In the spring of 1978, a twenty-eight year old Bruce Springsteen released Darkness On The Edge of Town, an album that reimagined the liberating, escapist fantasy of his career-founding Born To Run as a gritty, realist take on the promise of the America dream. The album crafted a murky, distorted lens with which to view hope and progress. To quote Pitchfork, it was a work of “grim acceptance and pressing on in the face of doubt,” a work best compared to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. The twin developers at Frogmind Games, despite arriving thirty-five years later, have provided us with a similar lens. Their latest title, released in the spring of 2013 by twenty-seven year old programmer Johannes Vuorinen, is called BADLAND. It’s a gloomy, cruel, and explorative journey through a strange world, and more importantly, it’s a game with enough depth to satisfy both casual and hardcore players.
[quote]Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland //
Got a head-on collision, smashin’ in my guts, man //
I’m caught in a crossfire that I don’t understand[/quote]
Printed above are the opening lines of Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town. They’re words expressed to portray the angst and uncertainty of a young man staring into the future, yet they do just as well to describe the violently cryptic cycles of Frogmind’s most recent creation. BADLAND is an iOS sidescroller, but not one to be taken at face value. The title envisions a puzzling synthesis of Pikmin-brand survival mechanics and Limbo-style art direction, a fusion held tightly together by the glue of an almost Jetpack Joyride-esque control scheme, one that allows for weighty acrobatics and nuanced movement. It’s a synthesis that allows the game to exist on two dichotomous levels: For the casual subway-surfer, it’s an artful, level-based gem best consumed in small bites. For the veteran Cannabalt-er, it’s a puzzling amalgam of visual storytelling and challenging replayability.
While the App Store provides an overly crowded sea of similarly side scrolling experiences, BADLAND succeeds in staying afloat on a raft of ambiance and nixed frustration. Succinctly, the game’s sound design and graphic arts come together to create what becomes a beautifully desolate landscape. It’s a scenic, alien locale smeared with Super Meat Boy’s portfolio of meat grinders and rotary blades. Yet, at closer inspection, the rich, expository detail of the backdrop is brought to attention. It’s hard to focus on the scenery while you’re busy guiding your lemming-blob through an increasingly perilous gauntlet of death traps, but this ultimately proves to reinforce the title’s subtle messages regarding progress and perseverance. As Springsteen belts on Born To Run, “Beyond the Palace, hemi-powered drones scream down the boulevard, Girls comb their hair in rearview mirrors, and the boys try to look so hard.” You may not get a great view of the shore speeding eighty down highway nine, but there’s a sense of place that’s reinforced by this blurred, vibrant backdrop.
Moving forward, one unfortunate hallmark of any level-based sidescroller seems to be the innate frustration associated with failing miserably at the end of a long level. For once, this roadblock has been cleverly avoided. Frogmind clearly understands that repetition should never come as a punishment. To this end, failing a challenge plops you right back in front of the offending obstacle, sans game over screen, so you won’t have time to hulk-smash your precious iDevice into the nearest sewage grate. As the critic Mark Richardson elucidates, Springsteen’s characters, like the protagonists of BADLAND, are “cursed with the burden of survival.” This is something that’s strongly communicated with such a rapid-fire respawn rate, and it conveys similar feelings of cyclical trial-and-error. Interestingly enough, it also makes for some pretty convenient subway sessions.
One slight pothole in the formula, however, is the sense that BADLAND features exceptionally strong narrative delivery, but little explicative detail. This semblance of story helps distinguish the work from its more soulless counterparts, but the game seems to expend a disproportionate amount of energy delineating the setting while forgetting just about every other aspect of storytelling. Springsteen’s ballads have always found way of using Asbury Park (or the United States, full stop) as a foundation for the crafting of developed characters and poignant conflicts. Frogmind, however, leaves plenty of room for the addition of essential plot devices like character and motivation, which are glaringly absent from the title. If you can muster even the slightest sliver of concentration, you’ll likely observe the many demonic rabbits in the background, the origins of which are left entirely unsubstantiated. Even more exasperating is the absence of detail regarding the plight of the game’s hedgehog-like protagonists. You’ll spend your hours guiding them along on some sort of buoyant, forced pilgrimage, but beyond that skeletal framework? Nothing. It seems that Juhana Myllys and Johannes Vuorinen aren’t storytellers in the traditional Springsteen-ian sense, but they’re headed in the right direction.
Ultimately, what Frogmind has created isn’t your standard office time-waster, it’s instead a work that explores hope, failure, and determination in some of the same pragmatically hopeful ways that Springsteen managed while simultaneously cruising the coastal highways of his native state. Just as Bruce croons in the opening lines of Darkness, Frogmind’s title envisions a silhouetted, troubled “heartland” full of environmental hazards and “head-on collisions.” That being said, it’s a strange alien world, and in this way, the setting stands in stark contrast to the homey Americana of coastal New Jersey. The strongest parallels, then, lie in the shared themes, the attempts to explain—through setting and atmosphere (and respectively, lyrics and mechanics), what it means to be both dogged and perseverant. The lemmings of BADLAND are trapped in an inescapable cycle of trial and retrial, a cage that’s all too familiar to the cash-starved characters of Springsteen’s work. Richardson says it best, as he encapsulates the album in one short sentence: “With no chance of escape, you have to figure out how to deal with what’s in front of you.”
Truly, the grungy, outlandish realm of BADLAND stands as a vicious neo-New Jersey, a province with rules seemingly dictated by the undying optimism of an ever-rising generation of sanguine, energetic recruits. Frogmind has a focal design mentality: that a player should learn from their individual mistakes and sacrifices, and when the time comes, solider on in the face of adversity. It’s an expansive philosophy, and one that mirrors the struggles of a young man facing the angst and uncertainty of an indomitable future. “We’ll keep pushing ‘til it’s understood,” shouts Springsteen on the album’s opening chorus, “And these badlands start treating us good.”
Beautifully desolate settings, subtly effective sound design, clever gameplay mechanics, weighty, nuanced movement, and an intelligent respawn system
Vague narrative, also, I don't even know what to call those fat little lemming-blobs
Boston-based writer, artist, designer, critic, loser & storyteller. Focused on the intersection of games, culture, narrative, and art. KillerStrokes on XBL, Steam, PSN. @Wherbit on Twitter. http://willpowerarts.com/