Wot I Think: Lilly Looking Through

Successfully making its way through Kickstarter and Greenlight, how does indie adventure Lilly Looking Through cope when it meets Rock, Paper, Shotgun? Here’s wot I think:

This is going to happen a lot, I guess. Lilly Looking Through was an adorable-looking Kickstarter, with the advantage of a playable demo, asking for just £18,000. They wanted the money, they said, because it would allow them to “finish the game” more quickly, with a target of May 2013. It’s now November, and I’ve just finished what appears to be a fragment of something.

A nice fragment, certainly. A gorgeously animated, and cutely realised fragment. But to claim that the two to three hours on offer here represents a complete game sets up a hefty frustration for anyone finishing it. The story, deliberately ambiguous it must be said, doesn’t end at all. Instead it just stops, seemingly mid-scene, and then some credits start rolling. Were this advertised as the first chapter of something (and indeed Kickstarted as such), then it would make sense. However, instead you have a Kickstarter page that promises “4-6 hours”, and no suggestion at all that this isn’t to be a complete story.

This is such a huge shame, because Lilly is a quite nice little thing. It’s nothing exceptional, certainly, and it definitely falls short of the Amanita games its design is so clearly aping. But it’s a sweet, extremely simple adventure, with minimal interactivity, and a couple of awkwardly over-complicated/under-explained puzzles.

Lilly, and maybe her brother, live in a cutesy house by the river. A red ribbon of some sort swoops in and steals the little boy away, and it’s up to Lilly to chase after to rescue. So yes, immediately a welcome reversal of the typical gender roles, and a nice indication that this is a magical, unusual world.

Your controls are generally opting between clicking on maybe four things on screen, although more often just one. This is very much in the mould of Amanita’s Samorost and Botanicula, although without the intricate background details. In those games sweeping the mouse around the screen creates all sorts of wonderful little animations and moments, while here there’s just the core things to click on. Lilly’s pursuit is hampered by various obstacles and challenges, soon embellished further by the introduction of a magical pair of goggles. Wearing these causes the world around Lilly to change to the past. Seemingly a hundred years or so. This naturally brings in the opportunity for time-travelly-Day-Of-The-Tentacle puzzles, although too often it doesn’t do it.

Instead it’s mostly about movement. If you switch times, you can reach a point you couldn’t in the other. On a couple of the occasions where affecting the past to change the future does occur, it’s utterly lovely. It’s mystifying that this is such a minor part of how things are played, and indeed how it’s so underplayed. Rather, it tends to be about changing the colour of something, for some reason, rather than joyfully rearranging the future to your advantage.

The animations throughout are absolutely lovely. The backgrounds are gorgeously painted, and the Flash-ish characters look adorable. So it’s a pretty massive shame the entire game has been rendered at an incredibly low resolution, and suffers significantly when played in full screen. Objects, when animated, spring into lovely life, then when stationary drop back into unaliased, often pixelated blurs. Quite why in 2013 it was developed at 1280×720, degrading as it’s stretched, is hard to explain. Unless of course this was developed primarily for tablets – a platform that would suit it far better it’s worth saying – despite their failing to reach the named stretch goal. It doesn’t appear to be for sale there yet, though. So, what then?

Those puzzles I mentioned. Most of the way through it’s pretty simplistic, moving objects about, or moving Lilly about, to progress. But there are some very obscure challenges, usually obtusely involving colour, which don’t spell themselves out at all. Oh, the lights need to be turned all yellow, because that’s the only one that… well, I’m still not sure. The climactic puzzle, again based around colour, follows its own deeply peculiar logic I still haven’t cracked, and really have no idea how I solved it – it just sort of was at one point. Oh, okay then. Small cutscene, back in control once more… oh it’s ended.

So really this a great deal of promise, not realised to various degrees. At £7 it excuses itself from some criticisms, but I cannot imagine how anyone could complete the esoteric plot and feel any notion of satisfaction with that. It’s charming along the brief way, and it’s utterly harmless. But then it stops, and you’re left surrounded in a cloud of huh?


  1. GameCat says:

    Damn, I was waiting for this game since I played demo and now you’re telling me it have some broken things? :x

  2. Baines says:

    More than projects not materializing at all, this could be one of the bigger problems the idea of video game Kickstarters will face.

    Kickstarter is all promise, and games tend to fall short of their promise in some way or another. The difference between Kickstarter and normal games is that with Kickstarter you are pre-ordering potentially years in advance.

    Consider Thief 4. People like the idea of more Thief games, even if it they worry about the developers doing the series justice. As the game nears release, we continue to hear distressing stories and danger signs. That can cause us to wait longer. We can wait for pre-release reviews and still have time to catch pre-order bonuses. If there are no pre-release reviews and sites refuse to say why, we can take that as the danger sign of a review embargo, and wait until after release.

    Now imagine Thief 4 as a typical Kickstarter. We’d be asked to give our money long before the most distressing final six months or so of the project. We’d be asked when it was largely all promise and light, before the headshot bonuses, QTEs, contextual jumping, hot spot rope arrows, and the like details were given. We’d see that news only months after we’d already paid, if they decided to reveal that news at all.

    Short games are another example. Some developers make short games. Maybe Lilly Looking Through was always going to be short, and the 4-6 hours of gameplay was standard developer exaggeration or overestimation. But then you add in a slipping release date. And then you start to wonder whether the developers at some point just decided to call it a day, cut the game short, and ship what was finished. And we see a lot of missed release dates, more than we see in the “professional” game industry.

    • TheTingler says:

      That’s not really a problem, that’s something everyone who backs a Kickstarter MUST realise – it’s the promise of a game, one that might not be realised. I thought your example was going to lead to “release dates slip all the time, but Kickstarters don’t get any extra money if that happens”, which is the problem for me.

      And I think you’ll find people were terrified about Thief 4 the moment that silly logo came out, or the moment it was revealed. And there’s no more headshot bonuses anymore.

    • welverin says:

      Large developers and publishers tend to wait longer before announcing games and even longer before giving hard release dates, so they have much better idea of when the game will be ready when they do so, I’d say that has a lot more with them being on target than a kickstarted game that’s giving a projected release date when they’re still in the early stages of development or hasn’t even start work for real yet.

    • SillyWizard says:

      There’s no problem with kickstarting video games. The “problem” is with anybody who thinks that contributing to a kickstarter entitles them to an end-product that they’re going to like.

      Publishers exist to make money, and they do this by financially backing projects which they deem to have mass appeal; overseeing the projects to ensure they stay on budget and are delivered in a timely manner; preventing the scope from getting out of hand and keeping the developers on task; selling the product and reaping their reward.

      What sucks about this process is that Really Neat Stuff can get cut out of a game because it’s too ambitious, or it doesn’t appeal to the lowest common denominator, or whatever.

      Kickstarting a project to get around a publisher is saying, “No, we don’t want a focus-grouped-to-oblivion soulless game that checks all the ‘right’ boxes but leaves me unsatisfied.” It’s a gamble that maybe this creative guy or gal has a worthwhile vision and can accomplish it.

      But, see, sometimes creative types aren’t really business types. They’re not necessarily the best at: staying on task; having enough ideas to fully realize their concept; being able to trim down the overwhelming number of ideas they have to something manageable; overseeing a team of people and getting good work out of them consistently; managing a budget; any one of a number of other aspects to successfully accomplishing a project.

      What’s great about Kickstarter is that you can contribute to the existence of some brilliant stuff that otherwise would never see the light of day. But the reality of it is that if all of these ideas were safe to give money to, they would simply be able convince a publisher to provide resources the old fashioned way.

      And just like big publishers can ma lot of projects which they decide won’t end up being worth the investment, a lot of Kickstarted projects are going to be clumsy, half- or poorly-finished, unrefined, or simply bad. It comes with the territory.

      Do your research, do your homework, and ask yourself if the hope of a particular project is worth burning $10, $50, $250 or what-have-you.

      (For instance, I was so hopeful for a good PC Shadowrun game that I was willing to throw away however much I pledged just in case it could end up being great. The game ended up being not quite what I’d hoped for, but I did enjoy it and I don’t regret my contribution at all. Alternatively, I don’t do point-and-click adventures, so I’m one of apparently 3 people in the world who didn’t contribute to DF’s Adventure Game. I wish them all the best, but the point here is that targeting your KS contributions to stuff that you’re particularly passionate about is key.)

      Uh. I seem to have gone on for a while, here. Whoops!

      • GameCat says:

        ” I don’t do point-and-click adventures, so I’m one of apparently 3 people in the world who didn’t contribute to DF’s Adventure Game.”
        Me too. Who’s third?

        Also, sometimes game ideas that are looking good on paper can be bad/medicore when you’re trying to bring them to the life.

        • SillyWizard says:

          Indeed, and it’s wonderful to have things like Kickstarter where off-the-wall concepts can be investigated. But again, it’s like when I made a peanut-butter-and-jelly-and-bologna-with-mayo-and-mustard sandwich as a 3rd grader. It had a bunch of components that I liked so I figured it would be worth a shot, but I couldn’t be too upset when it didn’t end up working out. Fortunately nobody made me finish eating the thing….

          I love that Kickstarter is around to let people try and fail. That’s much better than not trying at all.

          • Shuck says:

            “I love that Kickstarter is around to let people try and fail. That’s much better than not trying at all.”
            So, so important.
            People are treating it like a pre-order system for whatever game they’ve imagined in their head from the pitch. But it’s unlikely the resultant game will match those notions. Kickstarters falling short of (individual, unknown) expectations is an even bigger issue than falling short of promises. It’s certainly not a pre-order system. Given the small amounts of money being raised, it’s also extremely unrealistic to expect the sort of length and polish that a fully funded game would have. Kickstarters are ways of funding explorations of particular ideas, at best.

          • Baines says:

            Kickstarter campaign creators are treating it as a pre-order and publicity system. So yes, many contributors are treating it the same way. Notice the lack of games lacking a “you get a finished copy of the game” reward tiers? People know their projects aren’t going to get funded on good wishes and selfless contributions. They are primarily selling their game in advance, and hoping that some richer fans will toss in extra cash for stuff like “get your X in the game” high dollar rewards.

            As for “ Given the small amounts of money being raised, it’s also extremely unrealistic to expect the sort of length and polish that a fully funded game would have.“, first that loses some strength when you look at what other developers have done while asking for equal or less money. People working on a hope or a dream tend to throw off calculations and expectations. But much more importantly, people aren’t just making up “4-6 hours” as some imaginary expected game length. The Kickstarter page said near the bottom that the finished game would, by their estimate, be 4-6 hours. They chose $18,000 as the goal that they needed to meet (and made nearly double that goal), and they said that the finished game would be around 4-6 hours. You don’t get to after the fact say “They only raised $33,000. That’s nothing compared to more expensive games, so you shouldn’t expect a 4-6 hour game.”

          • Shuck says:

            @Baines: Just because some developers have raised less doesn’t mean they’ve spent less. Almost all developers on Kickstarter are spending their own savings (or money from other sources) to work on the games. Games are also starting off in varying states of completeness when they first hit Kickstarter. And of course the cost of games can vary enormously depending on the talent-set of the core developers and how much art, animation, music, etc. they need to contract out, any software licenses they might require, etc.. When Kickstarter campaigns are raising a small fraction of a game development budget, you can’t expect the equivalent of a full-funded game, though you might get it anyways. When backing first-time developers, you can expect their estimations will be off, however.

        • BooleanBob says:

          Steve Balmer. You’re on the wrong side of history.

      • malkav11 says:

        I agree that Kickstarters are always a risk, much as any game project is a risk. But I don’t think it’s true that publishers are avoiding the sort of games that are finding success on Kickstarter because they’re risky. I mean, can you seriously see EA blinking an eye at losing $18k? I can’t. Rather, there seems to be a mentality these days that anything they do -has- to be some tens or hundreds of millions of dollars project that will make many more millions than that and these sorts of games simply aren’t projected to have enough of a market to make that sort of investment. Fair enough. That’s probably true. It’s just that apparently the modest sums they could potentially recoup at the sort of budgets Kickstarter projects are asking for aren’t something they’re interested in courting. It’s that part that doesn’t make sense to me, personally.

        • SillyWizard says:

          Err, I think the “risk” involved for major publishers is more about opportunity cost than the fear that that if they kick $50k or whatever to a small studio for a small game, it might not generate 5x the investment or whatever.

          For a giant publisher, you could give a few tens of thousands of dollars to a couple of dozen different small games and hope that something sticks, and likely if there’s a few good ones in the mix, you’ll make your money back. But you’re also employing a lot of people to liaise with these studios and keep track of their projects and provide input and make decisions — many of which would probably need their own committees. And the focus groups! Can you imagine focus-grouping that many projects?!

          It makes obvious better fiscal sense for big publishers to shart millions of dollars on a small number of enormous projects. Those games have their place, and I appreciate that they draw the crowds of 12-year-olds on the internets to them like so many flies to a massive heaping pile of dung.

          Leave the little guys with lots of heart to make their own way, or die trying. They make the games I increasingly want to play. And when those gems of games come along with a heartwarming Tom Francis story or what-have-you, all the better!

  3. Tom De Roeck says:

    Sadly, as Im developing an adventure game in Flash myself, it is simply impossible to get graphics in there higher than 1280×720. it craps the fuck out. Im starting to regret choosing flash, to be honest, especially since all our animations and graphical work are actually in 4K.

    That being said, my game is episodic. if all goes well, maybe it’ll allow me to switch to another engine and port the first one to it? who knows.

    • Tom De Roeck says:

      John just mentioned on twitter that it aint flash at all. what the hell. no excuses!

      • Shuck says:

        Given that tablets were a stretch goal, I’m guessing they targeted them from the start of the project. But then they didn’t get the money, so gave that up for the moment, at least, but had already started work under those constraints.

    • DrManhatten says:

      First rule of game making: NEVER and I mean NEVER use Flash.

      It is an outdated technology and luckily finally on its way out. Even Adobe has lost faith in it.

      • LionsPhil says:

        Which is annoying, since there’s nothing to replace it in the 2D animation space.

        • GameCat says:

          Unity3D will have more advanced 2D graphics support so it should be also nice animation tool.

          • LionsPhil says:

            Unity isn’t even a content authoring tool.

          • Shuck says:

            Sadly, even with 2D support, Unity won’t even begin to functionally replace Flash.

          • LionsPhil says:

            I suppose I’m being unhelpfully terse: there’s a lot more to Flash than its browser plugin. As an authoring tool, ignoring all the video crap which got piled in and HTML5 video largely does obsolete, and even ignoring all the ActionScript stuff since you can make an argument that Flash games could move to Unity games, it’s still a potent 2D animation tool, and has been since 1997*. It has a very clever brush-tracing based approach to vector graphics that is slick and intuitive to work with, and a mile away from the polylines of Inkscape (or !Draw, for those who remember vector graphcs on the school Acorns). It does automatic tweens (which it’s possible to use subtly, honest), it has onion skinning, it has synchronized streaming soundtracks…it’s a little 2D animation studio.

            Unity doesn’t touch that (or 3D modelling). SVG is just a format, and the SVG editors which exist are, well, Inkscape, and variations on the theme of Inkscape. And a text editor if you want to try to make SVG animation work, or somehow do it with JavaScript. The whole “bluh bluh HTML5 obsoletes everything else” crowd are so far out of touch with what Flash-the-program can actually do (“eww, you expect me to run and research proprietary software?”) I don’t think they even realize this gaping chasm of functionality exists.

            So, as a fan of hobbyist 2D animation, I hope Flash still has many years of life in it yet, until someone writes a replacement for it that actually replaces all of it, not just the subset of it that gets used on YouTube.

            * Or before. I’m not sure what capabilities version 1 had, but all of this is in v2.

          • Geebs says:

            That was literally the only decent defence of Flash I’ve read since it became so unpopular. I was totally going to go off on some stupid diatribe about how it’s fine for Unity not to have content authoring but a) I realised that was totally missing your point and b) I remembered that I’ve basically gone back to winding my own polygons by hand rather than go near blender again, so yes good authoring tools are important.

          • Baines says:

            Being able to use Flash as a vector art and animation program is the only thing I miss from no longer having it installed. When I first tried Inkscape (which may have gotten better since then), I could largely only think about how much better and easier it was to work in Flash.

            As for Blender, I don’t really know how they manage to make that program so annoying. At times I’d almost swear that no one who actually works on Blender has ever used another 3D graphics program in their lives. The UI seems designed to frustrate and get in the way more than it does to help, at least until you learn and memorize the shortcuts and exact steps to do…well…everything that you’ll ever want to do. Even the massive UI overhaul didn’t really seem to help much (and may have gotten worse in a few ways.)

        • Lemming says:

          I thought Gamemaker or adventure game studio, were the way to go for 2D?

        • jrodman says:

          Subsets of the format (with the content authoring) can be reasonably glued into other toolkits. It’s a bunch of work, but sometimes that’s comparable to the purpose-built tools for content authoring.

          Of course, it’s going to rot eventually, but it’s a reasonable tool to use now even without their deployment platform.

  4. Vandro says:

    I Kickstarted this and have been watching the reviews come in. Nice to read one that tells it like it is. The others read like they were reviewing something their kid made at school.

    • G-Lord says:

      That analogy made my day ;). Played through the game two days ago. I do agree that it is very short and the ending is unsatisfying, but I still enjoyed it and don’t regret backing it.

  5. Sheng-ji says:

    This was one of my first ever kickstarters and I am massively disappointed. It only took me 40 minutes to “complete” (I’m the person who spent 40 hours on Dishonored because I was busy soaking up the atmosphere, something I did in this game too) and it is so weird that the backgrounds are so low resolution, in the art book, they are much higher. Speaking of that art book, it was only 16 pages long, including the front and 2 rear covers, and literally half the book is one scene, the other half is the other.

    There are other problems too – the soundtrack doesn’t loop properly, so every 5 minutes or so you get this jarring sudden stop of the music and it starts over, the main character and any objects she can interact with flip to being a much higher resolution than the background and look awful.

    I can’t claim to be disappointed because, well kickstarter but, well this feels like it could have been made without funding honestly.

  6. TheTingler says:

    I played the demo, was charmed, but ultimately didn’t Kickstart it. Why? The developers are film animators, they’ve never made a game before in their lives. Adventure games are really tricky to get right, and it was obvious to me from the demo that these guys would make a charming but boring adventure. I admit I didn’t expect an abrupt ending though. Clearly writing isn’t part of their talents either.

    Some Kickstarter developers just live in a fantasy world where they can just make things. Take this one, for Bridge Commander 2: link to kickstarter.com

    Yes, a sequel to the excellent Star Trek game. There is absolutely NO WAY Paramount/CBS will let him make this game, he seems almost completely oblivious to the legal problems (he’s got an email from their legal department, which clearly believes he’s not doing it for profit), he’s just posted a screenshot with the Enterprise-D front and centre, and most of all – there’s no evidence at all he’s capable of making this game any good. The original had Totally Games. The “sequel” has a delusional fanboy.

    • Shuck says:

      Kickstarters from delusional would-be game makers are painful to see. (I’m also thinking of that would-be MMO from the lottery winner. Ooof.) I suspect the Star Trek game will get a cease and desist letter before the time is up on the campaign.
      This one seems like a case of inexperience causing time/costs to be greater than expected, thus leading to an abruptly truncated development.

    • SillyWizard says:

      I just visited that Kickstarter page and it made me so sad. That poor passionate man, and his $15k kickstarter goal for an impossible project. I wish I could give him a hug.

  7. mechabuddha says:

    I haven’t finished yet, but judging from the save screen, I don’t have much left. It’s cute, it’s pretty, it’s short. And not that challenging. The hardest puzzle so far – the one with the colors that John mentioned – tells you what color you should be aiming for in the puzzle immediately prior.

  8. Seraph says:

    Once again, the entitlement and elitism increasingly on display in RPS reviews make for a frustrating and ultimately unconvincing “review”. Flatly pronouncing “It’s no Amanita game” is akin to going to the movies and coming out the theater smugly declaring “Citizen Kane was better”. Yes, you’re probably right, also you’re a douchebag filled with sewage water, which is to say off-puting AND useless. Disparaging a 2D indie point and click for not having a native resolution higher than 720p is profoundly asinine, most especially after abusing it for not being an Amanita title, of which a grand total of 0 feature higher resolutions (actually, I’m fairly certain there isn’t a 2D point and click in existence which does!). The only legitimate criticism here is that perhaps the game feels a bit unfinished at the end, but given the uninspired negativity on display throughout his review, I daresay Mr. Walker missed most of what was there anyways.

  9. Shazbut says:

    Sorry this is not quite relevant but they’re both adventure games.

    RPS should do a WIT on The Cat Lady. I’m currently halfway through and it’s amazing and I only discovered it through chance. It deserves a lot of words and a lot of interest

    • The Random One says:

      They should, I keep hearing about The Cat Lady being mentioned in good company but I’m not even sure of what it’s about.

  10. Wther says:

    Alas, exactly the same problem with Montague’s Mount; promising a full game and delivering an episode. There’s a fairly comprehensive post on the GOG.com forums about it.

  11. daphne says:

    I’ve realized that I derive actual pleasure from Kickstarter projects not living up to their promises and lofty goals. So many people are betting their reputations — ever so valuable, although shunted off to one side in these fast times apparently — on what appears to be, very simply, a bewildering lack of self-reflection.

    It’s a form of mass delusion, bloated self-confidence not being up to the task. It’s glorious. Lilly Looking Through, Lilly Burning Up. I’ll bury her with the rest.

  12. roguewombat says:

    I love Amanita games and have never been disappointed by their lack of real story. These games are exploratory puzzles where I delight in the environment and the occasional triumph, nothing more.

    However, what’s made Lilly Looking Through magical for me is playing it with my four year old daughter. She gets that I’m controlling Lilly. She expects me to click on things and help her progress. She doesn’t really care that I’m trying to save my brother (though she does wonder why he keeps flying off)… but then… right there… magic when she starts laughing her head off at Lilly bouncing backwards off the puzzles because I couldn’t figure out how to cross the pond.

    The puzzle was entirely arbitrary and took me considerable effort to pass, but I did feel that satisfying sense of accomplishment on beating it. However, I had much more fun playing the failure animation over and over for my daughter because she just laughed</em, man, and I'd pay $100 to experience that with her through a silly little game (or anything else). : )

  13. Premium User Badge

    Ingix says:

    I backed the project, and like many others I was disappointed when the game ended after some 3 hours (I usually play slowly). But after some consideration, it is only fair to mention that Lilly Looking Through is different from both the classical heavily inventory based adventures as well as the Myst-like genre in that it eliminates all downtime.

    It works more like the test chamber beginnings of Portal, where it is absolutely clear what your goal is and that it can be solved with a very small number things that all fit into a single, small room. In Lilly Looking Through, you are actively solving a puzzle at all times. Not wandering around lo find new items or locations. Not trying to combine your whole inventory with some hot spot because you have no good idea what else to do.

    It may look similar in Lilly Looking Through, because you try out levers on a machine “at random”, but you are forced to form ideas about how these things work and then test and apply that to what you need to do, in classical Myst tradition.

    Maybe the transition from the mechanical and time puzzles to the color based puzzles at the end was problematic, because people may not have recognized that color (de)composition was necessary to understand the puzzle mechanism. Getting both Lilly and her brother work in a time puzzle would have been nice.

    So to me Lilly Looking Through is a very good game, and a very short game. It was certainly worth my time and I don’t think of my kickstarter pledge as “lost money”, though I understand when others feel this way or find the $9 asking price too much for the offering.