What do we mean when we say that a game is designed well? Too often, that question leads us to look at a game’s design as though it were some machine operating of its own accord. In a situation like that, the role of the critic is just to observe how the gears turn and how rapidly the pistons oscillate. Unfortunately, such an approach ignores the most vital part of the system: the player. Without somebody acting within a game’s design, the machine fails to move. Or, to reverse that statement: by inserting the player back into the machine, we can ask more honest questions about what kind of engagement a particular game fosters.
That is, if it fosters engagement at all. I can think of several games whose design reflects considerable thought and planning on the developer’s part, yet somehow offers no place for the player. This was certainly my experience with the Game Boy version of Adventures of Lolo. When I consider it as an object of study, the game has a lot to offer me. Yet as an actual experience that I’m expected to navigate, Lolo feels empty and shallow, like there’s nothing beneath what the game shows me.
The irony in that last sentence is that the part of the game that resonated with me the most actually was on the surface: its art style. As tempting as it may be to dismiss such an appreciation as superficial, there’s a level of planning to the art that prevents me from doing so. The sharp angular design, fascination with novel shapes, and strong use of color (yes, on the original Game Boy) leave the game hovering somewhere between the bold pop art of the 1950s and attention grabbing commercials from around the same time. So on one level, the art style reflects a certain level of honest on Lolo’s part: it wants to present itself as a toy, and thus chooses an art style that will best connote that.
What catches my attention, though, is what this art says about its own creation. Looking at the final result, it’s clear how much the artists enjoyed themselves as they worked on the game. They wanted to challenge themselves, so time and again, we see them striving to craft visuals that defy simple readings. And from those visuals radiates a confidence that challenges the player viewing the art as much as it did the artists who created it. Lolo won’t accept a player who passively appreciates what’s been given to them; it wants a player who can get involved with the art and lose themselves in their own enjoyment. Paradoxically, Lolo’s cartoony sensibility also lends itself the sort of carefree attitude that a Nintendo puzzle game would thrive on. Whatever the case may be, the process behind creating the art leads to a strong influence on how the player later receives it.
Unfortunately, that same approach is also responsible for the game’s pervading feeling of emptiness. And I specifically mean “game.” What protects the visuals from that emptiness is the fact that I appreciate the game’s art in fundamentally the same way as the artists did: as a viewer. True, the artist can correct their work if something doesn’t look right, but they’re still using the same tools and methods to evaluate their art as the people they’re making it for. Video games, on the other hand, don’t allow their creators that kind of luxury. No creator can be both player and designer simultaneously, because no designer can play their levels as they design them. They have to approach their craft from a different perspective, which means they risk leaving the player out of the process. In other words, the designers could render their intricate efforts meaningless by forgetting how the player is going to fit into them.
Returning to Adventures of Lolo, you get the sense that’s exactly what happened. Which isn’t to say it’s poorly designed; the game’s design stands as one of its better virtues. It’s a “push blocks and solve puzzles to advance” kind of puzzle game in the vein of Mole Mania or (parts of) The Misadventures of Tron Bonne. If pressed to name a distinguishing trait for Lolo, I would quickly point to the purposeful ethos behind each puzzle. There are layers and levels of nuance embedded in enough of the puzzles that I can’t help but admire their design. Yet when I ask what I, the player, am meant to do with all that nuance, my admiration fades away. All I can do with these layers is use them to follow a set of instructions to complete a predetermined sequence. So it shouldn’t be that surprising to hear that playing Lolo feels mundane, rote, and mechanistic; like the player is just a cog in the game’s machine instead of an equal participant. Lolo’s willingness to supply a computer player when the human one exhausts their willpower certainly doesn’t help the game’s case.
What makes Adventures of Lolo feel so blasé? A number of things, excessively simple rules being one of them. Straightforward rules may make the game more enticing to the casual player Lolo is trying to court, but they also ensure that few puzzles will be truly complex enough that the player can enjoy “figuring them out.” (A difficult balance, I know, but one that a variety of other games manage just fine.) Still more of the game’s problems lie with how you relate to the environment. To put it bluntly, it’s a business relationship: your actions have no character beyond their immediate function. They lack both the transformative effect on the world that most Metal Gear Solid games allow and the rubbery cartoon quality that jumping in and out of holes in Mole Mania has. All they can ever be are tools, meaning that all you can ever see in the game are problems waiting to be solved. This in itself does not condemn the game to mediocrity. In light of its other failings, though, this means the game is effectively training you to look away from any redeeming qualities that lay outside the immediate task at hand.
Still, there’s some value in considering potential redeeming qualities the game may have. Perhaps the game’s allure lies in the rhythm and flow to your actions. I know that’s a troublesome argument, and it may not solve all the problems the game faces, but it solves enough to be worth considering. For one, flow can draw out Lolo’s latent focus on skill and give it a stronger meaning. My actions may be the same, yet instead of contextualizing them as some robotic program, I instead approach them like I would playing an instrument: rehearsed, but with some semblance of personal expression. That may be why the game’s flow-heavy moments feel like they come so close to open emotional engagement. The frantic action they expect from you – the mad dash from one step to the other as you race your way to the end of the level – colors the experience with feeling that was previously absent.
The downside to all this is that introducing flow into the game puts Lolo in a precarious position, one that I’m not sure it can maintain. First, comparing the game to playing an instrument presupposes that you know the movements in advance, which would jeopardize Lolo’s status as a puzzle game (a genre that withholds those movements from the player and asks them to figure them out). So either the analogy is flawed or the game is aesthetically conflicted. But putting that aside for a moment, Lolo is expecting a lot of its players if it’s asking them to reason out their actions as they perform them. Challenge in games is fine, although in Lolo’s case, this specific kind of challenge would contradict the “fun and enjoyment for their own sake” tone the rest of the game works so hard to establish. Again we find the game aesthetically conflicted. In any case, Lolo doesn’t lean into flow enough that I’d feel comfortable crediting the game for it.
Ultimately, Adventures of Lolo is a game that can’t decide on its own identity. As knowledgeable as it is about the structure of Lolo games (keep in mind three Lolo games preceded this one), there’s nothing left when you rip away those structures. Maybe this is an indication that HAL exhausted all their ideas for where to take the franchise; maybe it’s an indication that the ludic thread tying all these games together was never that durable in the first place. Whatever the case may be, Lolo’s hollow execution on puzzle game patterns leaves me wanting something more substantial.