Game Pile: The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom

History happens so fast, these days.

I  wanted to mention something about this game, for a very strange reason. This game is one of the games that’s been the longest installed and unplayed on my computer and my steam account. In one of the earliest steam sales, some million years ago, I bought this game, and it sat there, probably purchased for a few cents… and there it sat. I’d get around to it. It was a puzzle platformer game, a small indie game, a game from before when the world had elected an Obama. This game is ten years old, released in full fledged status in 2010, and when I finally, finally played it this year, I realised that I’d already played it.

I’d played this game several years ago, as In The Company Of Myself, a flash game with the same rudimentary mechanic, back when I delved through Kongregate’s realm of games. Some games from that time have lasted in my mind – I remembered finding Shift remarkably clever, for example – and many have not.

The basic mechanic of PB Winterbottom is that you can position your character, then reset your position in the level, only to witness your previous self going about the same pattern in the level. This particular kind of programmatic play also shows up in Braid and dozens of other small indie games, and thanks to this, despite the fact that these games all are separated from one another by developer they’re largely interchangeable in terms of the design of puzzle. You’ll see the same few puzzles to start with, for example, and most games will more or less play out the rest of the way, too.

What makes it even funnier, really, is that thanks to this programmatic way of the play, there’s a limit to what most of these games can introduce. You don’t get elaborate combo systems, but you do get switch puzzles. Switch puzzles and jumping puzzles, you can integrate those with the core mechanic, and maybe some pushing puzzles, sure. Shooting? Maybe. First person shooting? probably not.

The core mechanic of this game limits the ways the game can permutate from its root, and we have a fairly interesting example of this because the normally fecund creative space of indie gaming has made a bunch of them. You can’t normally explore all the spaces of a million-dollar shooter, because there are only so many of them coming out at once, but you can do a lot to explore the mechanics that a single developer can dig into in a semester.

This may sound like I’m giving this game beef for treading in a familiar mechanical space. It’s really not – I don’t think PB Winterbottom is a bad game, nor a bad product. It isn’t as tight or reliable as most puzzle games of the type I like, with the occasional puzzle solved with me wondering if I was supposed to wiggle or squeeze where I did or if the engine just was a bit too forgiving for me there. I also didn’t find it funny, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.

I’m barely even looking at PB Winterbottom as a game in its own right at the moment. I’m seeing instead the gamespace and all these small programmatic platformers being, as well, extensions of that. The programmatic platformer is a medium, and each of these games is itself content of that medium, if you want to get McLuahny.

One of these games uses its mechanic to represent a fractured, fragmented psyche that is so desperate to deal with a trauma that it literally externalises the self to the degree it can interact with the other. The other uses it to tell you the story of an accidentally enchanted pie thief.

Are either of these approaches better? Or worse? Is one of them more interesting than the other?

It sort of sucks all the interesting out of the games, though; PB Winterbottom has a very memetic sense of humour, a sort of pish-and-tribbles style of demeanour that wants to borrow from Monty Pythonic absurdity of Britishness without necessarily having anything of its own to work with. In the Company of Myself can be charitably called basic in its presentation, and the eventual dark turn of the story is positively weird given the way the story has nothing else going on up to that point.

I think about games like this, especially my own. I think a lot of my games are bad games, or rather, are more useful experiments than games that I think will be anyone’s favourites. I think I have a massive corpus of games, and of that body of work, several of them are really good and worth expanding and exploring. But I also had to make a few games that were kinda duds to get there. Some taught me about my graphic design, some about the limits of printing. Some taught me about gameplay mechanics and limits of memory. There were mistakes and mulligans and motivations and movements.

You learn about the space that you explore. Explore it.

One final detail, about this unremarkable remarkable thing that I’ve somehow spent a thousand words not-really-talking about: PB Winterbottom was a game made to be a final project for the designers’ university work. It’s a thing made to be a thing loved. I find that wonderful, and interesting, and inspiring, and I am so grateful we’re moving that way in education, towards a world where the work of students is theirs afterwards, that we do not dedicate them to essays they won’t care about once they’re handed in.

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