And That Was a Lifetime Ago
Platformers are a kind of geometric terror. It’s a deliberate style that makes actually playing a triumph and remembrance impossible. When I remember a novel or a film, even an abstract one, scenes are tied up with themes, emotions, language anchors. What’s the theme of Super Mario Bros.? What’s the theme of Adventure Island? Jumping heroes, I guess. It becomes hard to assign any pattern in the game to any kind of meaningful categorization. The games refuse to be interpreted or remembered because they lack any sort of grounding that imbues purpose into their cold mathematical abstractions.
I can remember what the games look like. A smattering of patterns, stoic and unmoving, begin to emerge from my unconsciousness. It’s harder to remember how they play or how each of those arrangements feel, especially because I typically don’t spend much time on any arrangement in a platformer. Platforms, the namesake, are rendered a nascent blur when played, barely registering as a conduit for sliding legs. If anything is shared between the aforementioned games, it’s a futility of comprehension.
So, my advancing theory why some people play a lot of these games, even though they can nearly completely overlap? We can’t remember shit about them. Only playing will jog the memory. And because the games are indistinct, groundless, almost any game in the style shares the same memory. Each time another mario-owed game is played, I finally get access into an amorphous glob of shapes and patterns that I know too intimately, yet paradoxically have no connection to. The game will be as good or as bad as the current size of the shape-filled ooze, based on how much good will it has yet to digest. Through the collective shape-memory I feel awe toward patterns I’ve never seen before and faux-adrenaline at dramatic encounters that hold their ground against the tyrannical memory blob.
This realization is why Alex’s Adventure has become one of my favorite metroidvanias. (Or whatever we’re calling them now. This game is formally distinct from what generally qualifies as being derived from the branded console game style, but it has power ups that open doors so it is doomed to the shadow realm.) Now, there’s a slight disconnect here. The games I used to frame this comparison—all the Marios and any cut-and-paste Mario inspired game—are thematically opposite to metroidvanias, and as such do not typically share the same memory. Metroidvanias are defined by strong thematic attachments, usually furthered by explicit or implicit narratives, held together by consistent worlds that encourage spending time with their patterns. Many metroidvanias contain the arcade platformer in their lineage, and therefore still include difficult-to-remember aesthetic patchworks. However, even those examples still strike out in individual ways (Super Metroid, et al), and attempt to tell a kind of story.
Alex’s Adventure does not. In fact, it has less thematic context than a Mario game; less than an arcade platformer would (it has absolutely no context). There’s the “adventure” but no reason for it to occur. Alex has no stated goal. To most, this would be unmotivating. For a brain eaten by videogames, nothing is more exciting than being dropped into an unsettling aesthetic trip, left blindly looking for the never-seen. Alex’s Adventure has that, alongside an aesthetic I can only describe as psychedelic. Other dreamy games border my comparison, and yet Alex’s Adventure is not quite like those because it’s still a pretty conventional platformer (so the still-conventional still-dreamy psychedelic rock feels like an appropriate comparison).
By conventional, I mean, conventional. Alex has a literal gun and has to dispatch carefully placed mega man-esque… mushrooms and unidentified creatures. Is it better or worse that these conflicts have no character, no background, no necessity to occur? Today is not the day to work through that (leaning toward worse), but it results in conflicts that are dispatched, not felt. Additionally, the game is ornately overdetailed. Every screen has a different arrangement, a different theme, a different approach. For anyone equally over-versed in that platformer language, it’s intense overstimulation. I love it, I mean, this whole essay is obviously from the point of view of a platformer glutton, but the game isn’t a self-advocate. The morass of patterns just registers as “platformer,” more or less. It’s “about videogames” without ever saying a word in support. No love-letters here.
Alex’s Adventure’s muted creepiness is the opposite of gifable “juicy” polish. Alex’s gun fires matter-of-factly. He moves too fast, the camera follows quickly, eerily, and his jump is too loose. There’s sequenced, quilted backgrounds, wrapped around strange diegetic markings and patterns, peppered with abstract sci-fi flora and fauna. Some routes in the game lean more minimalist and arcadey. Others are more physical, literally fleshy, the Konami “you are inside of an alien” tradition of fucked spaces. Its ambient soundtrack is layered with sound effects, tape hiss suggesting something nostalgic, and positioned outside of what’s happening on screen. That is, until the levels progress, and then compressed, melancholic house-influenced chiptune overpowers some downtempo framing. Setpiece breaks are timed with the music and the levels peak emotionally with the soundtrack. The breaks from exploration are always linear and play like a typical platformer. What was an unsettling arrangement of the familiar—a game punctured by dissymmetry and incongruousness—gets shocked into something stabilized by its own history as an arcade platformer. And yeah, it’s the kind that is only really remembered while it’s experienced.
That is the goddamn paradoxical love I have for this game. I love it, but can’t remember it. It’s so reflexive and playful with its own traditions that, like others among the best arcade games, it gets totalized alongside the tradition. I’ve played it three times over multiple years now in a vain effort to try to remember why I love it and to figure how to advocate for it. This time, I think I got it, but this comes from a culmination of false starts. To illustrate this difficulty, think to yourself, how often does anyone write about the aesthetics of arcade-styled games? As far as I know, not often. This gives my bullshitter theory of these games being hard to remember—of them being unconscious agents!—some credibility. Can’t really write about the unconsciousness. Can’t really write about arcade game fatalism. Well, this is as good of an attempt as any.
In Alex’s Adventure, remembering is a compounded difficulty, that still goes further than just being an arcade game, than being an abstract clusterfuck of floating squares that provoke and stifle the imagination. Like, on the spot, I could advocate for Commander Keen and Duke Nukem, other suspiciously similar platformers with diminutive gun-toting protagonists that take place in terrifying patterned-voids, because they are defined and united around shitty 80’s aesthetics. Their frame narratives seep into the identity of the work. Like I already mentioned, but to emphasize, Alex’s Adventure has no context, nothing tying it together, besides it being similar to (and a mechanical homage to) videogames like it. This gives Alex’s Adventure a metatextual subtext. It’s relational like how modernist literature nascently and obnoxiously referenced and remixed the previous literary canon, both to reinterpret and satirize our inescapable relationship with horrid histories.
I don’t just say that to sound like I know what I’m talking about! That’s a bonus, but Alex’s Adventure (yes, unintentionally) supports this read by breaking the cardinal rule of metroidvarners: it does not take place in a contiguous world. From the outset, the game is split into “World 1” and “World 2,” to be freely selected at any time. Progress in one world is saved, but is not shared with the other, except for “artefacts” which denote overall progress in the game (I know, an awful colonialist expression, but it at least barely matters toward the game’s thematic intentions). These worlds are littered with, and culminate in split paths, or dead ends, and the player will need to access the main menu, and restart the same levels, again and again to finish it. Additionally, changes in the world are preserved through death, and many times the obvious best way to get through a challenge is to complete what will be preserved, and then die.
Normally, these would be concessions that favor the player, but in this curious instance, time-saving measures taken on by the developer. Nitpicking them would be gauche. I mean, it’s a videogame right. Achieving progress through dying sounds dramatic, but for a videogame it’s such a dull occurrence that we willfully suspend our disbelief as it happens thousands, millions of times. Similarly, menus are a necessary shorthand and are totally a developed, alternative, form of communication that developers should be free to utilize. Still, these formal divergences are more conspicuous when context isn’t present. I have no reason to suspend my disbelief for a game that’s literally about nothing. Absent from anything else to ground the play, Alex’s Adventure starts to feel like its unifying theme is this main menu, necessarily occurring throughout the game’s furtive starts and stops. Again and again I’m greeted with sad tape hiss and a superimposed photo of the developer…
In what will likely be the final level found by the player (though amusingly, it could be first), this menu theme becomes a level theme, as Alex waits on a stationary platform. The camera lingers here for an inordinate amount of time. Then it begins to auto-scroll. This auto-scrolling level is timed to coincide with the length of this fidgety, nostalgic song. It’s short, and the platforming along clouds is simple, uninterrupted. I feel this game passing, rolling through my fingers, and because of what this game is, I feel the passing of multitudes, feeling off-balance as a result of playing a game that unconsciously anticipates its own obscurity.
Remember when you wanted to make a game? The first time, assuming you were a child, assuming you were a teenager, assuming youth, assuming naive impulsivity. I don’t remember what I thought or how it felt. I don’t remember anymore. Alex’s Adventure held on to that, which is why people aren’t going to remember it either.