Thursday, 8 September 2016

On Games 2: Hue (spoilers)

"We can't control what happens to us, but we can control how we see it."

It's an important piece of advice, and I've heard it in a variety of forms over the years from relatives, therapists, and the media. Earlier this week, I heard it in a video game that seemed both totally designed around the sentiment and unable to do it justice.

Full disclosure: what I know about this game, I know from watching a Twitch livestream by Paul Saunders of LoadingReadyRun. My opinions are my own, with influence from Paul's reaction to the game.

Hue is a Cute Damselly 2D Puzzle Platformer with a Gimmick. (Yes, that's a genre now. It includes games like Braid and Shovel Knight.) As Hue, a little boy searching for his missing mother, you control the game's background color using a magic ring your mother invented. Objects become invisible and insubstantial when their color matches the background, allowing you to move through barriers, turn off lasers, and do some creative platforming by jumping through invisible blocks and then materializing them under you. The beginning of the game is well-paced and does a good job of teaching its mechanics, and the letters from Hue’s mother found between levels told an intriguing story of a woman in love with her research, and incidentally with her research supervisor.

But Hue does not live up to its promise. As the letters become more exciting, the gameplay slows down. Hue gains access to one color at a time out of a total of eight. The puzzles are engaging at up to four colors, at which point I added the game to my Steam wishlist, but with more than four colors the puzzles become tedious and unnecessarily punishing. When Paul picked up color seven, I took the game off my wishlist. In the end, all those colors just get confusing, especially since some pairs are difficult to distinguish in a hurry. A colorblind mode adds symbols to the blocks, and that seems helpful up to a point, even for players who can see color.

The end of the story isn't much better. Hue’s mother's letters describe the joys of seeing in color, but the color-based mechanics, as Paul pointed out during the livestream, bring us only deadly lasers, Thwomplike falling skulls, and conveyer belts that push us into bottomless pits. Where did the joy go? A letter from the mysterious Dr. Gray, who is probably Hue’s father, suggests that Hue’s mother has probed the mysteries of color to a frightening degree, but when we find her, nothing scary has happened; she just seems, as Paul put it, to be working late and we've only come to tell her it's time to go home for dinner. The emotional payoff just isn't there. I wasn't even relieved that she was all right. And I have even more questions. Like who was the hooded figure who watched you finish each level? And why does the game’s splash screen look like it's from a cartoon with an ensemble cast, when Hue is alone for basically the whole game? And what's going on with the dream sequence in the final cutscene? Maybe if Paul had taken the time to find all twenty-eight of the hidden collectibles that seemed completely unrelated to the story, we would know. No offense to Paul; I doubt I'd've had the patience to find them all either.

"We can't control what happens to us, but we can control how we see it." I'm sorry, but I'm having trouble seeing this game as a satisfying experience.

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