Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The End is Hard to Find Via Search Engine

Preloaded have just released a new game for Channel 4 called The End, a sort of platforming/puzzle game that incorporates an interesting level of introspection. The End tries to tackle different aspects of life, death, and the afterlife, asking you to stop for a moment to reflect on your own life and principles, while considering a series of "yes or no" questions. It's a provocative idea that promises a lot of depth, but its impact is a little mired by the gameplay. More after the jump. (Link to play the game at The End of the article.)

The End is primarily a platformer. Your objective in each of the levels is to find a key that will let you unlock one of the two doors at the exit and thus proceed to the "boss." Getting through the levels requires the usual affair of jumping, climbing, and puzzle-solving. It's all fairly functional and can be compelling at times, but it feels somewhat rudimentary and not particularly exciting.

The unique "twist" on the platforming is that you use shadows to create ledges and platforms. Depending on how you move and where you stand in relation to a light source, your body will cast shadows at different angles. You can then enter your own shadow and cross the shadow ledges, or use them to manipulate items in the environment. It feels somewhat creative to interact with the shadows, mostly because they require a little more thought than the rest of the platforming.

Crossing a gorge: A moving platform blocks the light from above, casting a shadow as it moves.

But the shadows can be finicky at times, especially when they're used in puzzles. The later levels have some complex puzzles that take quite a bit of trial and error to figure out. You're often presented with several different things in the environment, and you have to interact with them one by one to figure out what they all do, and then experiment with different sequential orders to find the correct solution. Sometimes they cause instant death, and at other times you have to start all over because the shadows didn't work the way you wanted them to. Ordinarily I don't mind this kind of gameplay, but it feels a little too demanding for what should be just a casual gaming experience.

The rest of the platforming is also kind of spotty. The physics are inconsistent with your character feeling glued to the floor, and then sliding across ledges as you land. Changing directions in mid-air also has unpredictable effects on your momentum, and it's sometimes a crapshoot if your character will grab a ledge, or whether he'll jump or not. These aren't major problems, and they're certainly alleviated by the frequent checkpoints, but they do detract from the fluidity of the experience. Especially since a handful of levels are based so heavily on trial-and-error that they almost stop your progress completely.

The "boss battle" at the end of each level is kind of a board game. You're dealt a couple of hexagonal playing pieces, which have numbers along the edges. The numbers allow you to claim the other player's pieces; if you place an 8 next to the opponent's 6, then the color switches from black to white. You place pieces strategically to defend them from being converted, while trying to convert as many other pieces as possible. Once the board has been filled up, whomever has the most claimed pieces wins.

The "boss battle" board game. Higher numbers beat lower numbers.

As you beat levels, you also gain new special powers that allow you to manipulate the pieces. You can rotate them, increase your own numbers, decrease your opponent's numbers, make a piece invulnerable, automatically convert others, and so forth. You can only take a certain amount of specials into the match, and more powerful ones cost more towards your limit. The game can become extremely strategic, sort of like a complex version of checkers crossed with rock-paper-scissors, but it's never particularly challenging, and also feels a little out of place.

The levels are split into three sections representing Body, Mind, and Spirit. Besides having a different visual aesthetic, the questions at the end of the levels all relate to one of the three themes. Questions in the Body section are about more physical, tangible aspects of life and death; questions in the Mind section are more about psychology and thought; and questions in the Spirit section are about philosophy and things beyond mere humanity. Here are some of the kinds of questions that come up:
"Do other people's memories mean that we live on after death?"
"Would you still be yourself if your mind were placed in another body?"
"Should it be possible to laugh at death?" 
"Is it important to commemorate the dead?"
This is where the game's main gimmick really comes into play. Your answers to each of the "yes or no" questions get recorded and plotted against a grid called the "Death Dial." Your answers push you into one of the quadrants "Awakener," "Truth-Teller," "Mystic," or "Crusader," (these representing different life philosophies) and your position gets compared to renowned figures throughout history (such as Einstein, Descartes, Machiavelli, Nostradamus, etc). The game then describes characteristics of these different philosophies, and is meant to tell you something about yourself.

As interesting as this sounds, it doesn't feel integrated with the rest of the game. You may as well just fill out a personality questionnaire online, for all of the impact this element has on the game. It doesn't affect anything at all, except for whatever personal enlightenment you may divine from it. I didn't think the questions were very thought-provoking; I immediately leaned one way or the other, and even after thinking it over I still went with my initial disposition. Perhaps if the questions were a little more involved than simple "yes or no," or had some kind of context to them, or some kind of set-up, or some kind of relevance to the game itself, then this could've been a rewarding mechanic, but the ultimate effect of it is actually underwhelming.

Some of the stats that get recorded as you play. Click for a larger view.

Taken as a whole, The End is a decent way to spend some time, but it's not the most entertaining or enlightening way to spend that time. There's an interesting social mechanic involved--you play on a live server with other players running around, and you can connect it to your Facebook account to play with friends and to see how they answered questions. This makes it a little more appealing, but it's ultimately kind of a mediocre game. It only takes about four hours to complete, though, and it's free to play, so it's still worth at least taking a look at. You can play The End here.

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