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Project Totem: a puzzling twitch platformer that might hurt your brain

Friday, 11th April 2014 14:00 GMT By Phil Owen

Meet the local co-op platform game from the makers of Max: Curse of the Brotherhood.

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“PressPlay is not intending Project Totem to be impossible, nor inaccessible, but it’s a bit of a mindfuck nonetheless.”

PressPlay’s Project Totem is a platformer, a part of the modern generation of unlimited lives, checkpoint saves and many, many player deaths. Reminiscent of those punishing, twitch-oriented instant classics of this age VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy, Project Totem is the type of platformer that requires both a quick mind and quick hands. While not a puzzle platformer in the traditional sense, it is oddly cerebral.

Because in Project Totem, you’re controlling two characters, not one, with every flick of the stick and press of the jump button. One lives in the top half of the screen, and the other in the lower half, one purple and the other green. And you have to keep track of them both at all times, and make sure a move you make to get one totem past its obstacle doesn’t get the other killed.

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I sat down three weeks ago to play a demo of Project Totem, officially announced today as an exclusive for Xbox platforms, and it felt at first more daunting than it really is. PressPlay is not intending Project Totem to be impossible, nor inaccessible, but it’s a bit of a mindfuck nonetheless. Failure, I found, is as much psychological as anything else, because screwing up and then retrying quickly while keeping a handle on both totems can be disorienting.

This is a game about timing, and it trips you up in a number of different ways. The totems are not colored differently just for cosmetic effect; there are color-coded areas in which only the matching totems can pass. You can flip the colors of the totems on demand, something you’ll have to do quite a bit and in uncomfortable spots – say, when you’re in the air. It’s another layer to keep track of. And then you throw in ability pickups – like a very VVVVVV-esque gravity reversal thing – along with hard-to-reach collectibles, and it’s a lot to think about as you go.

“You really need to be in sync all the time, and your death is linked, so if one of you dies the other one dies.”

And that’s just the solo levels. There are separate levels in Project Totem built for co-op play, and these are even more tricky though they do contain the same types of challenges at the core, with the added stress of, say, having to catch your partner’s totem so it doesn’t land in the wrong-colored area. And one totem standing on another can make for a sort of double jump ability that only adds to the density of the experience.

As you may have guessed from my descriptions, coordinating with a friend (or enemy) through this complex minefield is not exactly going to make for a totally chill gaming sesh for a lot of players, but it it should be communal – PressPlay is making the co-op local only. Playing Project Totem online seems like the kind of headache that could easily turn a game like this into a thoroughly unfun headache.

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“It’s not like co-op in a shooter where one guy can run around and shoot and the other can kinda do whatever,” Press Play studio director Rune Dittmer explained after I’d finished the playing the co-op demo with lead designer Bo Strandby. “You really need to be in sync all the time, and your death is linked, so if one of you dies the other one dies.”

It’s not just about getting through the levels, though. While that may entertain me well enough as a transient gamer who constantly is moving on to new things, Press Play has the longevity of the game to think about. Behind every level is a pretty complicated scoring system that factors in all sorts of things like the amount of time you take to make it all the way through, how many steps you took to make it and how many of those out-of-the-way collectibles you manage to snag. To be the best on the scoreboard, you have a lot of things to consider and a long road of trial-and-error ahead of you.

But it’s not just about points, no ma’am. Doing well makes the online totem linked with your account more… swaggy.

“All that with your time through the level ties into your score for the level and how awesome-looking your totem will be,” Dittmer explained to me. “There’s going to be some interconnectivity so you can see all your friends’ totems, and they will be more or less cool and you can see how far they’ve progressed. And you’re going to have with your friends small battles of having special items and stuff.”

So, it’s complicated, as everything with Project Totem seems to be, but that complication is always purposeful and even multi-faceted. First, there’s replayability in that proxy competition over Xbox Live. But perhaps more importantly there’s an inherent watchability in the Project Totem experience, especially when coupled with a drive on the part of a player to be perfect.

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“We think that with speedruns and special challenges in the different levels, there’s lots of opportunities,” Dittmer said. “I think there’s going to be an audience that will love perfecting [their runs] as there always is when you have the tight controls.”

“Project Totem is a game that’s certainly ripe for YouTube consumption, and it’s easy to imagine a perfect co-op speedrun hypnotizing viewers.”

And as game director Asger Strandby then noted, there’s so much entertainment value in watching somebody who’s good at it. Project Totem is a game that’s certainly ripe for YouTube consumption, and it’s easy to imagine a perfect co-op speedrun hypnotizing viewers.

But at the same time, there’s value in the communal experience of Project Totem. It wouldn’t be difficult to come up with a solid drinking game while playing co-op with a roommate or significant other, and to my surprise Asger said watching players jank each other is entertaining in itself.

“We have that sometimes, where people start to mess with each other. Standing in the way so that they fall off,” he said. “I like when people mess with each other. You really have to cooperate to get through it, but there are all sorts of small battles you can have, make games with each other.”

I’d say that sounds like my kinda game.

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1 Comments

  1. TheKeyPit

    Good read. Really looking forward to it.

    #1 5 months ago

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