This past month I did something I have not done in many years. I yelled at my keyboard. I didn’t yell anything in particular and I do not know what I expected the result of this outburst to be, but there I was, sitting in my basement and shouting at an inanimate object out of sheer frustration. The last time I can recall being this angry at a video game controller was Mortal Kombat II, when I just could not for the life of me beat Shao Kahn. I was nine years old.
I’ve spent the better part of my free time this week playing through They Bleed Pixels, a game developed by a local (Toronto) studio that I first heard about nearly two years ago. During Gamercamp in 2010 I was sat in a workshop featuring Jefftheworld and Shaun Hatton discussing chiptunes and the methods in which they design their music. At the end of the presentation Shaun introduced a trailer for what was only known then as TBP which would be a Lovecraftian Horror platformer featuring music by himself and designed by Spooky Squid Studio. We had interviewed one half of that team, Miguel Sternberg, earlier in the year and I felt invested in the project right away. It is not likely something I would have felt had it not been for the experiences of this website and the people I had met along the way.
A hearkening back
Anyone who will find this article may notice that this space has been rather unoccupied for almost two years now. Without going into great detail, I had to take some time to readjust my life before I would be able to approach my hobby with any sort of consistency again. This also meant I dropped off the radar from video game news coverage, for the most part. I stopped subscribing to podcasts, reading most websites and even spent much less time with Twitter. What this transformation represented was a strange return to my relationship with the gaming world as a child. I did not often travel to the store to peruse the shelves filled with games. It was my parents more often than not who dictated what games I would be receiving on any given birthday and I was happy to take what was given to me. I would play whatever game I received relentlessly, until there was no more life left in it and my attention would waver to the outdoors or perhaps some new game had landed in my lap.
I was lucky that most of the games I did get were difficult enough that it kept me entertained for long stretches of time. I played Tetris until the blocks stopped falling and sat watching the sunset with Irene Lew at the end of Ninja Gaiden before I understood that these were even accomplishments. Having tried to play these games again at an older age, I wonder where I found the dexterity and patience.
The one time that I would insist on a particular product was when it was pushed hard by Nintendo Power. My Christmas gift each year would be an annual subscription for the magazine from my aunt and I would spend hours pawing through each issue, reading the comics and looking at all of the tips, tricks and previews for games that I knew I would probably never play. Every so often one would catch my eye and it would warrant a trip to my parent’s room. Holding the magazine high I would point, let my mom or dad study it for a brief moment, and then retreat to my room to continue reading on. If it didn’t come, and a lot of times it didn’t, I would likely have forgotten about it. But when a game did fall under the tree that year, I would go back and look through all of the material and start pulling the game apart inch by inch.
Nintendo Power is officially going out of circulation at the end of this year. And although it has been well over a decade since I have even thought about my old go-to reading material for video games, I still feel the loss for that joy of waiting and wondering what might be in store.
Moving forward to an older me – with much less patience and hair – my relationship with video game news had changed quite a bit. I was tuned into every gaming news site I could, receiving messages on my phone every hour or less with the latest, as well as following numerous journalists’ and developers’ dietary habits on Twitter. When I turned all that off, the trickle of information became more word of mouth and happenstance than anything else. “Oh, that’s coming out? They made a sequel, huh? I think I heard about it when it was first announced.”
The few times I would hop back into things I would see teases about They Bleed Pixels. Even some articles had been sent my way that featured discussions about it from some friends that had heard me mention it before. I did not remember what platform it would be coming to or the tentative date, so I just kept my normal schedule and followed it as tentatively as I would have if it were coming in the mail every month.
Plugging back into the grid recently turned out to be serendipitous. The game was announced around the time Ian and I were planning out a trip to the Fan Expo Canada and would be arriving in the last week of August for the PC via Steam. With a pending release I had felt something about the game that I hadn’t since it was announced and that was a genuine excitement. I had held an interest for a long time, but knowing only as much as the original trailer for the game had showed and nothing more I was eager to experience this product, what had been a culmination of efforts over a span of two years.
Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places
While the release was slightly stalled by some issues with the Steam service, I arrived home after a long day of work and settled in with They Bleed Pixels. For anyone familiar with Spooky Squid’s previous games, which we have discussed on the site before, the artistic style and thematic approach to the narrative should be familiar. If the title did not give it away, the art style both in game and in between is stylized with pixel art. It gives the game a distinct LucasArts era adventure game feel from the outset. You are introduced – via a cinematic – to a child being dropped off at a school for “troubled young girls” complete with a Gothic cemetery and a shadowy figure looking out at the courtyard from the inside of the house, practicing some horrible ritual that will inevitably be bad news for you. A distinctly Lovecraftian style horror presence is carried throughout the game, with references you may recognize from H.P. Lovecraft’s literature and perhaps from the game Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth for those less inclined to the surrealist horror fiction genre.
You are quickly thrown into the game, as your protagonist discovers a book that transforms her into a demon-like creature with bladed hands as she dreams. Her dreams are where you will begin a 2D platforming game with only two buttons to master: Jump and Attack. You get a sense very quickly that this game is not focused on a narrative experience. The draw forward in the game is not the story and you are not rewarded through any small efforts. This game is designed as throw back to some of the earliest platforming games that focused less on power-ups and more on the mastery of movement. The game wants to punish you for thinking too much or not enough and you need to be prepared to die. A lot.
The first levels introduce to you to the world and the basic mechanics. You move forward, jump, double jump and attack shambling enemies that you come across. The world is laden with traps, often lining the bottom of a level, making sure you keep to the ground suspended above them. The game also employs a wall jump mechanic where you will instantly stick to most surfaces, and with the right timing can launch yourself off and continue through the level. You can perform a basic slash attack to damage enemies, you can also hold the attack button to push enemies up or away from you in order to perform combos. You are rewarded for more gruesome deaths and performing long combos in the form of pints of blood that can be used to create checkpoints. This is important. You will need checkpoints.
From any checkpoint you start with three hearts. A heart is removed each time you hit a spike or are attacked by an enemy. Any mistake you make will often result in one of those two things happening, so when you have filled your “Sigil” with pints you can stand still at any given time to create a checkpoint. From there you will regain all of your hearts and if you should happen to impale yourself, be horrible maimed or perhaps just walk into a bed of spikes through a miscalculation of a jump you will begin at that point as if none of the previous poor decisions happened. Of course, a shadow of your corpse will remain there for about 20-30 more lives (ish). I only discovered this after one particular sequence of the game where I saw a pile of my shadowed corpses dangling above me, demonstrating every imperfect move I had made. You are, of course, rewarded for not using checkpoints in the form of more pints for every attack. For those looking to climb up the leaderboard, this is a key risk/reward scenario you’ll toil over and ultimately regret.
I flashback to Mega Man 2 on the NES. I’m sitting in my basement at home in Nova Scotia and tapping the A and B buttons in near perfect sequence. It came with practice, which really means with lots and lots of death. Each world required a specific sequential symphony of clicks and taps in order to progress and each mistake meant starting from scratch. As I am faced with gory demise after gory demise I am reminded of that feeling of focus that I had as a child. Each death marks a specific mistake that must be corrected, and the sequence is there if you just keep going. The checkpoints in They Bleed Pixels show a modern flavour on the old, punishing “Game Over” mentality. It allows you some respite and a break in that sequence instead of having to start all over again.
The game changes throughout the experience, upping the ante with the same mechanics in increasingly diabolic and clever ways. New enemies will appear, each with frustrating abilities and personalities meant to distract you from the goal of staying alive. Each level seems like an introduction to a new style of platforming torture that by the time you have finished it you can look back on with a bit of pride. They have also placed a series of collectibles throughout each level in the form of pages of a haunted book that seems to be controlling your dreams. They are often precariously placed in difficult to reach places and will often result in horrible deaths. That combined with the leaderboards adds an element to the game that will keep you coming back to try and better yourself and perhaps your friends.
I fear my enthusiasm flags when real work is demanded of me
When you begin the game it displays a message recommending the use of a Xbox 360 controller in lieu of the standard keyboard setup. I personally lack a controller that is compatible with my computer, so I forged ahead comfortable with the idea that I would endure. The experience I found myself in was certainly less than ideal. Using a keyboard makes the game’s controls feel heavy and clumsy. Using the same hand with two different fingers to control jump and attack is like learning a complicated drum beat. You will find yourself, more often than not, getting one note wrong and that can result in a swift death in a long sequence of jumps. Depending on the time between checkpoint availability, which is at times very long, this can lead to having to go over 2-3 minutes of the same sequence over and over again. Also, when there are surfaces introduced later in the game that lack friction, tapping on the arrow keys to move yourself around from pillar to platform feels clumsy and the speed at which you are moving too quick to really control. You’re driving a powerful car, but it can only go at full speed in any one direction. You feel like all of the elements for you to be successful are there, but the slight of touch that finesse requires is just not available. It can be incredibly frustrating and might make you shout at your computer desk. Or so I’ve heard.
That said, I was able to make it through more than half of the game with the keyboard. In the interest of comparing the different styles of play, I purchased a wired controller and brought it home to finish off the second half of the game. It was a completely difference experience.
The game pad allows for a subtly of movement that the keyboard simply lacks. Slightly tapping the A button to jump makes you feel more in control than doing so with the keyboard, and being able to using your thumb to switch between jump and attack allows for better distinction of those actions. You are now drumming with both hands. Using an analog stick makes a huge difference you are moving around the level, as well. Changing direction and moving only slightly when jumping makes combos much easier to manage and makes you feel more in control of the movement of the character. This is how the game is supposed to be played and this is how it was designed.
This is where that true sense of old accomplishments can be felt. That feeling I described of conducting a symphony of button presses is now present at all times. Every mistake is my mistake and not the fault of some unseen force. The game is now challenging you to complete it rather than taunting you with a brutal experience. There is such a distinction with the feeling that you will have with the game pad that it is hard to recommend anyone play without it. While I am disappointed that the standard setup does not give the user the genuine experience of control that the controller does, having played through both makes me understand why it had to be that way.
Toil without song is like a weary journey without an end
The music is particularly haunting, it too a call back to point and click adventure games. Unconventional sounds tied together with a distinct drum beat that keeps the rhythm for the entire experience. And although each world seems to carry with it a different tune, it all feels to be part of the same soundtrack. One of the most endearing things about the music is that you would easily be able to distinguish it from other games. With the advent of orchestral soundtracks and booming original tracks scripted by a small group of composers, it is easy to confuse music and scores between different games. What Shaun Hatton has brought to the table as DJ FINISH HIM adds to the atmosphere rather than blend in or distract from it. It creates the world as much as the visual component.
That said, one of the pieces I felt that the music and visuals lost out on was synchronicity with the various styles of levels. Each world has a different theme – be it water, fire or earth – and those themes rarely seem to be captured as much by the score as much as they are the aesthetics. Without the background to remind you of the context within the story, the level design and score does not draw in those elements as strongly as I would have hoped. It is incredibly different to represent water in gameplay and in sound without treading into far too familiar territory, but I felt it would have added a more memorable element to both components if they had been in line with the story progression.
One of the strongest identifiers of any gaming experience as a child was through the music. I spent a lot of my later years gathering up tracks from my favourite games as a child and just reliving the experiences of play through the music. Being able to recall that distinct world is what connects the memory, and although it would be difficult to play any track from the soundtrack to They Bleed Pixels without recalling the experience as a whole, I will not remember each tune connected to a specific world in the same way I will for the underwater music from a Super Mario Bros. game or even the rolling hills covered in the track for Emerald Hill in Sonic. I’m not indicating that the soundtrack should be held against classics in that era of games, but it is easy for me to recall the way those games felt and what those worlds looked like from that music.
The clever way that most of the level design is tied into the story elements is through the shapes of the world rather than the textures of it. A level centered around the inside of a machine faces you with a world shaped like gears, which adds a very tricky element to navigating throughout the world. While this is not always the case, it does invoke the most memorable components of the game for me and it is how I can best distinguish the worlds from each other. Those visuals are what tie the story together as the music lays the ground work for the atmosphere.
I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing
They Bleed Pixels has been an adventure for me, and not just my time with the game itself. It is a representation of good people who I have had the pleasure of meeting in my time in the games industry and the hard work and vision they have to make memorable experiences. I find it difficult to say anything that would detract anyone from playing this game even after sitting down to analyze and articulate its flaws as best I can. It is a unique gameplay experience that I would struggle to find anywhere else and represents a strong, cohesive vision for a game. Through the art and the game itself, you get a great sense of a small group of people who have a mastery of their work.
When armed with a controller I never felt like the game was holding me back. I did not feel punished by the 50 or 60 times I would die in any given level. I understood exactly what I had done wrong, a step I had forgotten or a timing that was slightly off. I knew exactly what I needed to do to succeed and the game did not hold me back from that. Once you have a game that is able to offer you a challenge, but gives you all of the tools you need in order to overcome it, you have done something well. They Bleed Pixels has that in spades and having taken a second play through on a few of the worlds, I found myself floating through with ease and considering making a go of the speed rounds and high score competitions. This is a game that will make you feel good about succeeding as much as it will crush you for failing and that is exactly what good game design should be.
I do not think I will ever be as “good” at video games as I was when I was younger. I lack the patience and commitment that those experiences take. However, They Bleed Pixels captures a lot of the elements that made me love those experiences. It’s not an experience that modern games strive for, that true sense of skill that is required in order to progress through the experience. A world where the only hindrance is your lack of focus and the flooding of chemicals through your brain that block your neo cortex from rational thought. If you stop, understand and pay attention you can get through.
Congratulations to the folks at Spooky Squid for the game and to Shaun Hatton for the soundtrack. It is an experience I would find hard not to recommend to anyone with the means to play it.