they can be viewed with objects in the foreground to create optical illusions.

“Fez,” though, has had a very long development cycle for what seemed to be a fairly simple gimmick game. As the development cycle has grown longer, the revelation became known that the game was no longer going to be available on PC computers but only on consoles, much to the consternation of gaming enthusiasts. As of this writing, “Fez” is will be released sometime in 2011 and still only on consoles.

To fill the now vacant void in PC gaming, a person by the name of Georg Rottensteiner has made a “Fez” clone but without the “Fez” intellectual property. The game, called “Babel,” uses the exact same game mechanic – Rotating a three-dimensional world while playing strictly in a two-dimensional one.  Since the game was made quickly for a game-creating contest, the plot is rather threadbare – Get from point A to point B so you can advance to the next level. Your player needs to collect diamonds to activate a teleporter to the next level. More advanced levels require you to carry keys that unlock doors. Enemies are limited to slow-moving slugs and a stationary eye-ball.

I must admit that the game play is captivating; The degree of novelty hasn’t been felt since I first played genre-changers like “Wolfenstein 3D,” “Ultima Underworld,” “Doom,” “Quake,” “Descent,” or “Narbacular Drop” (later remade into it’s more famous version, called “Portal”).

The game designer wisely has decided to give you as many lives as you need to finish a level; Besides the beginning tutorial levels, some levels will need multiple attempts before completion. There is a nasty shortcoming to the unlimited lives, though – There is no save game feature so you best be prepared to have some spare time on your hands.

As the game is more tech demo then a polished commercial product, some deficiencies can be forgiven. The textures on the “blocks” that create the 3D world are needlessly retro and the color choices are poor considering the colors used for the player character (Ex. blue pants hide wonderfully against blue blocks). With only a few “actual” levels beyond the introductory ones, the game is also wickedly short. Even the introductory levels may need some fine-tuning as some are more clear then others and the eyeball villain is strangely absent from the “actual” levels. With no level editor forthcoming, longevity is limited to someone’s particular intrigue in this new game play concept.

Yet this is a compelling game with absolutely wonderful potential. The raw elements of a full-fledged game is here: Inventory that can be manipulated, people that may be talked to (In this game, they are synonymous with signs), enemies to avoid and a brutally simple concept that is also brutally hard to master.

It is said that, in show business, you should always leave them wanting more. “Babel” leaves you wanting a lot more but in a good way; If the designer is generous enough, he’ll actually deliver on it. “Babel” should heed the lesson of “Fez,” though – Wait too long and someone will simply take your place. That’s another unlikely parallel between drawn images and computer gaming.


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