This is going to be my first post in a new experiment. That is, I will attempt to post about a new Indie game every Wednesday for the next month to see how it goes. And I hope you will join me along the way.
The idea is to play some different indie games that have something different to offer compared to AAA titles. Not only play the games, but of course analyse them as well. See what they have to offer, what works and what doesn’t work in the particular game, and hopefully learn something about games along the way.
This week we take a look at a rather short game called Antenna, which can be found on Steam, and created by LWNA in 2016. The only thing I could find as way of introduction was the following:
“A machine ponders its loneliness. It scans the radio spectrum for an answer to its question.”
So based on this, going into the game, I expect an atmospheric game that in some way will explore the concept of loneliness. And in a sense, that is also what I got. In a sense. Let my take you through my journey and explain.
Also, if this post makes you curious about the game, then I suggest you check out this video, where you can see how I react to it hands-on:
The game starts out simple enough. It is 2D, dark but calming colour scheme, ambient music in the background, and all I had to do was press one button at a time to make some kind of antennas rise up from the ground. At this point there is definitely already a feeling of emptiness and lack of life in the game world. But that was soon to change.
After I got the antennas set up, I encountered the first puzzle of the game, which to be honest, didn’t do much towards the experience of the game. A bar shows up, and evidently the player is supposed to scan this bars radio frequency, and activate the right frequency. The problem was, there were no indications as to what the right frequency might be, or indeed what I was supposed to do with the two buttons I could press.
And so, I probably spent a good ten frustrating minutes scanning this radio frequency and listening to various screeching noises that were not comfortable for the ear, although there was also the occasional frequency that would transmit voices speaking an unintelligible language. My personal guess was Russian. Finally I stumbled upon the right solution. I found the one part of the frequency where there was near silence, which was apparently what I was looking for…
It all makes sense in retrospect. And I think generally in retrospect I like this game a lot more than I did whilst I was playing it, which to be honest is not the most positive thing to say about a video game. Basically what I am saying is, I like the ideas, but think it was lacking slightly in execution. But only slightly, as I still at the end of the game found myself wishing there was more. Anyway, back to why this first puzzle actually makes sense. We by now should know we are playing as a robot, and that it is lonely. Scanning the skies is a way of reaching out to someone, or something, in this ambient but empty world. When scanning these frequencies we generally draw a blank. Stumbling upon random beeps, screeches, and voices. Usually human voices would be a good sign, but if you are a lonely robot, then maybe you don’t identify with humans. For that matter of fact, it might not even know what a human is – which just accentuates the isolation of this being. The silent frequency represents a chance to reach out, to transmit our own signal in the hope of someone else out there is listening. So you see, contextually this puzzle makes perfect sense, in alignment with our machines loneliness. However, I can tell you, when jumping into this game with no prior knowledge about it, this context is initially lost, and all you have in front of you is an infuriating puzzle.
In other words, there is a slight issue with game design here. Yes the game quickly establishes itself as a puzzle game, but the logic of the puzzles are hidden – too well hidden. And so the aesthetics of the game are slightly too intricately woven into the dynamics of the game, which makes it clever, but maybe slightly too clever.
Moving on I finally got to meet the little protagonist of the game. It is an insect like machine that I do not hesitate to call cute:
It seems very deliberate and stout in its movements – and I get the sense that we really are on a mission now to find companionship of sorts. The sky in the background is also brighter now, which leads to a slightly more positive atmosphere. Our little machine plods along, charges up, raises some more antennas without much difficulty, but then I have to manoeuvre it underground, and things change. It all becomes, a bit stranger again, and more challenging.
A new puzzle emerges in the dark underground passage, where I had to match up some sounds:
Now this puzzle wasn’t that difficult, which was nice. Didn’t make me feel like a complete idiot, unlike that first puzzle. But, it just seemed out of place. It was like having to finely tune an instrument, which is a fine concept, but we haven’t previously had to work with sounds transmitted by our machine(s), and so the whole thing seems out of place. This could have easily been tied together through the use of these sounds earlier, as for instance played when we find the right frequency in the first puzzle – this would create a more unified sense of what we are doing in the game.
And so, this puzzle is strikingly disjointed aesthetically compared to the first puzzle. Moving on we quickly hit the third puzzle of the game, which once again upped the difficulty level. I think maybe this was the one I had the most problems with, and almost gave up on.
Here we have to type in the correct password. Once again there are no instruction and no help, so we are left to fend for ourselves and figure out the pattern. The way I saw it, this could either be an actual pattern created by the buttons, it could be a word, or it could be sound based (each button had an individual note assigned to it, which was activated when pressed). At least here parallels can be drawn to the previous puzzle, but really only because sounds were a part of the puzzle – other than that, the similarities were few.
Usually for a game to be accessible for players it plays on conventions. A game uses something we know and recognise, and spice it up, with its own twist of deviation from the norm. I think my main problem with these puzzles is that they just deviate slightly too much. They make the challenge of solving the puzzle to great, that I honestly forgot about the setting of the game. Gone were considerations on loneliness, isolation and exploration, and instead all I could think of was how annoting this damn puzzle is!
This is a shame. Because it is a very interesting game with a lovely ambient sound scape, and a nice clear style of visual representation. It is a game that shows much promise, and could definitely be developed further, and made longer. I am just left with a feeling that it could have delivered better in the first place, as it sadly does not convey many interesting ideas concerning the machine and its loneliness, apart from my points in the beginning about the frequencies.
This game comes to show how important it is to have mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics all in congruence, if the game is to explore delicate subjects such as loneliness. In this case, the dynamics of the game i.e. the difficulty of the puzzles, hinder the aesthetics of the game to shine through properly. The two needed closer integration of intention.
I realise that I have been slating the game somewhat here, but it isn’t meant as hard criticism, but simply points that could be improved upon – because ultimately it was still an interesting game to play. Now that you have a little background knowledge I recommend you giving the game a go. It doesn’t take long to play at all. Let me know what you think.