05 May

Learning to Fly

Well, I certainly didn’t intend to take a month-long break, but now that I’ve gone and done it, I suppose there’s nothing to be done but to forge onward. And what better way to do so than with first-person grappling game A Story About My Uncle? ASAMU was primarily on  my radar because it’s published by Coffee Stain Studios, the company behind the decent action-tower-defense games Sanctum and Sanctum 2, but more importantly the developers of the sublime Goat Simulator.

ASAMU is a game that is entirely based on movement and momentum. It’s a game where you fly through the air with a mysterious crystal-powered energy-grapple that emerges from your gloves and attempt to land on various rocks, platforms, and other bits of terrain. It’s a game where you repeatedly fall to your demise and try again. It’s a game where, ostensibly, there is a story about an uncle.The actual story about the uncle in question (his name is Fred!) wasn’t all that interesting once the introduction was out of the way. There’s a frame story that envelopes the actual game, which has a father telling a story to his daughter about the father’s uncle; the story takes place when the father was young and – while investigating his uncle Fred’s disappearance – comes across a grapple suit in his lab and commences to go on a wild grapple adventure of his own.

The story then gets more and more fantastical, as the narrator emerges in a world filled with blue people and crystals, befriending a young blue girl who yearns for something more than her sheltered life can provide. While the story is never ridiculous, it serves as a very simple foundation on which to lay the game; I never felt compelled to progress because I would get a bit more narration or a bit more backstory on my blue girl companion. I kept playing because I wanted to get to the next platform.

For me, ASAMU ends up being entirely about level design and the core feel and mechanics of the grapple beam (combined, later, with a few additional movement-based tools that get added to the arsenal). There are times when the game literally soars, when I can almost feel the wind in my hair as my character flies through the air, stringing a series of grapples between floating rocks. I feel like Spider-Man, if Spider-Man swung with grapple gloves through a weird alien world with floating rocks. I feel happy and free and content with the world.

And there are other times when I feel like a boy who stole Iron Man’s suit and hasn’t quite figured out what all the buttons do yet. I’ll fly through the air, only to bounce off of a rock, stopping all my momentum and plunging myself into the depths of nothingness over and over. While there are times when the fault is entirely my own – a distinct lack of execution – there are other times when the visual design of the level fails me.

There are checkpoints on the ground that point the way. In between checkpoints, there are scattered small marks on various rocks and outcroppings that hint at where to grapple. This generally works and means that the game can remain immersive, the only UI being a reticle that faintly highlights when grappling is allowed.

Sometimes, though, the fact that there is no way to tell which direction to go if I get turned around combined with the visual sameness of a level means that I have more than once simply hopped off into the abyss so that I could restart at a checkpoint. There have been times when I have mistaken background rocks as actual destinations, jumping off towards them only to discover that they never move any closer. I once grappled and hopped onto a large floating mountain, reaching somewhere I was clearly never meant to go. My view clipped with the ground I was standing on constantly, and I got caught on various nooks and crannies before giving up and slipping down into nothingness.

It’s not constant, but it happens often enough that it’s hard to shake the frustration when it does happen. ASAMU is hard enough when I know where I’m going.

One last criticism: I can only play so much ASAMU in one sitting, mainly because the joy of flying through the air and solidly landing on the next platform only satisfies me for so long. The mechanics are solid and I enjoy them, but there’s a sameness that starts to set in after grappling slightly visually different rocks for an hour.

So in the end, I’m torn. There’s a lot that I really like about ASAMU, and there’s certainly a unique satisfaction that I get from it. But then there are moments when I want to yell at ASAMU for being confusing and obtuse and taciturn. I want to shake it and command it to just tell me where to go and what platform to land on, because getting there is actually pretty fun.