Platformers aren’t a genre. They’re a style, and one with constraints. They resemble experimental literary formats and poetry more than typical A-B storytelling.
What’s the essential element of a platformer? Traversing spaces made inaccessible aside from with aerial movement. Platform to platform.
That’s the very basic point of one, that you have some urge to get to somewhere you can’t get to, except with temporary aerial travel. We’re talking jumping, gliding, tying balloons to a car and directing it with the wind, anything so long as it’s gaps you couldn’t cross otherwise.
It’s a very streamlined ruleset and for that reason platformers don’t usually rely on it alone, but instead have it as the building brick structure for additional mechanics, as in one of my favourite games of this year – Cruel World, a difficult platformer that has the complexities of community resource interaction at its centre.
Using platformer design as gameplay is a trend so common that it often happens in games that you wouldn’t consider ‘platformers’. Uncharted and Tomb Raider aren’t thought of as platformer series, except they absolutely make you play in the platformer style at least fifty percent of the time. They’re like old, racist penny adventure novels with a bunch of pages dedicated to poetry. It makes sense because both came out of the late 90s tradition of 3D platforming that despite how little it is acknowledged, entirely shaped expectations of mechanics in major 3D games as they exist today.
The interesting thing to me is how little of a resemblance to anything in real life platforming represents, aside from the niche experiences of extreme sports enthusiasts. Most of us rarely ever even jump, let alone risk our lives taking one huge leap after the next in some quest to find out what’s at the end of a set of traps.
That format thus necessarily means that the stories we see coming out of games which take platforming as their moniker can be radically different, and experienced more like the experience of watching or partaking in sport, to other stories.
We most often express an appreciation for the style of a platformer when what we’ve played is made to make you understand that it’s being clever, like Thomas Was Alone, It Takes Two or Braid, games that on varying levels are obnoxious about their own ‘inventiveness’. However, games that don’t have that element still excel at surprising us, down to the uniqueness of the format in terms of narrative experience.
There is something uniquely satisfying about a heroic leap, but in traditional narrative fiction it often turns into a whole-big-thing, because of how possessed we are with the body and its limits as the temple of human stories. For instance in the classically obscure cinema film The Matrix, the main character, Neo, has to do a big jump, but fails; later on having realised that the bodily reality of the matrix is one that can be bent, Neo gets it. It’s a classic test of will that comes out of fantasy adventure fiction traditions.
In a platformer though, while they sometimes go to that place, you’re still making about thirty heroic leaps in a minute, because the style is about “What if this whole jumping thing wasn’t so tough after all?”
Mario Mario, an average joe in a red hat who shouldn’t be able to jump like that becomes an acrobat, since he’s often in stories where leaps are part of the narrative structure. The journeys of Celeste and Gris are more akin to contemporary horror fiction in the way they present stories about young women experiencing hardship, as their platforming literalises superhuman physical strength and speed from the start.
In another way that’s what has always made Lara Croft a successful character for those who idolise looters of sacred sites, since she embodies not only ideals of sexually charged character design, but also the ‘girl power’, prowess and class obsessed, white feminism of an English culture whose icons are all Olympic gold medallists.
In the case of Psychonauts 2 its very interesting then that a lot of the discussion of how good it is is centred around level design, which in a platformer is seen as incredibly easy to distinguish from narrative design, despite the two being interlocked because of how the platformer style informs your experience of narrative. Platformer ‘levels’ are a form of narrative poetry, very consciously formatted to create an experience unlike that of being told a story, but unlike a feat of athletic endurance either. The way that objects, interactions and gaps between platforms are placed is part of telling the story, and the amount of times and ways you fail to progress is the element of physical skill so similar to free-running or bouldering that is unique to the player experience of a platformer.
The reasons why these haven’t been seen as story or poetic design elements in the way that types of film sequence or poetic constructions have is unclear, but is perhaps something to do with the nature of games generally as one of the current little shitbirds of culture. The widespread coverage that games get rarely interacts with them on the level of their construction as artworks instead of “how well will this content fill you up?” or “Is this a culture war topic we can exploit?”, and when they do its often with an eye to canonise a list of specific games into the culture of ‘acceptable objects’.
A platformer cannot be guaranteed to be a good experience, in the way that most poems can’t, but it can and will still be recommended. Maybe you won’t be able to get started, and maybe when you do its deeper structures won’t reveal themselves to you, and maybe you’ll die before you manage to get to the back half of it, but, you’ve come to an artwork where the form requires that players and readers do half the work.