Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pilfered Pastries and Purloined Pies

The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom lacks any real harmony between its mechanics and its aesthetics. And it is absolutely delightful for it. Released on XBLA on Tuesday, P.B. Winterbottom features a dastardly pie thief abusing the time-space continuum in search of sweetened spoils. The puzzle-platformer gameplay will inevitably evoke Braid (Jonathan Blow advised the Winterbottom team when they were students, in fact), with a bit of Time Donkey thrown in. But what immediately stands out about P.B. Winterbottom is its art direction.

Reminiscent of Edward Gorey's artwork and Keaton/Chaplin era silent films, P.B. Winterbottom has a genuinely distinct look. The metred verse which bridges each level winks quite Victorian. The soundtrack would feel appropriate coming from a scratchy gramophone or ragtime player piano. And, of course, nearly the entire game is black & white. It's a fantastic look and one of the game's strongest aspects.

The gameplay is also quite strong, due to an evident focus on creating a small suite of very polished mechanics. The eponymous protagonist has only a few actions at his disposal- jump, strike with an umbrella and, most importantly, created clones of himself. By recording his actions, Winterbottom creates looping clones that perform the recorded actions in sequence ad infinitum. It's somewhat similar to the 5th world of Braid, except multiple clones can be recorded and interacted with. Using this bundle of mechanics, the player must guide P.B. in his Sisyphean quest for more pies.

What does this gameplay have to do with Vaudeville aesthetics? Little. Delightfully little.

Laudably, there has been a lot of effort, in indie games especially, to marry a game's mechanics with its message. It's a important and fascinating pursuit and I do not mean to imply it is misguided. P.B. Winterbottom demonstrates that clever gameplay combined with a unique, pleasing aesthetic is a success by itself. It's possible that the developers might have been able to find a message that fit with both their gameplay and aesthetic, but rather than run the risk of compromising both, P.B. Winterbottom is content to excel in two domains orthogonally.

I haven't finished the game yet, but thus far, P.B. Winterbottom has demonstrated an important measure of restraint when it comes to mechanics. It's easy to see where feature creep might have set in and it is commendable that the creators beat that foliage back. If P.B. Winterbottom has a weakness, it's that it opens a bit slow, especially if one has played the demo first. Rightfully, the demo showcases several different levels out of sequence, illustrating the complexity of future puzzles. Unfortunately, should one complete the demo and then purchase the full game, they still start the game tabula rasa. Having completed the demo, the introductory levels are certainly charming, but of no challenge. It's possible that an approach similar to Braid where the levels can be approached by the player out of sequence, but remain completed. Still, this is minor quibble about an otherwise excellent experience.

P.B. Winterbottom was created by The Odd Gentlemen, an eight-man studio consisting primarily of current and former students of the University of Southern California's Interactive Media program (the same program that spawned thatgamecompany, creators of Flower). The game began as a student project, eventually winning a spot in the 2008 IGF student showcase. A postmortem of the student project is a great read in light of the final game. It appears The Odd Gentlemen were able to take to heart the lessons of rapid prototyping, focusing on a small, tight set of mechanics and managing a team. A great many developers learn this lesson the hard way, trying (and possibly failing) to ship their first game on time and on budget. It's commendable The Odd Gentlemen resist the temptation to use their IGF success to justify bloating P.B. Winterbottom with new features. Rather, they polished and gracefully expanded what they had, eventually delivering the best XBLA title 2010 has yet to see.

Seeing a student project evolve into a commercial release is very enlivening. Doubly so when that release is as pleasing an experience as The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom. I suggesting giving this mustachioed pastry thief a few minutes of your time, and hopefully more. Having progressed so far as developers in such a short time, it's clear The Odd Gentlemen have a lot to offer. I can't wait to see what they do next.



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