Stream is a first-person puzzle-platformer based on flow and environment manipulation through quasi-time control. You run and jump through black and white levels of increasing complexity, increasing the amount of manipulation over the moving elements in the environment as the puzzles become more intricate.
I found Stream by chance and my brief afternoon romp through its three short stages felt appropriately curious; the art direction in Stream is stark, all the rooms are made of black and white, thick edges, minimal gradient and strong shadows. The rooms are large, empty and mostly white through the first two stages. It feels eerily empty, still and quiet. Playing alone in my bedroom at 2:15 in the afternoon, the house quiet, I felt an odd compulsion to poke around this strange colorless world.
It’s not time control — it’s environment control
I think the team behind Stream used the terms “forward”, “rewind” and “pause” for simplicity — they’re recognizable words, but they also connote time control and that’s not what happens in Stream. In Stream most of the objections in a room will move and you have the ability to move them forward along their determined path, reverse that path or stop them entirely. An early example of the game’s mechanics is a bridge with several pieces that fall out of place, but rewinding snaps them back together so the player can cross a gap. You rewind the pieces, not yourself, not time in a general sense; for instance, you can be rewinding the pieces even as you jump and run forward.
The mechanic is simple and sound. It scales well; the designers gradually layer more moving pieces, wider gaps between platforms or narrower clear paths of movement throughout a level. The mechanic plays stronger, more sound and more gratifying as the complexity increases. The greater the challenge, the more the player is tasked with effectively speeding up, reversing or pausing the environment to advance and the usefulness of the mechanic rises with the difficulty.
You’re told which buttons control each action and nothing else. By the end of the first three brief rooms you should understand the core mechanic, but you’re denied any instruction beyond that. It may frustrate some players, but it made me more curious. I was given three abilities with but my problem solving skills to guide me, in a room with platforms rotating in opposite directions, others side-to-side, others still up and down, some in sync, others haphazard — black ones I could control, white ones I could not.
I experimented and tested. Quicker than I had expected when I first saw the moving maze, I found a solution. A black cylinder was rising up and down, useless in that particular pattern, at that speed. I stood on top and sped it up by pulling the right trigger; it launched me into the air and in mid-flight I reversed a set of moving platforms so that I would have a place to land. I paused the platform immediately so an approaching one wouldn’t push me off the one I was standing on then casually hopped off onto a stationary white cylinder. I thought to myself, “this is cool.”
Black, White and Gray
Stream is colorless. Everything is made of black and white with some gray interspersed to placate the contrast. The shapes are simple — rectangles, squares, cylinders. The combination of simple shapes and sizes, seldom bothered by sound, produces a minimalist environment and tone that is bolder, but also emptier, than I think its creators intended it. The result is both stirring and suspicious. The starkness is weird, unnerving, but just as you’re about to question whether it could be intentional it stares you down unflinchingly so you almost apologize for your rude stares at its desaturated attire.
When you jump in Stream pressing forward on the left thumbstick continues to effect forward momentum even while in midair. That sounds at first like it should be correct, but if you’re like me and you’ve been keeping that forward button (or joystick) pressed down while in midair all these years, through all these games — you’ll find that in Stream it has more of an effect than you’re used to. On several occasions I overshot landings because I was able to push myself further than I expected; it even felt like I was speeding up in midair.
Especially on smaller jumps I tried to temper my momentum, but found that early in a jump you feel heavier. This meant that small and medium jumps could become frustrating as I would either drop unceremoniously short of a platform or blatantly overshoot it by trying to hold down the thumbstick for more speed. The instances were infrequent and I learned to compensate appropriately, but the controls always felt mildly imprecise.
Personality and Longevity
Stream is a concept test (albeit a successful one) more than it is a full game. It’s remarkably brief; I finished it in about 30-45 minutes. It ends abruptly and when its over you’re left feeling like you got an early preview of a much larger project. The concept is more than intriguing, it’s sound and applicable — it’s fun to play.
Everything in the game begs to be enriched, bolstered and polished. I can see a version in my head where the environments are more populated, the visuals more varied, the amount of levels increased and the mechanics more clearly explained for casual players.
What Stream lacks most — and what could, in potential future iterations, elevate it to greatness — is personality. While the lack of narrative is meant to play into the game’s theme (fatality), I wonder how much more rich the experience could be with a protagonist, with an antagonist, with an appropriate musical score, with a more meaningful setting.
In Michael Abbott’s review of Portal 2 he recalls the early concepts that led to the Portal team being discovered and hired by Valve. He makes an important distinction, that although the design in Portal is brilliant and the puzzles are clever, they all unfold in a predictable fashion, except for one overlay in presentation. He reminds us that the feedback loop of Portal is like many other puzzles games and that the mechanics are not why we found it unique.
Tricky levels and a novel gun make Portal fun, but they don’t account for why the game soared so high. Valve’s genius was situating the gun and the puzzles inside a world wherein they make perfect, maniacal sense. Setting Portal in a series of increasingly sadistic test chambers – overseen by a dispassionate computer AI bent on killing you – establishes a context that enables Valve to slowly reveal the true nature of the Aperture Science Research Facility. In the process, the narrative world of Portal uncoils – revealed and discovered by the player – and GLaDOS emerges as one of the great indelible characters in the history of video games.
Stream needs a GLaDOS or something similar. It needs personality and I hope the team behind it is given a chance to expand the concept to a more complete version. Stream gathers gameplay elements from Portal, Mirror’s Edge and Sands of Time and if cultivated and added with its own elements of setting, character and narrative it could be one of those rare ideas that simultaneously satisfies the PC indie gaming niche and jumps the gap to mainstream. Stream could be the next Portal, but it’s not there yet. It needs more content, more personality, more polish, but it has the potential and I hope that it eventually gets expanded upon.
You can learn more about Stream and download the game at, Stream-Game.com.