Wot I Think: Lucidity

An apparently rejuvenated LucasArt’s first foray into non-mainstream gaming arrived last week. Surrealistic puzzle-platformer Lucidity hints at a bright new age of invention for the venerable, unpredictable developer – has the nightmare of endless Star Wars biff-based games finally ended? Here is An Opinion.

I did a little happy-dance when Lucidity was announced. As I did, I imagined myself linking arms through spectral trails emanating from the keyboards of other gamers of my generation. A world of 30-something men at their desks, all minutely happy-dancing by themselves, but somehow right alongside me and each other. We had something in common to celebrate. Daddy’s home!

While the last decade hasn’t truly been devoid of solid-gold LucasArts games, what the developer hasn’t been for a while is one that evidences the sort of artistic freedom and derring-do that birthed, raised and informed a generation of PC gamers in the early 1990s. After scouting the way with re-releases of a few of its more beloved titles, LucasArts revealed a bold new spearhead – Lucidity, a budget-priced puzzle game with a distinctly indie vibe. (And yes, I mean that as in the sort of presentation and values that suggest independent development and the attended left-fieldery, not that something made by a firm that also owns Star Wars could genuinely be said to be indie.) Finally – they seemed to care about something other than vast pots of money again.

It’s Tetris as a platformer, very broadly speaking. The lead character, a young girl exploring a dream landscape, isn’t yours to control as such – she moves forward inexorably, and your task, as The Amazing Cursor Man (uncredited), is to place gossamer objects that enable her to keep doing so without perishing. The objects, largely assigned randomly, include blocks and stairs to create a tangible path, but also fans and catapults and bombs and whatnot to create intangible paths that fling her across the handicraft skyline or create new walkways. The game rapidly progresses from leisurely path-laying to frantic, on-the-fly Incredible Machine constructions that fire the girl all over the screen, forever a hair’s breadth from whatever passes for death in this dreamscape. It’s a wonderful idea – just enough physics and fantasy to create a mechanic that’s both intuitive and warmingly odd.

The trouble with Lucidity is that it feels a bit like a middle-aged businessman trying to get down with the kids. He’s bought the skateboard, he’s wearing his baseball cap backwards, but the smile is awkward, the use of gang symbols forced, and he keeps tripping over the trousers that he’s wearing below his bum. Lucidity is all cutesy and dreamlike, and enough so that anyone passing will coo and say something about how lovely it looks, but playing it is an oddly clinical experience. It’s as though someone’s reverse-engineered a bunch of indie games rather than organically arrived at one.

Very little seems to react in this world – despite plenty of animation, grunts and manoeuvres, the girl remains a curiously static, unsympathetic character, just a blank marionette marching ever onwards. The design is pleasing, but it’s hard to feel anything for her, or that she needs protecting. Far more charming are the occasional enemies, which largely must be dodged rather than defeated – a special nod should be given to the kung-fu kicking frog-things. Real character does creep in in places, hints that there’s a precious craziness bubbling below the surface, not quite able to make itself known.

Finishing one of the 43 levels earns you a postcard with a semi-cryptic message that could be straight out of the Little Book Of Calm, and a score based on how many fireflies you/she collected en route. There isn’t much sense of accomplishment, and even less sense that you’re going anywhere (bar the next level).

It’s such a shame – it gets the central mechanic right, and the presentation is charming, if a little unfocused. There’s some connective tissue between those two aspects missing, though – something to make you care about what’s going on. Instead, it’s arch and oddly cold, despite the attempts at homespun, good-hearted wisdom about what’s important in life. There’s a part of me that wonders if the brief for Lucidity was “make us a Braid” rather than someone saying “I’ve got this great idea…” I’m sure that wasn’t the case – but nonetheless Lucidity pervades a distracting aroma of having been mathematically constructed rather than enthusiastically created.

It’s even in little things like, for instance, the blatant use of a font to suggest a little girl’s mad, scrawly handwriting – I couldn’t help but notice the repeated tiny capital Rs and gigantic Us, and it’s just one more kick to the ribs of this dreamworld fantasy. With a game with so little text, would it really have been so hard to actually handwrite then scan in this stuff, something that would have added that much more to the hand-made atmosphere the game tries so desperately to evoke? That sounds, I entirely realise, like a crazy nitpick, and it is – but what I mean is there are a ton of tiny ways in which the game keeps me at arm’s length from the intended emotional response.

It further cements its aloofness with a punishing death mechanic, which plunges you back to the start of what can be pretty long levels if the girl falls onto spikes or collides with a couple of enemies in quick succession. While it ensures challenge and caution (you can store one piece – so will end up saving the most effective or versatile in case of emergency), it’s also a disincentive to continue. Because the blocks you’re given are random, it’s not as if you can learn a route and breeze quickly back to where you died – you might just hit some new obstacle that you can’t overcome because you don’t have the right pieces or made a boo-boo.

For every stretch where you hit a joyous roll, confidently placing piece after a piece to create a perfect, organic path, there’s one where you repeatedly tumble into the void or become swamped by a glut of enemies that you just can’t get the piece to push away, no matter how manically you dispose of the rubbish ones that pop up. A checkpoint or two would make all the difference, but I’d love to hear the reasoning why they’re not in there. Would it be too easy, too quickly completed? Quite possibly – but the chosen approach again creates that faintly creepy sensation that some core, some heart is missing.

That, even when you’re breezing through it, you’re repeating the same task again and again and again hammers home the futility. As a pure puzzle game, it’d work, but the one note rings a bit hollow when it’s associated with visible forward motion and a world of sorts.

So it all begins to feel like a bit of a chore, and that creates a huge problem. The game doesn’t seem to care about you, so why should you care about it? About 50% of the way through it, I decided I didn’t. Does it change later? Does the hitherto aimless story go anywhere? I can’t say. I’m not interested in finding out, alas. So perhaps this isn’t a fair verdict, but the fact of the matter is that I was too bored and frustrated by that point to want to continue. As a free Flash game I’d have enjoyed this new, initially cuddly challenge for an hour or two, but as a game with an (admittedly small) price-tag, it doesn’t feel substantial or invigorating enough.

I feel pretty guilty about this kind of statement – a huge amount of care has clearly into creating something elegant and proudly simple. Probably money, too. That’s why it isn’t and shouldn’t be a free Flash game. That said, the amount of theory and analysis revealed in the various making-of pieces by really rather a lot of different people on the Lucasarts Workshop blog makes me wonder if this simple wee thing has suffered from too many cooks syndrome. Everything about Lucidity suggests it’s the kind of indie title that’d be made solely by one programmer and one artist, but it seems that’s far, far from the case – and perhaps that’s why there’s that disjointed, aloof feel to it.

So the filling to this fun-sandwich is sadly rather thin, but that doesn’t stop me from being very glad that 21st century LucasArts have made it. It’s their first attempt at a new discipline, and I can only imagine they’ll learn an awful lot from what it gets wrong as well as from the pleased reaction to those first screenshots and videos. The visual creativity is often rewarding, and the idea underneath it all inventive. It’s as hard a game to hate as it is to love, and for that reason I think it’s the seed of great things from Lucas’ new, semi-experimental Workshop arm. Value it not for itself, but for what it might mean. As long as said meaning doesn’t hinge on this ambitious but faltering first step being a runaway financial success, anyway.

Lucidity is available now.

34 Comments

  1. Ted says:

    I played the first few levels of this over the weekend and found the basic mechanics of it pretty annoying. Having Sofi move steadily and unstoppably left to right across the screen while you try to plug the random objects in her path I just didn’t find that fun. They weren’t lying, it feels a lot like Tetris. I think I would have enjoyed something a lot more that let you explore and had more thoughtful puzzles that let you think how to use the different objects to get around the screen instead of just quickly dropping objects in Sofi’s path as they randomly pop up.

  2. linfosoma says:

    I couldn’t help but think of Crayon Physics, a (great) indie game were you get can draw the missing pieces yourself.
    The think I liked about that game is that you could make the solutions as easy or complicated as you wanted, the point was playing with it instead of having the game tell you how it should be played.

    A shame really, I was never very interested in Ludicity, specially since I saw the gameplay videos but I guess it’s sad to see that such a resourcefull company still lacks something as basic as imagination.

  3. Mikuto says:

    I was pretty disappointed in this. I had somehow missed that the mechanics of the game were going to boil down to little more than “adorable little girl tetris”. Playing, for me, was an exercise in frustration possibly because I was using the xbox360 rather than a mouse, but somehow I don’t think a mouse would help the frustration of never having the right piece.

  4. Schaulustiger says:

    I wholeheartedly agree.
    The basics are all there – a good idea, carefully crafted visuals but then it looks like they lost their courage halfway through, ending up with a game that has almost no story, a main character which is as blank a sheet of paper, a snap-to-grid function that nearly drives me mad and a horrifiying all-or-nothing respawn mechanic.

  5. Lilliput King says:

    I regret buying this – I was so sure it was going to be wonderful, and I absolutely /love/ games in the mould it clearly attempts to squeeze itself into. Problem being, it’s nowhere near as fun to play, clever or soulful as Braid or World of Goo. The little bits of writing on the part of the girl seem to be mostly gameplay related, and on the part of the gran read like something off the back of a postcard, devoid of intellectual content.

    The fact that placing objects takes place on a rather chunky grid structure means getting them in the exact right place can be awkward. As pointed out mucking up leads to a restart, which due to the randomness of object drops leaves you with the feeling that rather than learning and improving you’ve just a) screwed by the game and b) wasted your time.

    There’s a complete lack of progression between levels, too, and combined with the slow, repetitive gameplay, it gets boring very quickly. I’m amazed Mr. Meer managed to make it half way.

  6. Guto says:

    Yes, the game was truly disappointing. However, I still see it as a step in the right direction for LucasArts, so I can’t complain too much about it.

    @Mikuto: I can’t talk about the x360, but playing with the mouse isn’t a great experience because of the horrid idea of putting everything into freakin’ grids, meaning that you just don’t have the required precision to manipulate the objects.

  7. CrowPath says:

    The video they released convinced me not to bother even checking this out. The fluff surrounding it was enchanting, but when it displayed the actual gameplay it looked so utterly boring.

  8. Hybrid says:

    I enjoyed reading the article, but i’m sad to hear there are issues with the game.

  9. TCM says:

    This is what I was desperately hoping the game would not be: A clinical game extruded by a large studio, masquerading as an indie title.

    A shame, too. I was hoping the best.

    • TCM says:

      My kingdom for an edit button.

      To clarify, there’s nothing inherently good or bad about Indie games, or games by large studios. But when one tries to pretend it’s the other, things don’t often go well.

    • Poindexter says:

      @TCM

      I’ll be taking that kingdom off your hands…

      If you go into the forums and find this thread, you can edit your post there and it shows up on the front page just fine.

    • TCM says:

      Forums are for those who can’t communicate everything they need to say via comment thread.

  10. Pags says:

    Definitely the biggest disappointment is that it seems very carefully studied in it’s sweetness; the Alice in Wonderland aesthetic doesn’t really seem to be there for any reason other than it’s cute. It would’ve been nice to have seen them realise that the reason those groundbreaking games of the 90s – the Monkey Islands and the Grim Fandangos and the Day of the Tentacles – were so iconic was that they had great writers with imagination, not because they copied out of the “Book of Indie-Gaming Do’s and Do Nots”.

    Also, I didn’t like the sound design. It just seemed too cookie-cutter for a studio with probably the greatest sound effects library at their disposal. Nothing squelched or spluttered or dinged in the same satisfying way that they did in World of Goo nor was it as inventive with sound as Braid.

  11. Carra says:

    Reminds me more of lemmings then of Tetris.

    I’ll pass on the game, I might give it a go if it’s on a dirt cheap weekend sale. But for now, I’ll keep my money and spend it on a good indie game.

  12. castle says:

    “anyone passing will coo and say something about how lovely it looks, but playing it is an oddly clinical experience. It’s as though someone’s reverse-engineered a bunch of indie games rather than organically arrived at one.”

    Nailed it. This is exactly how I felt. There’s a lot of potential there, but it just doesn’t have the excitement and inventiveness to keep things interesting. I also really wanted to stop about halfway through, but toughed it out to the end (side note, the level count on the load game screen counts the secret levels as well, so the game actually “ends” when you’re in the upper 20s of levels completed, so you may be closer than you think).

    My thoughts here.

  13. Tei says:

    Castle wrote on his blog
    “The first is that, unlike the games whose success Lucidity is attempting to duplicate (World of Goo, Braid), the gameplay refuses to evolve. Though the environments change from one level to the next, absolutely nothing about the game experience is altered.”

    Pags wrote:
    “Definitely the biggest disappointment is that it seems very carefully studied in it’s sweetness; the Alice in Wonderland aesthetic doesn’t really seem to be there for any reason other than it’s cute. It would’ve been nice to have seen them realise that the reason those groundbreaking games of the 90s – the Monkey Islands and the Grim Fandangos and the Day of the Tentacles – were so iconic was that they had great writers with imagination, not because they copied out of the “Book of Indie-Gaming Do’s and Do Nots”.”

    Theres one million mediocre Indie games for every creative Indie game like WoG of Braid. The Element “Gameplay that evolve as you advance” is probably the harder one, not surprise Lucasart as failed at cloning it. The good news is that probably Lucasarts has very talented people, so in tryiing, and in working very hard, and in loving videogames, something really cool could be created, that would be imposible with a normal Indie dev.

  14. Mike says:

    I’d disagree on some of these points, though obviously not all. I think you’re automatically feeling it’s reverse-engineered simply because it’s LucasArts – it’s not a very rounded game, the single core idea is repeated, but that’s true of a lot of indie games. I saw it as a very simple, very basic offering that has a charming look and feel to it. It certainly didn’t feel like they were trying too hard – things like the messages at the end of each level are no less inane than Braid’s pre-world storybook rambling.

  15. Thants says:

    Add a dab of lavender to milk. Leave town with an orange, and pretend you’re laughing at it

  16. PC Monster says:

    Top Black Book quote there, Thants. :)

    Ah, Lucasarts. The more we see of your sudden conversion back to the light, the more planets slip through your finge….er, what was I saying again? What I mean is I’m still of the firm opinion that Lucasarts hasn’t changed much at all. Freed from the need for greed in milking the SW cash cow until there was nothing left but brittle bone scraping through the udders, they’ve simply watched what has been occurring in PC land of late and have decided to make themselves a nice Indie-shaped, digitally-distributed, ‘we love our classics too’ hat to wear in the hope we’ll forgive them the last 15 years or so and come rushing to them with our wallets.

    Admit it LA, that soul we’re all hoping is still there buried under all that avarice? You sold that, too, didn’t you?

    • Martin K says:

      Of course they bloody well did, they’re Lucas bloody Arts. Anything worth salvaging from that company left long ago in the form of this or that ill-shaped globule of once-loyal employees disenfranchised by the patently ill-figured nonsense and blatant money-grubbing of the parent company.

      Which is to say, in accordance with the thoroughly jaded tradition that inspires permanently unimpressed PC gamers everywhere, I’ve now fulfilled my obligations to the guild and my fellow man, and will now go away and subsequently cry bitter, bitter tears into my pillow at the thought of what could have been, before returning to heap more kindling upon the communal pyre, in the form of further resentment and narrow-eyed needling.

      See, I know how these things work.

  17. Owen says:

    This review is why is read and subscribe to RPS.

    Honestly. I’ve read a couple of reviews that were all too glowy over Lucidity. They didn’t pick up on m/any of the points you have. So before reading the RPS WIT, I thought to myself, “C’mon boys, do me proud!”.

    So not only am I now dead happy that this is also ‘what you think’ Alec. I’m even more impressed that you posted it. I think that says a lot of good things about you and RPS as a whole.

  18. Mitch says:

    Lucasarts games still holdin strong and continue to – Lot of independent gamers out there still paying homage to the legacy of the great classics…….
    This for one
    link to pocketgamer.co.uk

  19. Max says:

    This game never appeared that interesting to me. I’m not really surprised.

  20. Lambchops says:

    it's bloody pretty but the invisible grid is an irritation and it hasn't really grabbed me.

    the repition factor kicked in by the third chapter and I'm struggling to play on.

    One for the obsessive compulsive collector really – they'll find plenty time in catching all the fireflies.

    I'll probably complete the main levels in an idle moment sometime.

  21. Robin says:

    When the field of small clever games has high quality work like World of Goo, Machinarium, LostWinds, Scribblenauts and Braid vying for our attention, who needs a bad cover version like this?

    Tei’s comment is very strange. Lucasarts have more resources than the average indie developer, ergo they should have more chance of making something decent! Err, except they’ve just delivered something mediocre.

    I guess this is a step in the right direction in that it’s trying to be Art, whereas their last project (Monkey Island Special Edition) only managed (graphical) vandalism.

  22. RobF says:

    What bugs me most about Lucidity is that it is so very nearly almost there. I’d give someone’s left leg for an art budget or an artist to match the look they’ve got, the sound is fantastic from the Swedish lullaby to the satisfying boof of the bomb tile.

    And then there’s the game.

    I love the idea of it, I’m down with the Tetris meets platform gaming idea but they muffed it in so many tiny silly ways. Snapping the pieces to the grid whilst probably a technical thing is a rubbish idea, more so when the screen scrolls too fast and your piece doesn’t. The lack of check points, the randomness of the pieces, the small field of view that is ace for the first few levels and gradually with each unfolding stage becomes more of a bane than a challenge. It never really gets difficult, just as you progress you’re fighting more and more against the design than attempting to overcome the obstacles and that’s bloody wrong.

    It feels like they’ve bottled it and muddled things. There’s not that clarity of design you get from something like World Of Goo where it starts off with this simple, simple system and toys with it as you progress. This goes from 0-stupidly hardcore in the space of 6 levels or something and the game seems to be crying out not to be that, not to do that. It feels conflicted

    And the stuff I mentioned above, it’s elementary surely? In 2009 these are lessons learned. Did they not have playtesters that brought this stuff up? It really could have been a brilliant game and you get flashes of what someone somewhere in the gamemaking process at Lucasarts was trying to do and I’m at a loss as to why it wasn’t so broken. There’s little that couldn’t be solved with a few more weeks work (or a patch now it’s out the door) and to make it into something if not great, certainly better than it is right now.

    Ah man, I’m actually gutted about it because it is so lovely in so many ways.

  23. Tim says:

    I’m glad that a few people here agree with my own reservations about Lucidity. I too have become a little bored with it, frustrated with its little flaws. Lambchops is right – the invisible grid is a pain, and makes it even harder to dispose of useless items when you get stuck in a corner. I can see that Lucasarts were trying to craft a game that rewards quick, lateral thought, and it’s pretty fun when everything does fall into place. Seeing Sofi weave her way around the obstacles, due to a mixture of clever item placement and sheer luck, always gives me a buzz. But that might only be because I spent most of the time completely frustrated that the game is giving me no way forwards.

    I actually rage-quit Lucidity yesterday… Probably not the sort of emotion that the game’s dreamy atmosphere is meant to induce O.o

  24. Daniel Purvis says:

    I made it through the first three levels and decided I’d never play it again. It just wasn’t fun and there wasn’t enough to keep me invested otherwise. It felt slow and clunky. Whether playing with mouse or keyboard, it just felt wrong.

  25. Hermit says:

    The random nature of the objects is definately frustrating – when you know a set of stairs would be perfect, only to get a slingshot, it’s annoying. I wouldn’t mind the death mechanic so much if death felt like my fault – but there’s a sense that it’s just blind luck working against you.

    The gameplay evolution is another biggie for me – the uses of each piece are too specific to allow for much experimentation. With some more creative object design, you could have forced the player to think of clever ways to use a small set of tools and then grow that set over the course of the game. The ability to flip objects could have been really interesting, for instance – using catapaults to send Sofi backwards again.

    This isn’t to say that I don’t quite like the game, it’s just it feels like there’s more you could to to keep the game interesting through to the end. Also, I gave up on the mouse controls pretty sharpish and went for my 360 pad – it’s clearly been designed with that in mind, though it still feels a little clunky even on that.

  26. Pod says:

    They should make it so that she sleepwalks and that you’re a dog.

  27. Chaz says:

    Yeah I never even bothered to finish the demo. Despite all its hand drawn looking nicety, it oddly feels quite souless to play. It does feel like a contrived attempt to jump on the indie bandwagon with a Briad style platformer, rather than something thats grown from an orignal idea. Ultimately its just not a fun game.

    Axel and Pixel on the otherhand is looking great, although I’ve got a feeling that it might be an Xbox Live Arcade only game. Though I will be most surprised if it doesn’t get a PC release. link to axelandpixelgame.com

  28. Red Avatar says:

    Hmm – when I first saw a clip on Youtube, I didn’t like it. It was such an obvious cash-in on the success of similar games that it felt too forced. This is a typical example of a game not born out of a good idea, but born out of the idea to cash in on the success of other people’s good ideas.

  29. Cedge says:

    Eh. I liked it, and don’t think that so much thought needs to be put into the backlash against it. What-fucking-ever.