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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.

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