Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Lilly Looking Through - Review

* Read this review as it originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Adventure Lantern.

Lilly Looking Through is the creative effort of husband-and-wife team Steve and Jessica Hoogendyk of Geeta Games. As fans of adventure games like Myst, Ico, and Beyond Good & Evil, Steve and Jessica wanted to create an adventure game that could be enjoyed by all ages. A successful campaign on Kickstarter allowed them to see that goal through to fruition, leaving us with the wonderfully charming game that we have today. With much of the game's development inspired by their daughters, you can tell that Lilly Looking Through was a true labor of love.

Lilly Looking Through takes the form of a point-and-click adventure game following the young protagonist, Lilly, as she attempts to catch up to her younger brother, Row, after he's whisked away by a red scarf-like fabric in the wind. The world in which these two siblings inhabit seems to be relatively primitive; the opening scene features round, wooden cottages along a lakeside buried deep in the woods with gas-powered lanterns illuminating wooden walkways. As Lilly ventures forth in search of Row, we're treated to imagery of run-down, abandoned bits of technology, seeming to suggest that this world has regressed to a simpler time after experiencing an era of prosperity and technological growth.

It should be noted that there is quite literally no storytelling in this game. There are no drawn-out cutscenes, crawling text messages, or dialogue sequences to inform you of this world's backstory or what's presently happening to Lilly and Row. The game's basic premise (catch up to Row) is just that -- a premise. It's actually kind of refreshing to play a game that doesn't feel the need to spell everything out for you, and which just allows you to enjoy its atmosphere and presentation in near total purity. The minimalistic characterization of Lilly and Row, depicted solely through their actions, the way they carry themselves, and occasional vocalizations, is enough to make them endearing in their own childlike simplicity.

Lilly Looking Through is filled to the brim with magical whimsy. While it has many of the requisite elements to constitute a video game (a central premise, puzzles and problem-solving, sequential progression from beginning to end), it almost feels less like a video game and more like an experience. Since there's so little going on besides solving puzzles, much of the experience is just soaking yourself in the hand-painted scenery and the evocative music, and these two elements both prove very artistic in the most literal sense of the word. The puzzles are clever enough to be satisfying, making the actual gameplay worthwhile, but the aesthetic ambiance to be experienced in this game is what elevates it beyond just an engaging video game.

The game is comprised of 10 short "chapters," each basically consisting of one "scene" with puzzles that must be completed in order to move on to the next "scene." The puzzles are all tethered to the environment, always requiring you to interact with or manipulate some contraption; there are no items to be collected or combined in your inventory. At first these puzzles are relatively simple; drain water from a barrel and use it as a step-stool; use a cattail stem on a gas lamp to create a torch and then burn a rope holding up a drawbridge; operate a waterwheel and use it as an escalator. They're not terribly complicated or challenging, but they feel so organic and logical that they're a pleasure to solve.

As you advance through the game the puzzles become increasingly complex, with the final scene having you manipulate nearly ten different hotspots in a multi-step process. As admirable as their complexity might be, the puzzles in the second half of the game aren't always as satisfying to solve as those in the first. Some of the later puzzles are just too complicated for their own good and bog themselves down with trial-and-error. When dealing with some of the later contraptions it's a puzzle just to figure out what each lever and switch actually does, then it's a puzzle to figure out what you're expected to do, and then it's a puzzle to find the solution.

Sometimes it's a puzzle to figure out why a certain solution is, in fact, the solution. With one small puzzle, I apparently solved it before I even knew what I was doing because I happened to use the switches and levers in the correct order while simply trying to discern each one's purpose. On another puzzle I arrived at the solution through sheer accidental luck because I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or what I was supposed to be doing. With certain particularly obscure puzzles you can get completely stumped because the game doesn't always give you feedback to hint you towards or away from your particular line of reasoning.

The process of trial-and-error isn't inherently a bad thing -- trial-and-error is precisely what makes puzzle-solving fun and rewarding -- but it becomes problematic when you're stuck watching long, slow animations between every single action. In the game's final puzzle, for instance, you have to maneuver a contraption to very precise points, a process that requires dozens of clicks, each time requiring you sit and wait while you watch animations you've already seen dozens of times. As delightful as it is to watch Lilly's movements throughout the game, it can really bog down the pacing and inflate the tedium in more complex puzzles where they only serve to slow down your process of arriving at the solution.

Early in Lilly's adventure she acquires a set of goggles that serve as the game's unique twist on the puzzles. When looking through the goggles, Lilly is able to see into the past, with the landscape changing around her to resemble what it once looked like. When you put on the goggles, run-down, dilapidated structures become pristine, almost futuristic-looking. Each scene has you switching back and forth, taking the goggles on and off, and using the differences between the two eras to your advantage. If you need something to climb up to an unreachable ledge in the present, you can switch to the past and plant a tree; when you take the goggles off, the tree will be fully grown and ready for you to climb. This mechanic becomes the central tool in each puzzle and it works remarkably well. Plus, it's great fun just seeing the differences between the two time states.

Although the goal for Lilly Looking Through was for it to be enjoyable for all audiences, I think some of the puzzles might go beyond the capacity of a young child. Younger audiences will surely be driven to the whimsical, childlike visual design, but I find it difficult to imagine a child having a firm enough grasp on how to mix colors of the rainbow by restricted addition and subtraction to solve some of the game's later puzzles. I learned all of that stuff back in kindergarten, and even knowing exactly what to do, it still required a fair amount of experimentation to come to the solution. Meanwhile, I can picture certain adults who'd be turned off by the game's whimsical, childlike design. It seems to me that this game might best be enjoyed when played together by a parent and child, so that the parent can solve the game's more devious puzzles while the child just enjoys the atmospheric journey.

What pains me the most about Lilly Looking Through, though, is its short length and abrupt ending. Sometimes games are at their best when they're short and sweet, striving to offer the most poignant possible experience without outstaying its welcome. With this game, I got between two and three hours out of it -- enough time to fill one afternoon while still being completed in one sitting. Ordinarily that would be fine, so long as it felt like a complete, wholesome experience, but the game's ending occurs so suddenly and with so little resolution that it leaves the whole game wanting for more, which in turn makes its short length into a major disappointment.

The idea, I guess, was to establish a cliffhanger ending that would leave audiences craving for another "chapter" of Lilly's adventure, but in this case it leaves the game we have feeling almost incomplete. This is a game that presents itself as a bit of an intriguing mystery; it makes you ask a lot of questions about its world, and then makes no effort to answer any of those questions. At the very end, it raises yet more questions, and right when it seems like you'll get some answers or have some kind of emotional payoff for Lilly and Row's adventure, something inexplicable happens and then the credits roll. Rather than ending with a wholesome, satisfying feeling, it left me feeling rather annoyed at what I'd just witnessed.

It's clear that a lot of love and effort went into Lilly Looking Through; its aesthetic design, the goggle mechanic, and the organic feel of its puzzles are all a delight to experience. The game is worth playing for those simple reasons, but unfortunately the overall experience feels mired and unsatisfying thanks to its short length and anti-climactic, abrupt ending. If the developers had focused on making the final payoff to this game more rewarding, instead of deliberately trying to leave holes open to be filled in a possible sequel or expansion, it could've been great. As it is, the good averages out with the bad.

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