Before I played Figment [official site], I knew very little about it. I'd heard that it was set inside the mind of a person suffering from fears, doubts and anxieties, which made me think it'd be creepy or heart-breaking, but the screenshots suggested something far lighter and perhaps even humorous. Having played a few levels spread across the game, I'm delighted to find that Figment's finest qualities couldn't show themselves in screenshots or press releases. It's a musical and I found it utterly charming.
One of the conversations that has stuck with me over the years I've been doing this job involved Warren Spector. He was making an appearance at the Bradford Animation Festival and when I heard he'd be there, practically up the road from me, I prepared some notes, jumped on a train, and arranged to talk with him about all things game.
His presentation was about Epic Mickey and its sequel, which makes perfect sense given that Animation was the topic of the day, but later, we spoke about Thief, System Shock and Ultima Underworld. It's the Epic Mickey parts that stick with me though, because Spector's passion for cartoons and musicals (and musical cartoons) came across much more strongly than his passion for his own past work.
He spoke about his dream game being not the next stage of the immersive sim, but a full-blown musical. Epic Mickey 2, with its Mad Doctor who only communicates through song, is the closest he's come, but perhaps SHODAN will have taken some tips from GlaDOS to add to her repertoire in System Shock 3. Take Still Alive, swap out “This was a triumph” for “Look at you hacker” and figure it out from there.
It makes sense for Disney characters to sing, of course, Disney having been in the musical animation business for almost a hundred years. You can see the Mad Doctor in action below. There are spoilers, since this video contains all of his songs, but that gives a good impression of the way music is used in the game. Cutscenes, conversations, boss battles.
Figment, the new game from Danish studio Bedtime Digital Games, takes things a step further, weaving its musical qualities throughout the entire game world. Spector would probably dig it, and I loved most of a build that I played at Rezzed. Like the team's previous game, surreal puzzler Back to Bed, it has attractive isometric landscapes, but here, everything sings.
Most notable are the bosses, personifications of various fears, who do entire song and dance numbers as you fight them. They're comically wicked rather than terrifying, both in song and visual design, and that's true of the game as a whole. The story has something in common with Inside, being about the interior qualities of a young person struggling with anxiety and sorrow. From what I've seen, it's aiming for that elusive Pixar ability to touch on complex and awful ideas without ever becoming inaccessible or inappropriate for a younger audience.
Teeth tumble from the sky and crumble underfoot, referring to the common nightmare of tooth loss, but there are no bloody, gummy maws. The horror is implied and the actual visual is playful rather than grotesque, but there are grim thoughts beneath the surface. I found the themes of each area, and the setting itself, the weakest part of the game. Spiders and teeth and plague - fears reimagined as landscapes and creatures can be effective, but the things depicted in Figment didn't seem particularly imaginative or thoughtful. A surface-reading rather than insight, a little like a less goth version of American McGee's Alice.
But it's not the things themselves that really mattered in the end; it's the way they're depicted. In short, I should be talking about the music, not the molars. Figment looks like a cross between Bastion and an Amanita game. The isometric world is beautiful but it's the way the scenery comes alive as you explore that really makes it shine. Almost all of the elements that make up the world bounce or sway and start to add to the soundtrack as you approach them. It's a dynamic score that is visualised in the world as it plays, and I adore it.
Unlike Botanicula and its siblings, there's no pointing and clicking required to activate the world's many instruments and animations. As in a musical film, the world is simply ready to burst into song at any moment, and your character is the catalyst it needs. You don't need bells on your fingers and toes, because the world gives you music wherever you go.
And in that world, you solve puzzles. There is combat, but mostly you're collecting batteries and hitting switches. These are things that I hate doing. I hate most puzzles, in fact, but I particularly hate fetching things and figuring out what sequence I need to hit switches in to make sure the wind is blowing in the right direction so that I can put that one thing in the other thing to make a platform rotate. Figment made me do lots of things that would normally annoy me, but I was so caught up in the delightful aesthetic of the whole game, I actually enjoyed every minute.
The combat is decent, too. It's a simple case of dodging and then thwacking enemies, or volleying projectiles back at bosses, but it's satisfying and the controls are tight.
I had a warm little glow after playing and I wouldn't have expected that a couple of minutes after sitting down at the laptop, because the game really did have to win me over. The first voice I heard was so sickeningly sweet that I was ready to drop Figment into the bin I reserve for all things twee and whimsical. Thankfully, that cutesy voice belongs to a companion who is a much-needed tonic to the dour player character; they're a double-act, and I enjoyed their bickering.
Mostly, I wish that double-act were the entire focus of the game. I wish it were Silly Symphonies, abstract, daft and comic, without the distraction of phobias and a journey through a traumatised mind. It's entirely possible that the light touch of the musical elements will entwine well with the setting and story over the course of the entire game, but to me it felt like a distraction rather than an accompaniment. The timpani player who won't stick to the script.
Those are minor gripes though, in the grand scheme of things, because Figment put an actual smile on my face, and that's hard to do, particularly on the last day of a show where I've been interviewing and wandering around non-stop. It's a game that relies on a certain level of polish, given that so much of its strength comes from the music and animations, and it looked mighty polished from where I was sitting. I wonder how much my opinion might change playing at home, alone, because it's certainly a game that I enjoyed enthusing about with its designer, and I look forward to finding out.