By now, I’m certain that the points I’m going to make in the following 2000 or so words are points that I’ve harped on in previous places. In fact, I distinctly remember (and when gathering material, caught myself in the act of) discussing these points in relation to Shantae, Retro City Rampage, and Eufloria. So they’re definitely recurring elements in the culture that indie game developers have cultivated for themselves since about 2009. Yet even at this juncture, I still find these points worth discussing. In addition to emulating and building on aesthetic/design sensibilities from the 1990s, many games in the indie space aim for refinement above all else, as if they can achieve some Platonic ideal of the perfect video game. But if the end results of their efforts consistently feel hollow and meaningless, I’m left wondering what good game design is supposed to be.
Anyway, Runbow. The game is a rather basic platformer in the vein of Super Meat Boy or Super Mario Bros. and should be instantly familiar to anybody with even the slightest exposure to the genre. You pilot your character through short 2D stages, jumping over enemies, across gaps, and on platforms to reach your goal at the end. What separates Runbow from other games is the color switching mechanic: changing background colors hide or reveal key elements of the level depending on whether or not those colors match, respectively. It’s the kind of premise that’s touted (at least in theory) as aspirational: short iteration times, clearly communicated goals, play mechanics that are easy to grasp, subtle nuances to make those mechanics difficult to master, a slow difficulty curve that introduces players to new facets of the game as they become comfortable with what they know, etc. Or to put it another way, Runbow is a refined model of mathematical perfection.
That’s exactly why it feels so clinical, soulless, and utterly devoid of life. In trying to understand why it is we recognize certain games as great, we conceptualize those games not as cultural artifacts or modes of artistic expression, but as a set of mathematical models to be fine tuned. You could point to any number of causes for this phenomenon – the video game industry’s early roots in the tech sector, the predominance of video game reviews and numbers/formulae in those reviews, maybe even a desire to defend the nebulous idea of games as art – but the effect is the same. Design is taught according to a set of principles, and those principles are themselves stripped of all context and taught as ideals one should shoot for regardless of what it is one hopes to achieve. (The topic of may never even be broached, depending on who’s teaching.)
Yet I can’t help but see that as the reverse of what good design should be. Why shackle designers to principles by construing them as absolutes that must apply at all times when you can instead present them as tools designers can use to express a thought they want to communicate? That’s what makes good games interesting: how they modify a given rule, or which rules they choose to emphasize or exclude based on its relevance to the designer’s vision. (I’d recommend reading this John Kricfalusci blog on a similar problem in animation.) In fact, it’s what made the classics so intriguing in the first place. With Battletoads, Rare challenged themselves to think outside the box and carry a single idea to its farthest conclusion on every level. Likewise, I Wanna Be The Guy deconstructs the veneration of difficulty in video game nostalgia by doing away with the concept of fairness and anticipating the player’s failure with schadenfreude-esque glee.
What happens when a game slavishly devotes itself to best practices without a thought of how it will use them? In the best circumstances, that leads to empty-headed games that have absolutely nothing of their own to say. However, “having nothing to say” often means falling back on the obvious and expressing what’s acceptable to say in the first place, making it a subtle and unconscious tactic for aligning one’s self with the status quo. The culture those games were designed in only reinforces that notion. Behind them is a wish on the designers’ parts to belong not only alongside established classics, but also alongside contemporary games that also take inspiration from that body of work. The result of this process is very insular games made for a specific group of game enthusiasts. Developers circulate stale tropes and mechanics in their games, and then seem to pride themselves on failing to reach out to anybody outside this illustrious circle. And should those games rest on a misunderstanding of what made the classics great in the first place, then the design is corrupted and only the worst elements bubble to the surface. What you end up with are top-down, authoritative games that envision players as little more than engines that exist only to supply motion to the designer’s machinations.
It should go without saying that Runbow fits this model with ease, although it certainly doesn’t look that way. On the surface, Runbow is effusive with zeal and enthusiasm: vibrant colors, upbeat music, and a steady tempo, all reinforced by an aesthetic borrowed from 1940s American cinema. It’s also worth noting that said inspiration also lends itself to an actor/performer relationship Runbow wants its players to think they have with the game. Yet despite how plainly the game performs a lively energy, it’s difficult for me to say the game actually embodies it. In fact, this is the first area where Runbow’s devotion to principles/refinement becomes a problem. What is the game trying to communicate with these colors, music, etc.? A generic zeal for life and nothing more.
Once you realize this and pull back the curtain, what you’re likely to find is an utterly lifeless game. Character, world, narrative, visuals, music, rules, scenarios; these things mean nothing to Runbow. Each is merely an asset the game can use to access some nebulous idea of the perfectly designed game. That’s especially the case where movement is concerned. How can movement in a game called Runbow be so absolutely dull? It’s utilitarian in nature, lacking the madcap precarity of Mad Panic Coaster, the therapeutic quality of Holy Umbrella, the enticing roller-coaster escapades of your average Sega game, etc.
Moreover, Runbow is far less interested in play than it believes itself to be. For play to exist in a game, there needs to be a certain degree of looseness or fluidity in how the player interacts with the game. It needs to be open. The game needs to offer its players freedom to explore systems whose mechanics aren’t immediately discernible; to approach challenges in a multitude of ways, or to create their own challenges to pursue. As rough as this language is, even a cursory glance at Runbow will reveal that it doesn’t fit this model. The actions the player is allowed to take leave no room for interpretation. They’re stiff in their implementation, their every function spelled out to the finest detail. This is clearest with the central mechanic (which isn’t even an action): the changing colors. This isn’t something the player can experiment with or even control, but something they react to in regular, predictable ways.
Needless to say, the challenges the game expects its players to navigate don’t leave much room for interpretation, either. Runbow is a very goal-oriented game. Everything about the game is predicated on the player’s ability to act, or, to be more specific, to act in such a way that a particular goal is achieved. Or, to be even more specific than that, to reach the end of the level in a certain amount of time and grab the trophy. And to that end, it deploys every principle of good game design in its arsenal: a counting clock, directed negative space, just about every technique you’d find in “Why Super Mario Bros.’ Level 1-1 is Perfect” article/video.
All of these techniques come together to create the kind of game with a theoretically perfect strategy for playing. I find this approach to games almost always centers the designer at the expense of the player. It’s by no means an equal relationship. The designer is allowed to stretch the limits of their imagination as they concoct all sorts of inventive rules and then design scenarios that stretch those rules to their absolute limits. The player’s role, by comparison, is weak. At best, they’re a machine the designer uses to supply activity and life to an otherwise empty world. At worst, they’re an impediment to the designer’s ambitions, one that can be (and has been) replaced by a computer player/no player at all. In either case, all that’s expected of the player is that they go along with what the designer decided for them in the first place.
Of course, this is a secret that no commercial game would ever want to admit. They want their players to feel like they’re the center of the game; like they’re in control of what they do and what they want, and that this space was made with those desires in mind. Because Runbow proudly situates itself within this commercial space, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that it does everything in its power to distract from this tension. What’s more, it does so in the way its peers would: by stuffing itself to the brim with content. Rankings, grades, leaderboards, unlockables of all stripes, and a glut of levels; Runbow never offers its players a moment of rest. Like Shantae and Retro City Rampage before it, this format gives players the satisfaction of feeling productive and lets them believe they participate in these systems of their own volition.
Yet this format is also internally incoherent. Let’s start with the assumption Runbow makes: that the challenges it provides are worth pursuing in their own right. This is something the game fails to demonstrate, but even accepting that premise for the sake of argument: if my motivation for completing the game’s obstacle courses is intrinsic, then why append outside motivators to them? True, one could argue that appendages like leaderboards and unlockables lend themselves well to skill-oriented play, and that Runbow encourages its players to approach its challenges like they would a sport: tackle the same problem again and again, refine your skills, take pride in a victory well earned.
Again, though, I remain skeptical. Rather than advocating that players look toward their past efforts or remain in the present for a bit to practice a given level, Runbow instead fixes their gaze ever forward. Levels repeat motifs constantly, so why bother looking back when there’s always a new challenge to look forward to? Besides, the added bits and baubles would still introduce outside motivation and thus interfere with anything innate in the player. The truth of the matter is that Runbow encourages a soft, throwaway engagement, envisioning its levels as toys the player briefly fusses around with before moving on to the next. This reflects a lack of confidence in the game’s own machinations and an unwillingness to sustain any deep or mental engagement with the player beyond the shortest span of time.
Indeed, Runbow prides itself on its ability to comfort players and insulate them from anything that threatens to challenge them. This is where the game’s sense of humor becomes relevant. Memes and cultural references are considered to be funny regardless of context or set-up, so the humor is replete with them. In addition, all of this is topped off with a faux-subversive, faux-wacky tone. It’s similar to Retro City Rampage, albeit more annoying than outright repugnant. But that’s hardly any better.
Part of me wants to explain this as the writers constricting me to their lack of understanding toward anything outside the fact that certain pop cultural mainstays exist, but even this explanation feels wanting. How would it explain Runbow actively dismissing any failure to fit in, any idea that lies outside the game enthusiast mindset with a pithy non-joke? It’s not enough to say the game does little to encourage players to step outside their comfort zone and broaden their understanding of the world, as the game’s humor encourages them to be proud of their refusal to do so. It comforts its players by speaking to what knowledge they do have and then encouraging them to be content with that alone. Recognizing and relating to things that are already a part of your world are held up as ideals that are worth aspiring to. I can’t even make the argument that the game’s memes and references help build a sense of community, because supposing that were true, Runbow does nothing to form new bonds. All its efforts aim to solidify pre-existing ones. In that regard, the game is insular and pacifying. Granted, it’s hard to call any of this intentional on the writers’ parts, but that’s hardly any reason to grant them leniency.
A few months ago, Leeroy Lewin tackled these same subjects from a different angle. Writing about the dominance of action games in the video game landscape and the preoccupation with mathematical refinement, he writes, “It’s basically impossible to make interesting, idiosyncratic art, chained to templates and expectations like this.” To expand on this thought, it’s because art (at least the art he’s describing, and the art I wish this game would aspire to) is at least partially transgressive. It’s a personal statement first and foremost, one that borrows what it has to from existing movements and cultures and nothing more if it can help it. In many cases, the product of the artist’s effort refutes some boundary that people accept. This approach is incompatible with Runbow. As it is, the game seeks to affirm what already exists. It has no interest in disputing tradition.