LIT’s brilliance is not in the game itself (though it is a great game, to be sure), but in its ability to illuminate what makes a game fun and how developers ought to make use of the opportunity to make small games – an opportunity afforded by the Wii Shop Channel, PSN, etc. Set in an undead-filled school, LIT is a puzzle game that spans 30 levels, including 5 bosses, with each level being represented by a classroom. When I say puzzle game, however, I mean puzzle game like Zak and Wiki was a puzzle game, or perhaps even Wario Ware is a puzzle game; LIT is a metapuzzle game, the puzzle is figuring out how to solve each puzzle.
This is the first way in which LIT shines (for those playing the home game we’re up to three light puns now). Gameplay, essentially, can be split into two parts: 1. Figuring out what you need to do, 2. doing. Most games are successful by only challenging you in one of these dimensions, or perhaps at best challenging you with each one at a time.
This is often a constraint of the genre: platformers are a perfect example. You have a relatively simple play mechanic of running, jumping, and maybe attacking (and of course in more contemporary versions games have their own variations, double and triple jumps, new weapons to maximize efficiency), and so part 1, figuring out what to do, is obvious. The challenge of the game is in part 2, the execution; it’s in successfully pulling off thirty consecutive jumps without fail, mowing your way through a room packed with enemies without dying, etc.
Just your average gym teacher, right?
When there are puzzles in most games, be it platformer, or FPS, or even an RPG, once you’ve actually figured out the puzzle, solving it is as easy as throwing a switch, pushing a block, or talking to the right succession of people, the execution, part 2, is nearly nonexistent.
I believe games have become on the whole better as they’ve incorporated a balance of these elements, shifting between puzzles where you figure out what to do and then moving to fights where strategy is easy but application is hard. Prince of Persia: Sands of time is exemplary of this evolution; puzzle sections where you figure out how to move around (some execution here but let’s be honest, minimal) followed by hack-and-slash fights. LIT, like Zak and Wiki, and sometimes Warioware, constantly forces you to engage in both of these.
The essence of LIT is that you must get to the exit of each dark room by employing a variety of tools to light a pathway to the door. Levels constantly introduce new tools, from slingshots to computer screens to flares, whose purpose you must discover. Even after you learn the purpose of a tool actually using it properly requires a good amount of timing, aim, and foresight.
So you know how to use a slingshot, but maybe you don’t know which window or emergency light to fire at; once you figure out to aim at the emergency light you still have to run across the light it shines and fire off at some other window before the sensor deactivates. The result is gameplay that is both intellectually and viscerally exhausting, a synthesis I would like to see more games achieve.
The way most games get around the fact that they employ stale, genre-defined mechanics is threefold. First, they introduce small innovations, as mentioned before, like a double jump, or more weapons. This solution has obvious limits: there are only so many unique variations that are actually productive, and as often as not I think these changes backfire or detract from the game (though I enjoyed it, history seems to have deemed the FLUDD waterpack from Mario Sunshine a perfect example of this).
Second, they up the difficulty: you make the jumps that much harder to pull off or throw in a few thousand more enemies. This obviously also has an upper bound before you start pissing off your audience.
LIT? More like REALLY DARK?
Finally, and most successfully, you create a compelling world, storyline, or both for your game. I think, and perhaps have said in previous articles, that this is what will draw us back to game after game, level grind after level grind. The pretty shells and storylines, even when minimally different, appeal to us. I doubt many would, from scratch, collect all 150 Pokemon in Pokemon Red and Blue twice, but for some reason so many will do it in Pokemon Red, then Pokemon Diamond, then Pokemon Invisible-to-the-Naked Eye-UV-Purple.
LIT showcases two points with regard to graphics and other non-gameplay aspects of a videogame. The first is that graphics qua graphics aren’t that important. A game is successful when it creates a distinctive aesthetic, and I think LIT succeeds at this because the aesthetic helps us suspend disbelief and buy into the alternate world.
Though LIT’s graphics are by no means poor they are, at an objective level, still reflective of their price and console. Subjectively, however, the dark tones, eerie music, and amorphous shadows employed create a scary, compelling world that immediately draws you into the game.
The second point is that, while many of us are upset when developers pursue better graphics for the sake of better graphics, I think it is equally detrimental to games when we try to have more secrets, awards, music, or even in some cases story, as opposed to focusing on making better gameplay mechanics. While story may in some cases prove an exception, certainly some games are barely more than an interactive medium for conveying plot. Though this can be great, the truth is that in most genres (FPS, fighters, Mario, to name a few) story is, as I intimated before, mainly used as a distraction from stale gameplay.
While we may return to these games over and over because of a decent story, most of us also will see basically the same romantic comedy over and over as long as it has a few new actors. It makes for decent entertainment, but its not art, innovative, or ultimately satisfying, and we should consider being as wary of superfluous story as we are of superfluous graphics.
LIT presents an alternative on the microlevel by being a game that places gameplay above aesthetics and story and on the macrolevel by highlighting small games as a testing ground for gameplay mechanics. I have no doubt that developing any novel mechanic is difficult; developing one that will win over a mainstream audience must often seem nearly impossible to developers.
LIT’s plot is often subtly revealed . For example, the furniture arrangement of this classroom reveals protagonist Jake attends a school for the retarded.
Small games, as a medium, offer developers a low risk method of trying out new mechanics. I would love to see downloadable games used as a testing zone, with feedback from gamers encouraged, so that developers can then convince studios to gamble on a larger game that might employ the same concept. I can only imagine, back in the PS1 era, how much more quickly developers might have realized we were all sick of fucking pushing and flipping boxes around (I still dream of Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver’s intricate block puzzles).
Smaller downloadable games promote the ability to experiment not only because they require less of an audience to be profitable (a bit of an assumption on my part, someone can feel free to correct), but also because of their low price I believe gamers are willing to forgive a less-than-polished product. Though LIT is great, it was clearly not produced at the level a full priced game should be.
In LIT, when you touch the darkness you die, but puzzles often require you to get right up to the edge of the darkness in order to flip a lamp switch. The number of times where I died because I took a half step too far where it seemed light was gratuitous, and if this happened in a fifty-dollar game I’d be pissed. But, at its price, I’m perfectly willing to get over this if it will encourage developers to experiment more and translate the successful experiments into new products.
Ultimately, small games like LIT, as well as games like Braid, World of Goo, and even Rolando, show off the platform as one in which developers have much greater capacity to innovate games as opposed to relying on techniques like unbearable difficulty and pretty graphics to cover stale gameplay. Now, let’s just work on creating a productive method of communicating feedback and converting these experiments into full-fledged masterpieces.