When Jenova Chen first burst onto the scene with 2006’s Flow, it’s a safe bet that you and most everyone you knew had absolutely no idea what an “art game” was. I certainly didn’t. In the absence of any strong digital-distribution platform, the indie scene was smaller, much less visible, and almost entirely restricted to PC freeware and Flash games.
Even within the few communities that did exist, the emphasis was almost universally on mechanical innovation rather than emotional impact. (Don’t believe me? Look through a list of old IGF award winners. You’ll see a surprising number of strategy and multiplayer deathmatch games represented.) If there was any sign that the public was interested in games that made us feel, it wasn’t an obvious one.
In that light, Sony’s decision to sign a three-title contract with Chen’s then-newly formed studio, thatgamecompany, is, in retrospect, nothing short of remarkable. A major industry player throwing a multi-year publishing deal at a developer staffed by recent University of Southern California graduates without a single commercial success under their belt was unexpected, to say the least. But it was a gamble that paid off spectacularly well, giving us a critically acclaimed PS3 version of Flow and the even more successful Flower and Journey.
Little wonder, then, that at the year’s E3 press conference, Sony took to the stage to announce Entwined, a collaboration with another group of former students (in this case, San Jose State and Carnegie Mellon grads)—also incubated at one of their first-party studios, also with an emphasis on delivering an emotional impact, also with simple brightly colored visuals and a sparse instrumental soundtrack. Replicate the conditions, replicate the results, right?
Not quite. Art, as you might have heard, isn’t exactly a science. Those young developers—now calling themselves Pixelopus, a brand every bit as boastful as thatgamecompany was willfully nondescript—may have mountains of design talent waiting to be unleashed, but there’s little of it on display in their debut. Entwined is a vapid, boring affair with little to offer beyond a single basic mechanic and some superficial successes.
More troublingly, it’s a 70-minute game that feels about an hour too long. By the time you’ve finished the first “lifetime,” you’ll have seen pretty much everything that Entwined has to show. You take control of two avatars, a fish and a bird, with each one controlled by its own analog stick and limited to its own half of the screen. As you travel forward down a circular tunnel, you you’ll need to steer each character into orbs of light and through color-coded gates to fill up their respective meter.
In essence, you’re pretty much just playing two of the half-pipe special stages from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 side by side. The emphasis on ambidexterity is neat at first, but it quickly becomes apparent that there’s little room for the idea to grow. While later levels try to mix things up by offering slightly different gate patterns or behaviors, none require a distinct enough approach to actually convey a meaningful change. Nor does Entwined significantly ramp up the difficulty as it progresses. It can’t, really, since there’s only so fast anyone can be expected to rotate analog sticks, and the head-on perspective of the approaching gates prevents you from reading long or complex patterns. The end result feels like a stripped-down rhythm game without the musicality or learning curve that makes the genre work.
Trudge through these portions of each stage, and you’ll bring the fish and the bird together, forming them into a dragon and treating you to a quiet, low-pressure area where you can fly around in three dimensions, collecting orbs and painting the sky with the trail behind you. These open-ended sections feel more contemplative than anything else in Entwined—with richer environments that allow the minimalist art style to shine—but the controls and camera struggle to handle the freedom of movement, and there’s not enough substance to call them a genuine focus.
The bigger issue with Entwined, though, is that it doesn’t really have anything to say. According to all the promotional blurbs, it’s a story about two souls in love who are kept apart by fate. The obvious emotional hook there should be some sort of empathy for their plight—some longing or loneliness—but the gameplay never cues anything more than tedious repetition and the mild pressure of balancing your focus on two simultaneous objectives.
Try to look any closer at the arty premise, and it soon collapses into a mess of questions. Why, exactly, am I controlling two souls at once? Am I some godlike entity, exerting my will on the course of their lives from on high? If so, why can’t I just let them be together from the start? Am I just a dick? And are they finally together when they’re in dragon form? What about all the times before that when I’m forced to touch them together to pass through green gates? If they close out each lifetime triumphantly together, sending beautiful streams of color across the sky, then why all this fuss about being “forever apart”? Because they have to put in a little effort just to get exactly what they want—not once, but for several lifetimes in a row? Because they didn’t hook up as babies? That seems awful spoiled and unsympathetic of them.
Entwined has so many problems, so many abrupt disconnects, that I’d venture to say there’s no meaningful reading to be found anywhere within. The mechanics have about as much relevance to the explicit theme as Pac-Man has to being chased by ghosts or Minesweeper has to ordnance disposal. It’s a convenient enough iconography to map onto gameplay behaviors and systems, but it’s certainly not defined or enriched by them.
I think the fatal flaw, more than any of the stumbles in execution, is where the team started from. In all three of their projects, thatgamecompany took an inverted approach to design, beginning with an emotion and working backward to discover the mechanics and presentation that might best elicit it. Entwined awkwardly fumbles for the meaning in a mechanic that offers almost none.
Entwined spins a single passable mechanic into an overlong (but still quite short) experience with absolutely none of the emotional heft or art-game cred it feigns having.
Sony Computer Entertainment
E – Everyone
|Entwined is available on PlayStation 4. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4. Review code was provided by Sony Computer Entertainment for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|