They create worlds: Little Orpheus, and the limits of running left to right

One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.

Little Orpheus is gorgeous to look at. It is what we used to call a jump-and-run game; usually such games are called platformers these days, the various Super Mario titles probably being the most famous among them even to non-gamers, but ‘platformer’ is really less fitting in the case of Little Orpheus, which is all about running and jumping – and, as is customary in such games, running and jumping to the right most of the time. The character you’re controlling is the cosmonaut Ivan Ivanovich who finds himself in one pickle after another: pursued by pterodactyls and a Tyrannosaurus Rex in a take on the centre of the earth that is part Jules Vernes, part ’50s B movie, or navigating the innards of a giant while, or racing against the odds in mysterious Lemuria. Or actually, he’s telling these stories – which he may be making up on the spot – to the increasingly impatient General Yurkovoi, who is trying to find out what happened to his atomic bomb and how exactly this ridiculous little man sitting in front of him was involved.

Little Orpheus is undoubtedly beautiful – and yet, I felt less immersed in these worlds than I have in some technically and artistically more primitive ones. Is it that jumping and running doesn’t lend itself to immersion?

Little Orpheus was created by The Chinese Room, whose earlier games Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture I’ve discussed in these pages before they were even called A Damn Fine Cup of Culture; those two games belong to a genre that is called (often derisively) “walking simulators”, meaning that you freely explore their environments while piecing together the story. Really, they’re the digital equivalent to so-called immersive or site-specific theatre, where you are audience to a story that is told in space as much as in time, and your wanderings contribute to the structure of that story. Little Orpheus is not as self-consciously artsy: the latest game by The Chinese Room is really a throwback in various ways, genres and media. It recalls the oldest of jump-and-run games such as Pitfall! on the Atari 2600 (pixels the size of your head, man, I’m telling you!) as well as the Saturday morning cartoons of your childhood, but there are also vibes of Ray Harryhausen movies or the playful oddities of Karel Zeman, and everything is topped off with a healthy dollop of Scheherazade and her tales of One Thousand and One Nights.

And while Little Orpheus may not have a big sticker saying “This is art!” on its forehead, as could be said for Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, it is undoubtedly highly artistic, if in a pulpy way. The people at The Chinese Room have made the worlds that Ivan Ivanovich runs through (yes, left to right) beautifully material and tactile, the fantastic creatures and mysterious edifices and machines shimmer and gleam in the light of alien suns. At times, it almost looks more like stop-motion animation or like the best of puppetry than like computer-animated kids’ cartoons. These worlds that Ivan traverses/imagines are gorgeous – but Little Orpheus plays as if on rails. These places feel less like worlds and more like rides, as little more is asked of the player than to press the joystick to the right and pushing a button every now and then so Ivan Ivanovich jumps over a boulder or some other minor obstacle.

Is the problem the genre of the game? That’s what I thought at first: while walking simulators offer little in the way of interactivity, they do let the player explore freely, and this already provides a sort of agency that isn’t hidden underneath layers of video game abstraction. You decide where you want to go, and then you walk there. Jump-and-run games like Little Orpheus are more abstract in the video-game way. You run, left to right, and your only choice is whether to run some more, jump or stop running. Yes, technically, you can run to the left – but either you just arrive where you started and have to turn around again, or you run into whatever setpiece creature is pursuing you to create the illusion of jeopardy. Oh no, you were eaten by a T-Rex! Fade to black, and you get another chance to run, as you’re supposed to, towards the right. But then I remembered INSIDE (which I also wrote about in this series), and that game pretty much does what Little Orpheus does: it makes you run, left to right.

What makes the difference? Why did I feel much more connected to the ominous world of INSIDE than to the childlike wonder of Little Orpheus‘s flights of fancy? I think it may be two things: variety and friction. As beautiful as Little Orpheus is, its environments are very clearly levels rather than worlds, and once you get past the set dressing – this is the jungle set, this is the underwater level, this is the one in which you run through a fairytale desert – you quickly realise that each level, each world, is pretty much the same, with very minor variations. There are very simple puzzles, but these rarely amount to more than pushing a button (a different one than the one that makes Ivan Ivanovich jump) next to a lever or some contraption. Other than that, it’s run, run, jump, run, setpiece (run right pursued by some beastie), run, jump, run. INSIDE didn’t give the player more options or meaningful choices, but while you run through that game’s world in as much of a straight line, left to right, the world that scrolls by is varied, it changes, it seems to have a life of its own. Your flight from dark forces and certain death is entirely incidental to that world. It is no mechanical diorama – or rather, it obviously is, because that’s what games are in the end, but it doesn’t feel like it. You wonder about the parts of the world that are insinuated at the edges of the screen or that pass in the background. The world in INSIDE seems to have its own rules, it grows inside (no pun intended) your mind. Little Orpheus‘s world, on the other hand, is a simplistic jungle gym. Its life is skin-deep, its mechanisms too obvious and simplistic to help you sustain the illusion. (Thematically, this even makes sense, as Ivan Ivanovich’s fabulations aren’t meant to be credible – but we should still feel the wonder of his impromptu imagination, and that wonder rarely lasts more than a minute into a new level.) Little Orpheus is beautiful, but even when you’re pushing that stick to the right and pressing that button, you don’t feel like you’re doing anything. It really is a Saturday morning cartoon putting the least possible effort into making the player feel in control (or even needed) and the most effort into looking gorgeous. The result is that it is so much more fun to watch Little Orpheus than to play it.

Friction is missing from Little Orpheus, and friction is key to making a player feel like they’re part of a world. Sometimes, often in video games, this friction is largely by challenge, though challenge can backfire. Making the player work hard for success can make them feel more invested – but conversely, struggling to overcome such a challenge can result in a player giving up, because life is too short for this sort of punishment. It is difficult to find the right balance for friction, but ideally it can also just mean that gratification isn’t instant. In a walking simulator, you don’t just teleport to that windmill or the strangely lit building on the horizon: you walk there, which may take a few minutes. Your engagement with the world is measured in time as much as in distance. And the little choices on the way – do you walk up that path in the woods, or do you follow the stream for a while longer – feel like they’re your choices. Meanwhile, INSIDE‘s friction comes less from gameplay (though there is some of that) than from taking in the dangerous, sad world around you, which is beautiful and depressing in equal measure. You are torn between wanting and not wanting to go on, whether to find a way to escape or simply to find out more, scared of what you may discover next.

Little Orpheus offers little in the way of any friction, and as a result it leaves little trace on the player. Which is a shame, because The Chinese Room’s artists and storytellers are excellent at what they do. I wanted the game’s diorama levels to coalesce into a world I wanted to spend time in. But playing the game offered me so little in the way of friction or agency that in the end I would have preferred to watch Little Orpheus: The Animated Series, because then I wouldn’t have had the wrong set of expectations. Or there could have been more game there, more choices, more interactions. Alternatively, I suspect that the ideal players for Little Orpheus as an actual game would be a parent and a small child. The lack of challenge, the simplicity of what is required of the player, the sense of fun that Ivan Ivanovich’s tale evoke and the beauty of the game, I could absolutely see all of these working perfectly for that kind of set-up. I hope that there are many such players in The Chinese Room’s audience, since the artists deserve such an appreciative audience. In the meantime, I am hoping that the next world the developer creates will be one that I want to spend time in and interact with, and not one I’d rather want to watch on a screen, without the minimal gestures towards play. The last thing a playground should do is bore the player.

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