First Look: VoxatronBy Yannick LeJacq | November 13, 2011 | Previews | No comments | Share
I remember the odd feeling of first encountering a bug in a video game. There are many questions that you must put to rest when you first turn on your computer, some unspoken social contract you form with the inanimate screen before you when it comes to life, builds a ground for you to stand on, and erects solid walls and the other foundations of reality that you accept despite their impermanence. Voxatron is a game that does away with all of these notions and biases. Your first steps into its world are the first steps into water, thinking for one insane and hubristic moment that you may be able to walk, the heedless bounds Wile E. Coyote still makes as the ground before his feet thins into nothingness.
You accept boundaries when they prove themselves convincing. You walk into a wall, your gun still sliding up and down in its sauntering momentum, but something has now immobilized the feet you thought you had at your disposal. In the moments when you encounter a glitch, all these boundaries dissolve, and you realize the true smallness of a game world and more clearly your place in it. Floors crumble and walls split apart into a flat, emotionless gray as you suddenly reel outwards from the boundaries of play.
Stranger, for me, is the degree of trust you bestow upon a game to keep you alive, a trust that leaves you stepping gingerly towards the borders of constructed surfaces as if I were truly scaling the edge of a cliff, or crouching desperately in the corner of a room hoping that by some act of grace or divine intervention I will survive despite the fact that I am, essentially, an invincible combination of blood, flesh, and pixels.
What do you do, then, when you have spent your entire entire life learning to accept these rules both harsh and unspoken, the firmness of these walls, when suddenly they don’t exist, when they dissolve into the raw materials of three dimensional graphics at your slightest touch?
The Deconstructionist Video Game
Voxatron is a game that forces the player to take risks, to ultimately discount the power of any material that lies before you. Walls and stairs are transient constructions, enemies ghostly apparitions that materialize randomly and erupt into pixelated matter. The game’s lego-like visuals bring to mind many comparisons to Minecraft, with one crucial difference. The core value of Minecraft’s gameplay was inventive construction. In Voxatron, gameplay is an ongoing process of creative destruction. The game’s blockish enemies and terrain reassures the player that none of these objects have a timeless impermanence. As they were made, they can be unmade.
In Voxatron, gameplay is an ongoing process of creative destruction.
A video game, in a certain sense, must always wear its rhetoric on its sleeve. But at the same, games often appear more apt than any traditional media at concealing its own rhetoric from the naked eye. The overwhelming success of recent AAA games overshadow any hint of criticism (much less any review score lower than a 9 out of 10) at a new Call of Duty, Deus Ex, or Batman despite some problematic social issues all of these games raise (orientalist jingoism, racism and classism, and misogyny respectively).
I’ve enjoyed playing all of these games. Taking issue with different details such as the ubiquitous and puerile invocation of the word “bitch” in Arkham City is thus perceived by many as unnecessary nit-picking, particularly when writing for an audience that, for some reason, feels justified in hurling homophobic slurs at you when they disagree with something as seemingly trivial as your scoring policy. But as increasingly influential and ubiquitous cornerstones of not only the entertainment industry but Western popular culture more broadly, learning how to interrogate these dimensions of games is undoubtedly necessary.
How, I wonder, does a game start asking you questions?
What is the first experience in a game that wrenches you out of your state of play?
Blocks That (Don’t?) Matter
There is a deeper question here, and it concerns how games might be able to acknowledge or subvert their own rhetoric. Like all popular forms of artistic expression, video games are intricately structured cultural artifacts. Questions of structure and meaning quickly become problematic when we are speaking of something as ubiquitous and protean as language, let alone the complex interconnected factors of computer programming and fine art that build any semi-legible video game experience. Yet still philosophers ask the Derridian question of how one might patrol the borders of sense and incoherence, truth and falsehood, life and death. The possibility of using a video game this way is simultaneously more inviting and more problematic, for how can you use a medium that requires immense structure and syntactical precision to imagine a world without any?
Perhaps a genuinely postmodern game would play more like a sudden moment of ludic incoherence, the Wile E. Coyote sensation of structures betraying any trust or subjectivity. Rather than a disorienting struggle with narrative cohesion (by that standard, the majority of games could probably be classified as “postmodern” in one way or another), such a game would play more like Calvinball—a game you must continue to play even as the rules constantly change.
Voxatron’s rules don’t exactly change. What makes the game so engaging is that the rules almost seem to not exist. Every material in the game—the chunky bits of gray that fall above your head to simulate rain, spiraling projectiles that take away your life, surfaces both harmful and benign, are all cut from the same roughly pixelated cloth. When shot, enemies do not fall over in pain or rigor mortis, but disassemble into their assorted parts with a cartoonish popping noise. Your character dies with more fanfare, but a similar explosion of the game’s atomic, life-and-matter-bestowing materials. Whatever animus holds together the cluster of blocks that constitutes your player character and your enemies in the time between their births and deaths remains a mystery. For pixels thou art, and unto pixels shalt thou return.
From its first impression, Voxatron’s gameplay is deceptively simple. You can run, jump, and shoot. There are a handful of items that you can pick up to grant you slightly movement or attack abilities which, combined with the cleverness of the game’s level design and incredible artistic inspiration, offer some wonderfully innovative possibilities. The blaster gives slower but more assured firepower to take out the larger Diablo-like horned creatures. Triple shot helps scatter your firepower to take out the pesky hordes of squeaking blue squares. The adorable but formidable sword of fortune can fell most any foe in one or two hits, but requires you to be far too close for comfort.
Voxatron is still in alpha, so it is hard to extrapolate much from the shortcomings of its single player experience. My primary complaints were with the ambition of the game’s design, which seemed to pale in comparison with the wonderfully odd and inventive scope the game creates for itself. You only use many of the most interesting items once or twice in the hour or so the adventure mode takes to complete. And the promise of fully destructible levels is often stronger than the malleability of the levels themselves. Large bugs, devils, and angry robots lunge at you, breaking apart the flimsy terrain of the level you were hoping to use as cover. But destroying the levels yourself is often a simple exercise in grinding, asking you to chip away at a large block until you have sculpted a haphazard slope to reach some health bonus on top. On an aesthetic level, the game’s music and sound is sorely lacking despite the game’s self-consciously vintage look.
But these are largely issues with the overall balance of the game. It is impossible to judge how much Voxatron will be tweaked in the time before its final release. In terms of its core concept and execution, I hope developers at Lexaloffle games don’t change much. In the meantime, the alpha offers a level editor with easy means to produce and access player levels. And the game is still being offered alongside two other stellar indie titles—Blocks That Matter and The Binding of Isaac—at an obscenely low price for one more day. I hope that the final release of Voxatron will embrace all of it its awesome, quirky potential. There are some incredible, strange moments here, and I hope to see more of them soon.