Review: PixelJunk Eden (* star)

I make a point of finishing most games that I review. Even though I may enjoy or vehemently dislike a game, I always intend to finish. Often, a video game that could, theoretically, provide a goldmine for review purposes simply falls to the wayside on Theology Gaming for this very reason. Although that particular point isn’t, to my knowledge or the original review policy or the new one, I made an unwritten law unto myself to never review games that I haven’t personally loved/suffered through.

In that sense, Pixeljunk Eden represents the sort of game I want people to avoid, and it perfectly demonstrates that strange demarcation line between “game” and “non-game” deserves more exploration. Like saying “Dear Esther is a game” versus ‘Super Mario Bros. is a game”, we need more specific terms for describing these interactive experiences. They are not the same. A simple hand wave won’t take it away. If PixelJunk Eden IS a game, then we can easily consider it a rather bad one. If it isn’t, then why bother with a star rating, right?

I’m unsure how to process PixelJunk Eden. In my mind, it revived that endless “what is a game?” debate with myself. Honestly, I’d be hard pressed to call it a very good one for a number of reasons, even playing it for little more than twenty minutes. Too many problems prevent me from enjoying this at all, and I almost had to uninstall it after a few short minutes.

So it has a neat aesthetic, I’ll give it that. We could all fawn over how the game astounds most reviewers with its pretty minimalist visuals. They recall a strange, otherworldly underwater environment filled to the brim with strange flora and fauna. Your little Grimp, a tadpole of sorts, bounces around this locale without any fear of danger to his/her/its person.

Most of the game involves jumping on objects, sticking to said objects, than jumping to other objects to collect more objects which causes objects on which you can grip to appear so you can attach yourself to higher objects. At times, you’ll attach yourself via a silk string to an object in order to spin around. This creates additional speed for your inevitable ascent upwards, and you’ll need this ability to collect certain items.

The neologism “Grimping”, meaning grip and jumping, remains the mainstay of the entire experience. Collect a certain number of vaguely-defined particles to cause roots to grow; grip and jump up some more, rinse and repeat. You must keep ascending to collect the Spectra, which will open up new levels and new stuff to do…which mostly consists of all the other things you just did.

pixeljunk_eden_wallpaper_1_HD

In later levels, enemies emerge, but the core of these controls just doesn’t excite me. You can’t really die, and you can’t really fail. If you fall, you just fall to the ground to start over. A fail state does not exist. There’s a time limit, represented by the “synchronization” meter on the bottom right corner of the screen, but collecting objects (as is the unending focus of this experience) refills the meter. Since there’s so many objects, you can imagine the inanity of such an idea, given that it barely affects you at all. Since when  do we just throw in stuff for the sake of having it?

PixelJunk Eden does not excite me in any way. The grip/jump controls work like a strange freeform version of Bionic Commando, but at least Capcom forced you to learn it. Here, you just sorta flail about with the “grimping”, exploring the gigantic levels in the most boring, slow way possible. I would rather die a horrible death than, after a fall, sluggishly jump and grip all the way back to where I started. PixelJunk Eden punishes you with time wasted instead of a clear “Game Over” screen, and this wasted time partly explains why I just upped and quit.

Who finds this entertaining? Probably the same people who enjoyed flOw a whole lot. Consider this article as a review of that game too. What am I learned? What’s the point of all this? To listen to music? Heck, I can do that anywhere. To see a neat aesthetic design? Again, I can go anywhere. Just throwing some vague interactivity into a virtual art gallery does not justify it as a “video game”. PixelJunk Eden strives for the bare minimum of player attention. What an incredibly one-dimensional design.

So here’s my personal confession: I don’t like getting hoodwinked by games that straddle the line between “interactive experience” and “video game”. I want one, not the other, and when the marketing/video game journalists/other call it a “video game”, I understand this as the traditional meaning of the term. So apparently now I need to do additional research, instead of critics doing their job and parsing this distinction out. Heck, Wikipedia just calls PixelJunk Eden “a video game”, as if that’s a helpful distinction. Does PixelJunk Eden fit into a genre?

I hate this lack of clarity. In religion, it’s not as if I call God “Allah” or some other deity. In Exodus 3, it’s pretty clear that “God” is just a euphemism we use for YHWH:

13 Then Moses said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

Names held great power in antiquity, and in Biblical times; by naming something, you owned it, more or less. God names Himself, in the way only He can do. We arrive at the feet of a very specific God with very specific dictates. I am unsure why this cannot apply to video games as it has for all other entertainment and artistic works, from plastics to music to film. Give me some “classifications”, not this vague “indie” stuff. Make the discovery process easy, so I can filter out the games I know I won’t enjoy, and possibly intrigue myself with said interactive experiences every once and a while. Pixeljunk Eden would benefit greatly from such distinctions.

I will, however, give the game one star for the soundtrack. Frankly, Baiyon makes some excellent electronic beats that set a certain “mood” to the whole experience with downbeat electronica. Since my current wheelhouse (wherever that colloquial phrase actually points anymore) exists in the smooth jazz/electronic realm, that part of Pixeljunk’s style continues to delight. Though, here’s the thing: I don’t want to relax and fall asleep THE ENTIRE TIME I AM PLAYING A GAME. I call that poor design.

In two words, then: beautiful and boring.

Intended Audience: Um, insomniacs. Nothing offensive to be found, far as I know.

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.