“Idra and the Little Fish” Review
Reviewing indie games is like gripping onto somebody’s chubby little baby, lifting it out of its cradle, and then releasing it above the concrete. When there are dozens of artists and developers publishing their work to the Itch commons, having put in so much work — so much crunch time — to create a game, it causes me no end of wondering whether or not I’m doing them a favour by bringing it out to Kratzen and telling the world everything wrong with it. So often is frankness disguised as a favour, but the worst thing you can do to an artist is tell them their work is perfect.
For those of you who read the stars before the review, let me be clear: this isn’t a bad game. Rather, it isn’t a game. It’s a tech demo, an experiment, a sample of potential to come. It’s a project made in three days, or seventy – two – hours straight in the great tradition of chaining yourself to the Hell that is game jams, and the idea that such a thing can be made in three days is believable, but amazing that it happened. I spent a week testing control schemes in a maze; it still wasn’t good enough. I think Pikopik (or pikopik in a world where proper nouns don’t matter) had an hour. How did they do it? How does one make these models in three days?
On a smaller scale, you can ask me how I make a review in a lunch break, and I would reply that I’m very good at making reviews. I don’t brag, I just have proven experience, and I use this experience to produce good work faster than many people. Is this how Pikopik did it? Do they have experience in making games fast? I’m forced to believe the background doesn’t matter, because this game has been made, and it is proof that this can be made in three days. I don’t believe this is the cream of the crop of what three days can do. But I believe I will find cream, if I find more games like this.
Tech and demoes
You are a fish. You are the most fish you could be. You move by swimming back and forth — without spoiling the surprise, WASD has never been different, but now it is. I know what players are going to say: the controls are awful. I’m going to say they’re unfinished. At the end of my journey, I was stuck between a cat statue and some rocks and couldn’t get out because I could not move backwards. I will ask if mouselook is too much to ask, but that’s the wrong question. The entire experience is being a fish. The less fish you are, the less this game matters. For though the controls are unfinished, they are the reason one plays this game, because you are a fish, and for the game to pretend you are anything else, like a moving tripod or a gyroscope with eyes, would damage it.
The game opens with Idra getting caged; the art style, which is bubbly in what I can only describe as the future of gaming, is deliberately minimal. Lighting is used to guide you, a very clever and effective technique. It’s minimal because the game uses two colours: light and dark, cel shaded. Everything is dithered; there is an art to dithering that this game has yet to master, for it distracted me at first, though fits too well underwater. Did I mention we were underwater? I thought it was obvious when I said you were a fish. When you finally figure out the fish, and bump into a button to free the anthro, blind, Idra, you follow her light. You ring a bell and make her follow you. At the end you produce your own light, which is a bit underpowered and makes everything away from you dark. Also at the end, a dilemma opened in my mind: do I want more of this game, or less of it?
There’s more chemistry between Idra and the Little Fish than exists in “proper” games, even when you’re a literal fish who cannot speak. There’s no story — there’s potential for some. The dialogue is unfinished — there’s potential for some. There’s no gameplay. I don’t see much potential. That’s the killer — you clumsily run to a button and hit it, sloppily push a spindle, and go through tunnels. But that tunnel sequence, where there was nothing but my light, no where to go but forward, being a fish, all swimming… that’s beauty. That’s what I want. No more buttons, please. Give me the beauty of being a fish.
There is potential in this game to be less a traditional one, and more something you show in an exhibit as “games as art.” There’s a bias there, saying that not all games are art. Even the garbage is art, just done badly, for there is an art to their construction and rules they have to follow to make them very good, and the bad games are those that didn’t follow those rules. The good ones are those with a bit of wonder in them, no matter how much “game” they have, like Bioshock and Paper Mario. Whatever little is here has that wonder, but wonder is a limited resource, and when wonder runs out, something must take its place.
A story, a world, a bit of lore, or even good gameplay. These are things that can carry a game when the initial wonder, the initial wow!, runs out. A cute character, even. Idra is pretty cute. I’m okay with a blind girl. I’m okay with learning more about Idra and about the Little Fish. It’s be incredible to know more about why we’re here and what’s up with the ruins. I’m okay with the messy bits, the lack of gameplay and the bit where I can clip out of the map, so long as the good stuff remains. But that’s just potential — and banking on potential is gambling with my heart. I have to rate it how I see it.
I see a game that is in desperate need of more of itself. Controls that are faster and give the player more control. Gameplay that’s exciting and makes it more of a game. Maps that hint at a much larger world. All of these are things I need. But it is not here. And if it should come, then I will be proud. But it is not here. I must encourage the artist to continue this, for it is excellent, but what makes it excellent is not here. You understand, don’t you, kind artist? You’ve made an excellent thing. But there is not enough of this excellent thing, and I wish upon this little fish that I may play it again.