I don’t know how helpful the following words will be, but I feel the need to say them, anyway: we need to look at games as unified wholes. Not just when analyzing them, but when creating them, too. No single part of a game exists in isolation. It both affects and is affected by every other part of the game surrounding it. We can see what this means for a game by looking at one that fails to realize this: Lady Sia. On first glance, it looks like an unremarkable platformer, but that’s only because it is. Despite its relative simplicity, pieces of the game feel like they were thrown randomly together with no thought given as to how they’ll relate to one another. This results in an experience that lacks purpose, direction, or even any discernible character.
However, that feels like too simple an explanation; one that fails to explain why the game’s lack of character is so detrimental to the experience. So to get a better understanding of why this is, I can think of no better place to turn than the overarching narrative. It’s a simple story: after a feckless council of leaders refuses our titular heroine aid, she decides to take matters into her own hands and defend her homeland from the T’soa threat herself. Yet the narrative itself isn’t as important as how it relates to your actions in the game. It isn’t enough that the narrative justifies the gameplay; it also has to structure it. The difficulty curve should roughly line up with the story arc, becoming ever more challenging the closer Sia gets to reaching her goal. Or maybe the narrative can determine the mood for whatever level you’re playing through. For example, a town that’s being invaded by the T’soa should feel oppressive, like it’s resisting your efforts to free the people from this invasion.
We don’t see anything like that in Lady Sia. In fact, what we do see illustrates why the divorce between gameplay and story is so dangerous. In this world, nothing communicates anything beyond the fact of its existence. The venues you explore never develop any greater character beyond what they are. This is a city, that’s a factory, this is a port, and that’s all there is to it. You could swap the visual styles between each one without losing a thing. And the hostages, rather than having any emotional relevance to you or your quest (think Oddworld), exist only as props for you to collect, divorced from any narrative context.
Yet worse than any of that is how your actions lack a sense of purpose. Admittedly, that lack stems largely from the gameplay being unable to accommodate most of what the story says you do. Without trying to be reductive, all you ever do within the game is respond to whatever challenges the game throws at you: jump through levels, swat away at enemies, push through to the end, etc. But the narrative certainly doesn’t help, because it ascribes some great import to your actions, even when the gameplay can’t reflect that. The unfortunate side-effect of this is that instead of making you feel like the mythic hero the game wants you to be, you end up feeling more powerless than ever. What impact do you really have on the world if the narrative advances on its own terms? In addition to feeling very disempowering on its own, this state of affairs produces an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance between what the game says you’re accomplishing and what you’re actually doing.
Of course, to attribute all of Lady Sia’s problems to that tension wouldn’t do the game justice. After all, the gameplay still has to contend with the lack of identity I alluded to earlier. Part of the reason for that is because none of the tools you use to navigate the world have any character beyond their immediate function. Movement is just movement, and while both magic and swordplay offer a wide array of options in battle, those options provide no advantage over blindly swinging away at your enemy. (I mean that both in the sense that these attacks don’t do more damage, and in the sense that they’re about as engaging as your regular moves, anyway.) Not that this is a problem in and of itself. In fact, I remember Holy Umbrella finding some appeal in a monotonous routine.
However, it’s worth remembering that the reason I was able to credit Holy Umbrella for that is because the game provided just enough for me to read that out of the game. Lady Sia doesn’t have that luxury. There isn’t enough here for me to interpret the game as relaxing. Nor is the game structured in such a way that I can read anything it does as challenging. And if the developer’s intention as to create a difficult set of challenges, then the game is going to run into trouble there, too. A lot of its challenges amount to “repeat the same structure you’ve seen before, but with a minor twist from last time”, meaning the only obstacle for the player is to figure out the simple twist. This does not test the player’s skill; it only tests their patience.
In fact, the game has so little structure that I have trouble seeing what aesthetic choices, if any, are driving the game. The closest thing I could find to meaningful direction was the developer’s tendency to include features just because they thought they’d be appealing. Why else would the game allow you to race somebody on birdback? What other reason is there for a stealth feature the levels rarely use? As appealing as any one of these ideas may be in theory, though, their presence alone doesn’t suffice to redeem the game, because there’s no thought given for how they fit with the rest of the game. So at best, all they achieve is to distract from what the game is doing elsewhere. At their worst, they muddle the game to the point that it can’t develop any one idea to maturity.
You could say that Lady Sia isn’t the kind of game that warrants this level of thought; that we should concentrate our efforts on games with a stronger artistic intent than this straightforward platformer. Yet even the most basic of minor games often have something to say, and it’s for those reasons I think this game deserves greater scrutiny. At the very least, its failures can teach fledgling developers how to design a cohesive video game.