Game Pile: Lunark

And there’s a thumbnail after the fold, and the script outline afterwards.

Lunark is a 2023 step-platformer from Canari Studios, a Montreal-based indie game company, Wayforward games, an America-based indie game publisher, and me! Well, not me directly, but I, and two thousand eight hundred and twenty three other people all pledged some money, around $28 a head, back in 2019. It raised $81,655 on the back of a promise of a pixel-art step puzzle platformer, with rotoscoped cutscenes, and that’s exactly what I got, exactly what it is.

Well, short script, guess I can knock off early.

Lunark’s excellent. I did back it on kickstarter, entirely based on the trailer, and because it reminded me of Flashback. I loved that game, and loved all the first third of it I ever played, and the weeks of time I spent playing that part of the game.

Flashback was a great game for its time and I don’t just mean that because videogames hadn’t invented machine guns yet. It was great because the whole game fit on a 3.5 inch floppy so if you saw it at a mate’s place you could zip it up and take your own copy home and maybe photocopy some copy protection (I think) or their copy was cracked (probably). In that time, a single floppy was a great size for a game. You weren’t logging onto the internet to download new games all the time, you were having these rare meetings of going around to a friend’s house or seeing someone you didn’t often see to broaden your network of available software, and in that space, Flashback was great.

Flashback was a game that unfolded. Setting aside the core mystery you were dropped into tabula rasa, it was a game whose mechanical system felt like it was immediately available, just there under your fingertips as you played it, but which you had to learn how to coax out with the right positions, the right timing, the right combinations of buttons. Learning how to play it meant getting to know how it worked through the plot itself, which, and I know I’m not alone in this, often meant restarting the whole game to see an early cutscene again because you didn’t see what it told you to do next because you pressed a button and accidentally skipped the cutscene wholly.

Flashback was a time abyss of a game with a big beating mystery at its heart compelling you to finish it and I never did and nobody I know ever did but we all agreed that it played really well and we liked it. It was cool and it looked amazing and we definitely liked it. Do you know how it ends? Nope. Nobody did. Why’d you stop? uh, there was that bit.

You can go and play the original Flashback in a number of places, including a gog remake that… may be fine, I don’t know, and honestly don’t really care. The stylisation filter they put on it looks like my attempting to hide photoshopped-out tattoos on pictures by making the whole image’s skin texture rubbery and shiny. That’s not even touching on the 3d remake which is, uhm, well, I was told if I can’t say anything nice and the company that made it is probably out of business now anyway, since the only other game they made was Amy.

[maybe a clip from the folding ideas speedrun of amy]

The thing with going back and playing these old DOS games is that you need some heavy nostalgia to stick with them or a deep and abiding interest in getting to the end for some other reason, like a self-assigned dedication to trying to play games every week to get through a sort of ‘game pile’ as it were. Most of them work fine, but also, they’re not very good at encouraging you to play them, some of them are really repetitive, their narratives and conclusions aren’t really very interesting, the logic can be positively absurd at times, but also, very importantly, most of them have awkward interfaces. Not bad, not a huge problem, but there’s a lot of game interface language that you marinate in right now that is kind of universalised by the right things succeeding and most people adopting them.

WASD movement, which is the standard for first person shooters, was not the default in DOOM. Nor was it the default in Quake, where you were expected to toggle strafing with the alt key. Sierra, one of the companies most renowned for point-and-click games of the generation, made point and click games for less than half their life, and even then, the model people assume is standard only lasted for about five years.

When you go back to play these old DOS-era games, you were very likely to find an interface designed by someone with some very specific ideas of what was natural and intuitive and often you couldn’t customise them at all. Some designers thought the most natural way to move left and right was with the O and P keys, and jump and duck with the Q and A keys.

I bring this up to you to underscore that Lunark, as a game, owes a lot of how it looks to this particular period of rotoscoped pixel art that we mostly tie to Flashback and Prince of Persia, but what it owes about how it plays and the story it tells is not about how Flashback plays, but rather, how I remember Flashback feeling.

I mean, okay, yes, you could just simplify that into ‘Flashback but it plays really well,’ and that’s a place to start. It’s not just ‘that thing you like, in a bigger cup,’ though. I like Lunark a lot, and I like it as its own thing, which is very important. Enjoying it though, had all these moments when I thought ‘oh, is this going to be like this thing, from other games,’ and the game has an almost perfect sense for when introducing that thing would piss me off, and routes around it, or, when it would be perfect and revels in it.

You know something a lot of step platformers don’t do well? Combat and boss battles. Know what Lunark does a surprisingly good job of? Yeah! I was surprised! The step platformer tends to be a game which makes a puzzle of movement, with really deliberate and fixed-animation movement to boot and how do you treat that kind of movement in combat (you know, when there’s immediate risk of harm)? It feels weird to say this, but Lunark has a number of boss fights that feel like they cracked the puzzle without complicating the interface, and it’s just, really? Quite good?

Lunark has boss battles! And they’re interesting and good and they don’t feel like they’re repeating the same basic pattern, nor do they feel like they overstay their welcome. It’s very honest, hey, this is a boss battle and all the bits of how it works are visible, and that honestly plays into the honesty of the rest of the game. There are sure some execution problems, the game doesn’t mislead you or lie to you. Even the narrative, which is about a main character trying to solve a mystery, is mostly a mystery because people are withholding information, not because you’re somehow wrong about something important.

It’s a game that feels classical and invigorated by deeply loving its source material. Where Flashback unfolded through stages to reveal a game that was pretty good, Lunark is every bit as good, with a better interface, and an equally solid narrative told through the same mix of short cutscenes and character dialogue and play experience as Flashback did. And the story isn’t complicated, or even particularly complex. What it is, is obtuse; for the most part, the sequence of events that make up the story, and its background, all follow a reasonably coherent, sensible set of choices, but because your character doesn’t know what’s going on.

Lunark is amazing, and part of why it’s amazing is because it feels like it loves Flashback enough to know how to do Flashback better. You can make things that are like the things you love, and just add some more care, and more love, and a big monster that huggs you and an opportunity to pat some animals. That’s pretty cool.