Anodyne, a top-down action-adventure by indie devs Sean Hogan and Jonathan Kittaka, is one that I doubt I would have touched if not for the all-new, shiny, and glittering Steam Trading Cards. (Valve are very, very shrewd.) That Anodyne’s in-game progression is also tied to gathering collectible cards in-game has quite the poignancy to it. Above all, it makes the two a perfect match, and Anodyne was unsurprisingly among the titles that received trading cards during the Trading Cards beta.
Cards or no cards, however, Anodyne does warrant a fair bit of attention on its own merits: It is an infectious, solid action game on the one hand, and a strange, befuddling and rambling one on the other. It is above all a game with the face of Janus, looking to the future and past at once, a hodgepodge of influences permeating from top to bottom, starting with the game’s uncommon visual aspect ratio of 8:9.
Its two-faced nature is surprisingly not off-putting in the least. Instead, I found it nigh-impossible to put the game aside while it remained unbeaten. Anodyne’s cleverly organized, free-form model of progression, and beautiful audiovisual aesthetic beckon the player to continue onwards and upwards until the game is decidedly done. What greater compliment, really, for a video game: Just one more level, one more card, one more bar of health, one more boss! And then: Bang! The game is done, phew, in five to seven hours of gaming (though it can be ran through in three).
The game’s story, set apparently in the mind of the protagonist, “Young,” is very, very much in the late postmodernist mode of writing and design in games. Its effects and meanings are acquired via combination - juxtaposition, collage, pastiche. It is also full of mind games, uncertainty, and irony, alongside dream-like touches à la Twin Peaks.
In this way, the game’s writing is nothing if not a constant barrage of ludonarrative dissonance: Though the player character is first introduced as “the Chosen One,” and pitted against “The Darkness,” players will soon realize they are limited to fighting the “enemy” (whatever it is) with a broomstick while wearing a pair of borrowed women’s biking shoes.
Its non-player characters, too, are a parodic barrage of the introverted dialogue dispenser type, the curious “I am Error” kind, rambling on and on about the weather, their hobbies and interests, their family lives, their hopes, desires, and dreams, their personal issues, and their haircuts(!) - or simply begging the player to leave them all alone. Once again, binary oppositions - life and dream, activity and passivity, hope and fear, desire and responsibility - come head to head. The postmodern style is all about juxtaposition, the emergence of meaning via (interpretive) connection and combination.
The game’s odd, intriguing banality lends to it a specific kind of unity and coherence. There are many memorable moments in the game, such as the one at the pier above: Why would you say this in a video game? Why are we referencing pain relief in the game’s title? These moments, these curiously vacuous phrases, are imbued with a strange profundity, even if their total, ultimate meaning is fuzzy and hazy. Surely, surely something here is said, about games, past and present, and as a medium. Something about gaming, and life; gamers, and their lives. Something about the act of play. Something about writing in games. Making games. I’m kind of repeating myself here, but the point remains: Anodyne is purposely disjunct.
While Anodyne does sport a look and feel that is of the past, sure, its writing nevertheless makes me hesitate in introducing the word ‘retro’ into this discussion - even when the one of the game’s selling points is “16-bit-era visual style”. And yet as much as the game toys with the expectations of the Zelda-like genre as fiction, as game, Anodyne takes its influences and, well, itself very seriously.
Anodyne is very gamey. As much as the game has to it an artistic component, Hogan and Kittaka never once lost sight of the game’s position as a game. The most apparent point of comparison is Zelda, of course, especially the first game, and A Link to the Past. The game has a similar, very slightly airy feel to its controls. Problems with collision detection only really emerge with the toughest, longest, and hardest of jumps, and with projectile-vomiting enemies. Its end-game levels should give fans of the older, tougher Zeldas a fair bit of a challenge, and there also exists a curious post-completion mode, for those so inclined.
The game’s aesthetic speaks for itself - a matter of pixel preference - and its odd aspect ratio is rather fitting, but will force some players to play in windowed mode. Anodyne’s music (find the game OST here), described by the developers as “moody, dream-like” is at times, startlingly, maddeningly cool:
Anodyne can admittedly drag on for a little bit since it lets players progress whichever way at first, with progress not always readily apparent. Learning the ropes of the game is infuriatingly perfect: Every time a new trick or tool of the trade is needed, apt players will have had just enough time to figure out what and how to do what’s necessary in order to proceed. Issues with halted or meandering progress are largely alleviated with the addition of the Nexus however, a hub or a home base of sorts, that can be used to quickly travel from location to location.
The clear-cut disconnection between plot and play in Anodyne does ultimately mean that it’s never the story that drives the game forward. No, it’s always the action, the play, the audiovisuals: The puzzles, the search for new areas to unlock, and new cards to collect. Yet writing is the strongest (and strangest) aspect that Anodyne has going for it. Perhaps it is oddly fitting that Anodyne is best known for its extraneous aspects - its pixel graphics, it’s Zelda-tude, its Pirate Bay promo, for having Steam Trading Cards et cetera, et cetera.
And yet what it really needs is to be played - there’s really no way to convey the experience of playing (and reading) Anodyne in writing.
Anodyne is available now (currently price-matched at 50% off as part of the Steam Summer Getaway sale), on Steam, Desura, GOG, GamersGate, and also available on the iOS.