When I was asked by a friend — twitter’s @symon — to play Owlboy, I was definitely intrigued. The game had a lot of the hallmarks of previously successful Videodrone subjects, particularly pixel art and a playful sense of mechanics. I assumed it would be a pretty fun Mega Man styled game, a throwback with some meat attached that would allow me a romp through old aesthetics and mechanics while trying to make something philosophical out of the mess. What I discovered, however, was a game that was not only self-aware of its nostalgia traps, but that used those traps and their formal cues to create a self-reflexive game that is evocative and emotional on its own terms.
What I found, in other words, was way too much to write about.
As a hedge against becoming a dilettante in my analysis, this is part one of two. Owlboy does a lot formally and narratively, and I’m going to leave a lot of the latter for a second analysis this week focusing on, improbably, the early work of Gilles Deleuze and the idea of repetition. I promise it works, but you’ll have to wait to see how.
For today, I want to talk about Owlboy as both an adherent to and rebel against the retrogame aesthetic, particularly as concerns its mechanics and look. Because on its surface the game is pretty committed to a throwback, Neo-Geo or Super Nintendo experience. When I saw screenshots initially, the experience I expected was something akin to Mega Man X, maybe one of the later ones. When I actually started playing, the extremely expressive faces and detailed attack animations reminded me of the Metal Slug series — lovingly crafted and centered around a few simple but repeatable moves.
But Owlboy expands outward from its relatives in two very important ways: one, it’s simply bigger than the others are, and two, it plays with the mechanical quirks of the games that came before it to construct a more total experience. To the first point, Owlboy is enormous not in terms of world-scope — it’s fairly linear, though it connects in the way that other games like Cave Story do, by way of back tunnels or cleared areas — but in terms of designed area. Put it differently: Owlboy renders an entire world as you move along, a clearly designed and detailed, non-repeated world that you can fly through and explore. The designers clearly wanted this to be beautiful in its “retro” quality, and erred on the side of quantity of objects instead of length of game (successfully, I might add).
So while it’s short, Owlboy feels like a fully rendered world, complete in concept and realization and as a result far more tangible than you’d expect from the abstraction of pixel graphics. In some ways, this recalls the shock of Impressionism at the Paris galas in the 19th century: the full rendering of figure is less able to tell a story than the more abstracted but no less detailed Manet conversation piece. The former tells the story openly; the latter insists upon audience recognition of the work without offering any quarter to the viewer. You either get the Manet or you don’t. Similarly, you either inhabit the world of Owlboy fully or you quit ten minutes in.
And part of this inhabiting is the game’s central mechanic: flight. If you watched any of my streams, you’ll know that I literally could not stop talking about this aspect of Owlboy. The two basic moves you have in Owlboy to solve any given puzzle are flight and holding different “helper” characters. The character aspect is fun and emotionally relevant, but not exactly new: they resemble Mega Man powerups or other team-based games like The Lost Vikings. The flight element is pretty special though because, well, it’s extremely intuitive. Unlike almost any other flight mechanic in any game I’ve played, Owlboy’s somehow feels as natural as moving the character around the screen or hitting the attack or item button. You just choose to fly and do it: it’s not a finesse operation, it’s a necessary part of the game.
What this does, aside from freeing the player to just enjoy flight which is remarkable on its own, is that it breaks the cardinal rule of videogames: the top of the screen, beyond your jump, is canonically not accessible. In Owlboy, this rule is turned on its head early and often, as you’re expected to break that particular boundary and fly high to discover not only secrets but necessary parts of the game you have to finish. And so, with the glue of flight, Owlboy merges the shooting and agility feel of MegaManX, the aesthetics of Metal Slug, and the exploration of Super Metroid. But more importantly, it keeps its own feel, one that is at once pleasantly two-dimensional while also being deeply concerned with, well, depth.
In literary criticism, the vertical and horizontal dimensions are usually the domain of narrative criticism, particularly theories of temporality. The synchronic is understood to be linear time, the minute-by-minute account of life; the diachronic on the other hand is time in an instant, contained past-and-future all in one go. Think of synchronic time as the experience of reading a book page by page and diachronic time as the experience of thinking back on a book that you read a month ago. One experience brings a sense of repetitive but differentiated time, the standard videogame option, and the other brings a sort of undifferentiated experience of the temporal, what Walter Benjamin might call divine time. Or what we might call recollection.
Owlboy recollects in many ways, we’ll see that to be sure in our next installment. But above all, I think we have to acknowledge that the ability to move left and right and the ability to move up are markedly different categories of videogame movement. The former is synchronous, akin to the earliest side-scrollers or bullet hells, even pre-cursors like Pong or Adventure. You move forward or backward. To move up, however, implies a dimensionality that is actually not even encompassed by contemporary 3D titles. Vertical movement as an element of gameplay is the formal echo of the emotional and narrative recollection that Owlboy trades in so effectively. While we’ll get into this a bit more next time, I think it’s worth remembering that the narrative of the game works because the formal elements support it; Owlboy, in other words, would be just another game if not for its y-axis.
The vertical approach to the game allows its totality, as opposed to strictly horizontal games. What it does with this totality, we’ll talk a bit more about in a few days.