Demo Driver 8: Unmechanical (#416)

I could blame lots of people, really, but he's got the funniest name, so hooray?

Tim Burton has so damn much to answer for.

I’m just going to lead off here with what I think is a pretty simple thesis: if your game can’t sustain a demo that lasts for at least half an hour, you might not want to put out a demo in the first place.

I blew through Unmechanical‘s entire demo in about 15 minutes, and that was with a bug that made one puzzle take longer than it should have.  That’s really short.  Flash-game short.  And I make that comparison for a good reason, too, because Unmechanical has definitely been sipping from the cup of Flash gaming, namely the vague and surreal cup that places an emphasis on a clever look and environments over actual narrative.

That’s not necessarily to disparage games that are all about clever looks and environment; some of them are, in fact, quite fun to play.  But it’s a tricky line to walk.  For every game you can think of that was a fun play while mostly being based upon looking neat, I can think of a dozen that missed the point of those great games in favor of the surface elements.  Unmechanical feels more like the latter than the former.

But he's got a rich inner life!

How will Helicopter Potato get out of this predicament? I do not know or care. Goodbye.

At the start of the demo, four little helicopter-things are floating across a field before one is grabbed by a pipe and dropped in an underground cavern.  Why?  Who’s doing this?  What’s the reason?  Why this?  Why that?  Why anything?  Who cares!  It’s time for grinding subterranean gears and weird abandoned facilities and oh please not this again, we’ve seen this a thousand times now.

Maybe I’m just bitter and jaded, but honestly, the “ruined industry” aesthetic no longer does anything for me.  Toss me into the middle of a deep and abandoned industrial complex and I start feeling just a wee bit bored.  Especially when your game has given me no reason to care about any of it.  I don’t know what the thing I’m controlling is meant to represent, I don’t have a reason I’m supposed to relate to it, all I’ve got is a character on the screen and a silent drive to start progressing and seeing what I can do to get out.  Congratulations, you’ve remade Out of this World with better graphics and less narrative.  Very nice.

I realize that I’m being harsh, but come on.  This is well-worn territory by this point.  And it’s another puzzler, and immediately I feel myself starting to lose interest because I have played this game before so many times.  Oh, look, it’s a puzzle based on Simon, I’ve only done these hundreds of other times, including several times last night in WildStar where it was a side dish.  Here, it’s the main course.

Honestly, it feels like the rest of the gaming world is offering up a full meal and this game is serving up plain white rice with just a hint of butter.  Sure, that’s not bad, but it’s not exactly a taste sensation.

“But you liked Rochard a lot!” you say.  Yes, dear reader, I did like that game a lot.  The difference being that Rochard gave me a reason to care about what I was doing.  Yes, it’s probably the millionth physics-based puzzle game that I’ve played, but it also offered me a reason to care about these characters and their environment, rather than just giving me stuff that looks weird and saying “figure it out!”

It’s a real pet peeve of mine when vagueness is used as an excuse for not having any answers.

Wheel of Apathy, turn turn turn, or don't, don't care.

Do we make all the colors line up on this one? Probably? I don’t want to know.

More to the point, it gave me an experience I would expect could be replicated in my browser in about three minutes if I felt the urge.  Unmechanical, despite its presentation, is basically just providing that.  Here you are in a locked room with the following tools; get to the next room.  That isn’t motivating, isn’t inspiring, isn’t anything.  I don’t care for the sort of game that Eschalon wants to be, but at the same time it wants to be something.

You tried.  Technically.

Just to be redundant, this is all very mechanical.

Or, to be more reductive, a game has two avenues to impress me: story and gameplay.  Aesthetics aren’t a story, and a weird environment isn’t a replacement for same.  I can care about lackluster story if you provide me with engaging gameplay, but if I find myself all but certain that I have played through these exact puzzles in other games, you’d better be providing me with a story so motivating that I’m eagerly anticipating the next moment of play.  Unmechanical provides on neither front.

Am I being harsh?  A bit.  Part of that is because the game is ten bucks, and that’s a steep price to ask for a game that even fans claim clocks in at about two and a half hours.  (Portal also will run you for that price; I don’t need to tell you which one is the better game in terms of weird aesthetics, story, or puzzles.)  The other part is, again, this is a demo that is fifteen minutes long.  None of the puzzles so much as slowed me down, none of them engrossed me, every one was just a matter of jumping through hoops and oh no, not another puzzle where I’m pushing buttons until a shape lines up, I freaking hate these.

Yes, I’ve played a lot of those.  Usually in games where they’re an appertif to the real game, which is far more entertaining.  Here, that’s the whole game.  It’s a game built entirely upon the pieces of other games that were good.

I realize it’s an indie title, and it doesn’t have a lot of budget.  But this is a weak effort, and even if there are some genuinely satisfying puzzles later on there are a lot of other indie titles that are more worthwhile for the same price or less.  Even if there weren’t, there are so many Flash games that do the “no story, weird aesthetics plus puzzles” thing just as well, generally for the price of absolutely nothing.  And more often than not those games actually have a setting that feels at least moderately novel.

In summary?  No.  Thank you, but I’ll pass.  You couldn’t even keep me hooked for the full fifteen.  Which I suppose actually makes it a good demo, although I don’t think that will be a back-of-the-box selling point any time soon.

About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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