Alphaland (review)


“I have many flaws. But there is so much beauty here.”

Alphaland is a minimalistic platformer by Jonas Kyratzes where players explore a hidden level inside of a game they’re tasked with testing by a developer friend. Alphaland starts as a simple platformer, but as you descend this odd, listless lost level the game tips over into a surreal experience that touches on themes of existentialism, personification, reification and death.

The Basics

The game starts with an email addressed to “You” and you’re asked to test a platformer game developed by your developer friend, “Jonas”. He makes a point to apologize for the “placeholder graphics”. The player controlled character is a blue rectangle whose only feature is a slightly darker shade of blue at its top that, I suppose, indicates a head. You run and jump with the arrow keys, or alternatively, with WASD and the SPACE bar. It’s painfully basic until…

Where Am I?

You’ll make a couple of hops towards the end of an easy first level before you fall through an invisible hole into a strange psuedo-level. Data flashes on the screen as you fall “FALLING 184 | 2300” and “PLAYER OUTSIDE FRAME”. The screen is growing darker as you fall and a haunting musical score is starting to whisper louder and louder. You land in a black and white world with no instructions on where to go or what to do. I started to explore — it seemed like the only thing to do.

After about two minutes of mild curiosity I began to feel a twinge of frustration. What’s the point? I began asking myself. Off white surfaces seem to be solid and safe, touching gray surfaces seem to result in death. I notice it’s easy to fall, but often impossible to jump back up. I’m making a steady progression downward and I’m not able to get back where I was. I got stuck, and I decided I would just try to keep going down, because that’s all I could do.

What Am I?

I found ways to advance, always downward. Touching small yellow dots opened up paths, often erasing deathly gray blocks to free up a way through. I started to see more text in the background, but not just random game data — phrases, messages. “Hello” read one, “I AM AWAKE” said another. Each time I discovered another message I was fascinated and curious, but also mildly concerned. The messages started to take a confused and frightened tone. “AM I BROKEN?”

I started to consider who these messages were from. Was this character, this tiny blue dot, supposed to be talking to me? Was I suppose to believe that the game itself was sending me messages?

Alphaland induces a weird, fourth-wall-breaking curiosity that I’ve never experienced in any other game. For the first time ever I considered the personification of a game, of code, of a simple sprite. For the first time ever I considered the reification of a game world. It seems silly at first until you realize how seldom the idea is used narratively. It’s an interesting dynamic and the context of testing a game in alpha is the perfect setup.

What Will Happen To Me?

Alphaland evokes a feeling of mortality and inevitability despite not having a human, or even distinguishable, protagonist. Apologies to those would consider this a spoiler, but the line “placeholder graphics” in the first screen of the game tells you our little blue friend (who I am now officially naming, Mr. Blue Dot) isn’t going to last past alpha and right from the start we know the level we’re seeing is a glitch, a mistake.

Alphaland subtly poses a strange, existential question: if we were to consider characters and worlds in games as real, what does that mean for the countless assets like code and graphics that get tested but ultimately are discarded? If we did personify a game, what would it be like and would it care if it died? It’s a ridiculous notion and I squirm and how artsy and psuedo-intellectual it sounds, but for a game with ultra-minimal plot it manages to have a compelling narrative twist because you can consider such oddities as a game or game character pondering its own mortality.

Conclusion

The gameplay is unvaried and uninteresting at first, but as you go deeper into the lost level different mechanics develop and new obstacles are introduced. By the time you’re nearing the short game’s conclusion (you’ll beat it in under an hour) the challenge of the platforming will be moderately satisfying.

You’ll likely be kept going (as I was) by the slowly and subtly unfolding narrative told only through these eerie messages printed on the level’s background. Like any good indie game Alphaland manages to turn technical limitations into design or narrative strong points and I guarantee you’ll never give more thought to simple, low-res graphics than you will in Alphaland. Many games get criticized for poor, outdated graphics, or glitches in the level design — Jonas Kryatzes made a whole game about them and developed a compelling theme to go along with that concept.

This game borders close to frustrating in a few spots, but it’s also short, unique and oddly atmospheric and for those reasons I’d recommend everyone take a little time and check it out.

Alphaland was developed and released by Jonas Kyratzes and is available for free on Newgrounds.com. I beat the game in under one hour and briefly started a second playthrough.



Posted on May 17, 2011


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2 responses to “Alphaland (review)”

  1. Nicolau says:

    This was an interesting game, but my feelings of being intrigued and puzzled didn’t end when I finished the game, so I was somewhat frustrated. I kept the “what’s the point?” feel. Was I supposed to sympathize with the blue square? Probably not.

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