Get Your Thoughts Straight: Anodyne

Before I started playing Anodyne, I did not know that its title is a real word. An older term referring to painkiller drugs, it has since acquired a wider meaning, describing anything that is blandly agreeable or even trying too hard to be inoffensive. It’s a fitting title for the game, which explores themes of human relationships and the pressures one might feel to maintain appearances or meet expectations. It’s also a slightly ironic title, because I think Anodyne will prove divisive among players, with many feeling very offended indeed at its “pretentious” presentation and use of symbolism.

Anodyne is very clearly inspired by the Zelda series, especially the early entries. It follows protagonist Young on his journeys through The Land, on a quest to save The Briar from The Darkness. This is accomplished by traversing many top-down screens and battling monsters with his broom. Yes, a broom — only one of many early hints that all is not as it seems.

The official page lets the cat out of the bag before one even downloads the game: it’s a game about exploring Young’s subconscious, with an appropriately mysterious and dreamlike feel. There’s something of a stigma surrounding games that deal with issues like this, heavy in metaphor and with meanings that are not always clear. The term “art game” is often derogatory, spoken as if games should simply be fun distractions and should not aspire to anything else. I do not agree; it’s silly to place any limitations on what games can and cannot do. But players who do not appreciate such ambitions will want to skip Anodyne.

It’s a very low-fi affair, its art made of big, chunky pixels and its mechanics simple. It runs at a resolution that is taller than it is wide, likely due to a mobile version also being available (I don’t know whether the mobile version or PC version came first), but it scaled to my monitor easily. Sounds and animations are basic, and one can almost see the hit-boxes underneath the sprites. I loved the low-fi music, composed by Sean Hogan, one half of the development team (the other half is Jonathan Kittaka), under his pseudonym seagaia. Despite some obvious differences, it reminded me of Disasterpeace’s excellent soundtrack for Fez. The controls and basic game mechanics will be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s played the early Zelda games, but they’re not as complex as those games, with only a few new items and abilities available as one progresses through the game. Most of the time, one is simply exploring, fighting, tackling platforming challenges, and solving a few puzzles.

From a purely mechanical standpoint, then, it will be comfortably familiar to Zelda fans but will not satisfy as much as those games. But the real point lies in the exploration, in searching for explanations and answers. Anodyne’s dreamlike world is a fascinating place; what I initially feared would be exclusively dark and foreboding is in fact varied and striking. The early gloomy areas open onto a wide expanse of beautiful fields and rivers. From there, one can find a serene beach or bright, soaring cliffs. Yet these places in turn lead to stranger, more surreal locales. The deeper you go, the weirder it gets, with some intentionally ugly and downright creepy places to visit. All is not sunshine and flowers in Young’s mind.

This isn’t to say that the mechanics are bad, because they’re not. I enjoyed the combat and navigational puzzles, even if some of the platforming could get frustrating. But there are times when the themes and the mechanics are at odds with one another. Exploring a cave while fighting off beasts is a very mundane, videogame-esque thing to be doing, so it’s something of a shock to realize that this segment is actually about Young’s discomfort in large social groups. The juxtaposition itself is effective, with the cave and the its game-like design perhaps representing Young’s tendency to withdraw inward towards the comfort of video games when he’s in social situations, but the player’s actions don’t really jive with this subtext. In fact, the actual play is not nearly as varied as the locales or their themes, creating something of a disconnect.

Then there’s the fact that those hidden meanings are often vague and unclear. Intentionally so, I would argue, but the question of whether the game is effectively communicating itself is not easy to answer. I found I was affected on an emotional level, by mood and feel, more often than an intellectual level. Specifics may have eluded me, but this did not adversely affect my enjoyment as much as I thought it might. I didn’t need to understand everything to appreciate the beautiful places and darker corners, and the sense of mystery made exploration all the more rewarding. I welcomed the fact that Anodyne wasn’t constantly throwing overt explanations at me. Having to actually think about what things might mean was refreshing. I also really liked the ending, which I felt was very fitting, although I expect opinions will be divided on that score.

But that isn’t really the end. Players can continue playing with their progress intact, and a new mechanic introduced (which I can’t help but think was inspired by Michael Brough’s brilliant Corrypt) that enables further exploration of The Land. Much of the main game is spent hunting down cards, but some of these can only be found after finishing the game and earning this new ability. Players are encouraged to comb through places again, finding secret areas which might lead to further cards, and possibly some even more well-hidden secrets. But to be honest, I found this part of the game to be less effective. Much like Braid, the secrets can be incredibly obtuse, and searching for them is frustrating given how easy it is to become stranded and have to start over. But I’m stubborn, and managed to find many of these secrets on my own before I gave up and looked up the rest online.

Even then, the payoff for my secret-hunting didn’t seem worth it. But, my searching for solutions led me to the inevitable internet forum debates over the meaning of the game, which I found surprisingly interesting. Usually I try to avoid such discussions until I have played through something fully, but in the case of Anodyne I think community discussion is part of the experience. In fact, Sean Hogan himself participated in many of these, and reading the various explanations and theories made me appreciate Anodyne much more. I would advise playing through the ending before seeking these out, but reading up while tackling the post-game content will enrich the experience.

Despite the complaints I’ve voiced here, I am very glad I played Anodyne. It’s stuck with me more than most games do, left me pondering the meaning behind certain parts and trying to form my own interpretation of the game as a whole. It’s this aspect of Anodyne that is most compelling, and searching for secrets and searching for meaning go hand in hand. It’s by no means light entertainment — it’s something to brood over, not something for a quick bit of fun — but if you’re in the mood for some brooding, it will fit the bill admirably.

Those interested in checking it out will find it’s on sale directly from the developers, as well as on Steam, GOG, Desura and the iOS app store. If you do decide to plumb the depths of Young’s mind, do come back and let me know what you make of it. Maybe we can figure it all out together.

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