By Jon Blyth on July 28th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.
Sometimes, you get a little glimpse of how you’re perceived by the world. That can be flattering, like when you leave a suicide note and hide in the wardrobe while everyone starts improvising really sweet eulogies over a human beatbox. Then there’s this line of an email, which neatly captures why I was considered appropriate for this review of sci-fi point-and-click adventure game Bik:
“The trailer maybe contains a scene in which an alien uses a machine to force feed poop into a child’s mouth? And you are that child!”
Some games writers focus on social justice, others carve themselves a sex niche. I’m the poop guy. Hi!
As it turns out, no poop enters any child’s mouth. It was an unexplained brown brain beam. And much as I enjoy saying unexplained brown brain beam, it wasn’t what I had been promised. It is, therefore, my sad duty to inform you that Bik isn’t the Freddy Got Fingered of point and click adventures. Bik is, instead, the story of a thoroughly unspectacular child, plucked from a camping trip by a race of abducting aliens. It’s also the story of Ammut and Tatenen, two mismatched bean-headed aliens living in a shabby spacecraft. I say bean-headed. From some angles, their heads look like dicks. This is great fun, and carries you through much of the game. Then there’s a girl from a pink planet that’s being enslaved and harvested by a corporate metaphor. It’s quite literally all go.
Bik’s inspirations feel many: the underdog heroism and profit-led evils of Abe’s Oddworld. An arrogant, weary AI evokes Marvin the Paranoid Android. Ammut and Tatenen are SitCom archetypes on a spaceship. Bik is the tolerable but ultimately bland child star of an 80s Hollywood movie like The Last Starfighter or Neverending Story. The pointlessly abducting aliens of South Park. A problem: it doesn’t do any of these things better, or more interestingly, than the source material. It tells its story without nuance.
Bik is a game that was made music-first, according to Bik-honcho Mike Pinto. Many of the tracks are on SoundCloud, and you can buy a bundle with the soundtrack as a bonus. These tunes are ambient and melancholy, sliding from one note to another like a jazzy teenager, lazily flirting with discord. It’s not entirely to my taste, but it succeeds on its own terms. But don’t take my word for it! Here’s the theme tune. Listen to it while you read the rest of this review. It really sets the mood.
Coupled with the low-fi sound effects used to denote each character, sound design is Bik’s strongest suit.
The puzzles, less so. Bik is a dual release on PC and tablets, and that informs the simplicity of the controls. Right click, and all interactable objects are exposed – after all, there’s no room for pixel hunting on an interface controlled by fat greasy fingers. Left click on an object, and the typical options pop up: interact, use inventory item on, examine, talk. We’ve all been around for a while, you know what’s going on. I feel an idiot for even mentioning it.
Meanwhile, in your inventory, irrelevant items will be greyed out. This feels like a strange decision: part of the fun of an adventure game is failing, and receiving a bespoke rebuke. All adventure games should prominently feature an inventory dildo, simply to give the developer the opportunity to write hundreds of amusive responses as the player tries to use it on everyone he meets. Not giving you the option to make mistakes and mess around like this feels not only ungenerous, but counter to the very spirit of adventure games. It’s like a Flight Simulator where you can’t crash.
One micro-puzzle involves Ammut getting cast into a pit that contains a badly-drawn crab-style chap called Chompers. I won’t spoil the puzzle, such as it is. But here’s my path of failure, which illustrates many of my problems with Bik:
- Of the two items that my inventory let me use, I choose the wrong one. I choose this because an identical item was just used in the preceding puzzle, and I fancied a change. It is the wrong item. I am devoured by Chompers.
- After using the correct item on Chompers, I click on the only other interactable item on the floor. Unlike other items, which would offer up an opportunity to examine them, clicking on this object automatically makes Ammut use it in the specific way that kills you. The game is so keen to kill you that it breaks its own rules. What follows is the most elaborate fail animation in the game, and could have been the funniest – unfortunately, the sense of comic timing is way off. Between the rule-creaking cheapness of the kill, and the “YES I GET IT OK NOW” delivery of a longjoke, this set me right up for increasing hostility during the next few failures. Respect my time, Bik, damn your eyes.
- I distracted the crab, didn’t click on the red instakill herring, then met a wall. Returning the other way, I fell over. In this location, and this location alone, falling over is what you do when the crab ceases to be distracted, triggering a fatal Chompers rush. I am devoured by Chompers again.
- Realising that the grill to the right isn’t a barrier, and I can pass under it, I explore in the other direction. Finding a door, I fall over and am promply devoured by Chompers.
- Dealing with Chompers, I head straight to the door, I click on the hand icon to operate it. I am told that I am too far away. In response, Ammut acts out my internal emotions, by falling over and getting devoured by Chompers. At all other times, trying to use something with the hand icon will automatically move you towards it first, so this was another specifically and wilfully coded bit of bloody-mindedness.
- I reached the safety of the exit. I click on a wheel a fraction of a second before realising what it will do. What results is a foreseeable and fair death, and the first one where I laugh. It is the shrill laugh of a madman. This is how Batman villains are born.
- Trained like a rat, I complete the whole process properly, and reach a checkpoint. A single tear of frustration trickles onto my cheek, sizzling and evaporating from my rage-reddened face. This is who I am now. Hot Cheeks, sexually ambiguous scourge of Gotham City.
Let’s re-summarise that scene: it was a puzzle with three interactable items – Chompers, a door, and a red herring – and just two objects in my inventory not greyed out at the unexplained whim of the programmer. It was a puzzle that was solved in two simple and unavoidably obvious steps: use item on Chompers, click on door. To frustrate so completely with so few tools in your box is some going.
Oh, and there’s also a scene in which a character says “I’m not ready, come back in a moment.” To you and me, that’s code for “go around and click on everything until something notable happens to trigger my next conversation.” We’ve all played Final Fantasy VII, and become hopelessly stuck because we haven’t clicked on every damn NPC. In Bik, that means “literally stand there, wait a minute and talk to me again”. I don’t know whether I love this or not: I do know that it caused a lot of fruitless clicking.
Death comes quickly in Bik, from every angle. It feels like this is intended to be a humourous motif, but if that’s the case, it’s not a joke that’s consistently pulled off and carried to satisfying completion. So rather than feeling like a universe that’s comically full of absurd threat, it actually comes across as a contrived jeopardy smokescreen. You can see why they’d need it: the sets are small enough that the puzzles can be solved by accidental clicking or simply trying every combination, so a spot of instant death and a quick reload breaks up the pace of progress quite well. Take an early run-in with a gang of marauding semi-sentient socks. This scene, while graphically underwhelming, evokes the chaotic puppet skits that broke up The Young Ones. It makes you feel optimistic for the game ahead. Unfortunately, it’s never really matched in terms of appealing silliness. The feeling that this is a happy offbeat world with weird but graspable rules slowly fades.
Other potential sources of humour don’t really materialise. There are no Sam & Max style one-liners. Blaster-loving Ammut spends too much time being a bad chef and a reasonable companion to Bik to fully develop the hints of his violent ineptitude. His friend, the level-headed Tatanen suffers for not having a convincing idiot to contrast against. There’s an alcoholic rage slug, and you can’t go far wrong with one of those – but that arrogant, weary Marvin AI dwindles too quickly into a couple of well-worked Comedy Robot Catchphrases.
This is a shame. The universe has been imagined, species have been created, backstory bothered with, and personalities loosely defined. There’s a lot of potential for entertaining interactions here. But the characters suffer under a deadening burden of exposition. Plot is exclusively relayed in dialogue, and the script is so busy telling you what’s going on that it frequently forgets to include the personality of the talking character.
That’s the big frustration with Bik – the low budget, personal story of an album that ballooned into a video game, and the generally earnest attitude make it a real-life underdog. You want to root for it, even after the initial disappointment that this isn’t a story in which a child is force-fed shit. It’s in that spirit that I want to see what Zotnip do next: I want to see them learn the lessons of Bik, and make a consistent game that runs with the ideas that Bik plays around with. Most annoyingly, it’s hard to recommend a game that costs over twice the price of the mobile version, when the mobile version seems to have led the design.
Bik is likeable and shows promise. And the best thing about it is the feeling of inspiration that it brings up: it genuinely makes you feel like you could make a game. And on that slightly bitchy positive, I’ll sign off.