The other night I spent seven and a half hours playing all the way through Anodyne in one sitting, and I’m not sure why. It is often exceedingly easy, it has no plot to speak of, and its mechanics are simple enough that I had them mastered somewhere around hour two. But there it is, finished except for some of its most obscure secrets, and here I am, without a trace of the I-just-ate-that-entire-pizza-didn’t-I shame that usually comes along with finishing a bad game. What gives?
Anodyne is the debut title from Analgesic Productions, of which Sean Hogan and Jonathan Kittaka are the only employees. The gameplay is cribbed directly from Link to the Past. It’s got a bunch of unsettling Yume Nikki nightmare imagery. Like Earthbound and Link’s Awakening, it’s completely unafraid to stop making sense. In short, it’s got a lot of guts considering it’s by a couple of guys who have never made a game before.
The game’s non-story begins full of mysterious potential. Two shadowy figures tell you to find a third shadowy figure. Collectible cards involving the game’s NPC’s and enemies are involved somehow. You’re thrust into a gloomy, creepy fantasy world, and the existence of Dark Secrets is strongly suggested. Over the next several hours of the game, however, Anodyne’s story and structure slowly give up on themselves. After briefly hinting at the possibility of a coherent backstory, the narrative and set pieces dissolve into abstraction, and we’re left with a world that ends up feeling like its creators crafted seven or eight separate action RPG’s and pasted them next to each other.
However, Anodyne’s lack of a unifying narrative or aesthetic theme somehow works to its advantage. It plays like a mixtape of the creators’ thoughts on 16-bit action RPG’s and what their generation did while playing them (that is: growing up). Abstract (and I mean abstract) ruminations on the necessity of suffering, leaving home, and the tug-of-war between family life and friendship abound, without any serious inkling about what we ought to be doing with these ideas, or where the game is going with them. Anodyne is not Freud, but it’s sort of like if two amateurs with a 101-level understanding of Freud and a postgrad-level understanding of action RPG’s took a stab at unifying the two.
Also: Why should a game like this be required to justify itself? Where should we be willing to accept these flaws and gaps in games, especially as games with severe constraints on time, money, or technical ability continue their march towards widespread notoriety? Amateurishness can make music, writing, or film more relatable. Provided they’re not unplayably broken, why should games be any different? At one point I’m pretty sure an Anodyne NPC gave me the precisely wrong cardinal direction to walk in. Anodyne’s scrappy charm was sufficient that, once I figured out what was going on via trial and error, I just kind of laughed it off. (Boy, writing that out makes me look dumb. I’m also enough of a masochist to wonder if it was intentional, especially given Anodyne’s forebears’ interminable go-here-okay-now-go-over-there sidequests.)
Anodyne reads like a band’s first album. It wears its influences on its sleeve, but much of its charm lies where its creators couldn’t attain the impossible heights set by their influences and were instead forced to get by on personality and elbow grease. Kittaka and Hogan were certainly flying by the seat of their pants on large parts of Anodyne, but that’s offset by the tremendous amount of care they’ve put into the game’s atmosphere and overall design (fractured as it may be). Seeing newcomers stumble and regain their footing on a title with this degree of scale doesn’t happen particularly often in games, and Anodyne makes it seem that Analgesic Productions know how to put together the intangibles of a good adventure game. The rest can be taught.
Joe Bernardi is a writer and web developer living in Brooklyn. His words have appeared in Dusted Magazine, The Boston Phoenix, and Tiny Mix Tapes, among other places. He’s got a Twitter and a blog.