PAXtravaganza 2013!: BLEAK


One of the more strange experience at PAX East came from the game BLEAK.

Well, not so much the game as the booth. Not only did I NOT get to play BLEAK at all; what I received instead seemed more an appeal to my game-playing tendencies of 1990s platformers along with a desire to see a video game with a fully consistent world. Both those things, of course, appeal to me – I would like to see such a game actually exist, rather than just forming a pleasant daydream – but I am cautious and weary of the product itself without coming to grips with how it actually plays. This comes especially with the appeals for Kickstarter money to the tune of $50,000 dollars! The people at the booth seem passionate enough, and that’s what counts I wager, so let’s move on with it!

Described as a “Massive Fantasy Action Platformer”, BLEAK plans to emphasize a story taking place in a rather original world. Appropriately named, the Kickstarter describes it as such:

Imagine a world where immediately upon birth your dominant arm is amputated and replaced with a pickax. As soon as you can walk, you’re sent into the darkest, coldest mines to extract a precious golden metal known as “Core”. You have no choice. The omnipresent “Cultivators of Good” will punish acts of defiance with denial of food. Your family gets their rations by working in factories and building new augmentations for future workers. Unlike you, their limbs have been swapped with wrenches and hammers.

To the north flows an ocean of acid and past that lies the distant island you know only as “Suffer”. This is where you’re told the disobedient are forever punished. To the east looms a river of green and orange sludge and imposing cliffs just beyond. And even farther menaces the seemingly endless wall called “Never”. Its name developed in response to the fate of any who attempted to scale it. They were “never” seen or heard from again. Or at least… that’s what you’ve been told.

You are a Sourcer of The Pinnacle and if you’re not dead, or your mouth isn’t sewn shut for questioning your life… you are without doubt one of the lucky ones. Oh and if you ever see what looks like a moving tree or two small, round, glowing circles off in the distance, we regret to inform you that escape is impossible. You are as good as dead.

Bleak enough for you? This world is mean, dark, and cruel. Its massive scope and landscape require your brave exploration despite the necessity for constant vigilance as new monsters and mysteries lurk around every corner.

I’d call that rather disturbing any day. Check out the Kickstarter and you’ll see that they’ve spent untold hours crafting an entirely original setting, lore, languages, and non-traditional fantasy races. Clearly they’re not intending to reiterate the same Tolkien fantasy tropes you’ve seen in a million games before. They want you to invest and care about this new world and its inhabitants. Obviously, this goes against the grain in terms of modern game design – they want you to like the characters, so they force you to like them through funny jokes (Uncharted) or being “relatable” in extreme circumstances (which doesn’t really apply, but that’s a different article for a different day). BLEAK would rather tell you a story, and then let you participate in that story, a high-class version of those Choose Your Own Adventure book without all the cheesiness.

That’s all well and good, but I hoped for more information along the game development front. From what I speculate, it appears they’ve spent an entire year in pre-production forming the world. The game comes later – that does not light my fire. I found them frequently comparing the game’s mechanics with Super Mario World (the SNES one, which I find rather easy) and its difficulty as “satisfying in overcoming challenges”. How does Super Mario transform into a tiny emaciated child, I have no idea, but Tenwall Creatives‘ ambition reaches to the stars. These seem like far-reaching comparisons in such a dark world. As well, the game’s not supposed to remind you of a Metroid-esque game (or that blasted Metroidvania portmanteau), but a linear path with choices in your path. I would guess that means no backtracking either. I’ve seen video footage, but the specifics of jumping mechanics remain lost to me. What will kill you? What doesn’t? At least the game’s art forges a unique style.

BLEAK Screenshot


Of course, that’s all par for the course in game development – depending on what occurs in the meantime (whether or not they hit their funding goals will determine a great deal, I imagine). They may completely change the design of the game, or whether or not a platformer remains the best method to convey their story and themes. Whatever the case, there’s not enough information to make a judgement of any kind, nor will there be in the future.

However, a few things caught my eye on the page that I thought I’d point out:

In order to make a platformer this massive and this conceptually experimental, we have to bring it straight to our fellow gamers. Publishers typically want nothing to do with innovation because they are set on the proven sell. But we truly believe that other gamers like ourselves would relish the opportunity to play a game that’s edgy, creative, and utterly original and yet at the same time a bit of a throwback to the the late 90s Glory Age Of Gaming when stories, lore, and characters mattered. Kickstarter seems like the perfect vehicle through which to accomplish our goal.

That they’d find Kickstarter the ideal vehicle seems obvious enough – a game that is, pun not intended, bleak to this degree seems a tough sell. But can anyone call the late 1990s a “Golden Age”? Do edgy, creative, and original games no longer exist? I’d debate those points wholeheartedly that bigger budgets and resources allow developers to take many more risks with both proven brands and franchises – case in point, anything PlatinumGames made (which I never hesitate to point out). Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance departs so far from its progenitors, yet still retains elements of its parents to make it an original, unique, and specifically METAL GEAR game. Would we see this even ten years ago? I sincerely doubt it! Nor would anyone see Western developers messing (for better or worse) with proven Japanese franchises. Money, and perhaps the capriciousness of the video game market’s current location, led to this, but some franchises need revitalization. So, too, have old genres risen from the grave – fighting games came back to life only five years ago when Street Fighter IV single-handedly revived its created game-type, and 2D shooters suddenly rose in popularity against all odds. Old school games found themselves revived under new aesthetics as the burgeoning indie scene continues to grow due to technological advancement.

It’s truly a wonderful time to play video games, all told. Even the market forces people to innovate (well, excepting Call of Duty-related products, haha). While I agree that we may find ourselves in a downward spiral as costs continue to increase, the innovation will continue even if video games retreat back to a niche market. So when Tenwall Creatives makes claims like this:

Modern video games are frequently disappointing…

I could point to a number of counterexamples. That said, I wish for their success and I hope they can fulfill their vision and prove that their ideas really trump the prevailing ideologies of the world. I just do not think they need to attack the modern game market to perform that duty well! Prove to the world that you understand and care for a game with ingenuity and craft; let the audience come to you (with social media coaxing) and you’ll do a fair bit better than denigrating your supposed opposition. As we all know, pride comes before a fall, and I don’t want that to happen here! Or, as the Bible says in Matthew 23:

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do themThey tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garmentsThey love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being calledRabbi by men. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader,that is, Christ. 11 But the greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

There might be grace in the Christian belief system, but accusations and judgments run the world; let’s get out of that cycle, shall we? All said, I hope for BLEAK’s success, as it sounds quite creative and interesting; perhaps I will get my hands on it someday. If the game interests you, please donate!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.