Deep within the murky depths of alternative medicine lies the field of dream interpretation, the discipline of assigning poignant meaning to our subconscious, slumbering thoughts. Not only do professionals exist in this area, they claim grounding in Freudian psychology. A main tenet held by such specialists (as verified on LinkedIn), is that dreams, while often confusing and disparate, hold coherent meaning within their surreal borders. Analgesic Productions’ latest work, Anodyne, explores the nature of dreams in a similar way, but often forgets that abstraction isn’t as simple as ambiguity.
At its humblest, Anodyne draws heavily from the top-down Zelda era of the nineties. The creators have renounced Hyrule for a clashing, disjointed landscape of apartment buildings, serene rivers, sandy beaches, and mountainous caverns. The audio is presented in traditional chiptune fashion, and unlike the game’s map layout, is refreshingly cohesive. Gameplay centers around Zelda-standard sword fighting, puzzle elements, and exasperating top-down jumping puzzles. The protagonist, Young, has abjured Link’s outdated sword and shield for a simple broom. The player’s arsenal is laughably meager, and rounds out with just a few upgrades and a pair of shoes for jumping. These design choices make for a Spartan, minimalist approximation of Link’s Awakening. It might be too harsh to call the piece monotonous, but the game’s simplistic toolset slowly devolves the levels into one-dimensional, repetitive hash.
The visual aesthetics, on the other hand, stand as testament to the game’s themes of escapism and disconnect, and are often breathtaking. They aren’t beautiful in the traditional sense, but perfectly fit the uneasy, dreamlike tone of the piece. A mountain range and dense forest are particularly perfect in their jarring, brazen expression of Young’s subconscious. Put bluntly, a study of the work’s consummate pixel art could fill pages, and furthermore, act as a textbook guide for students of the medium. Suffice it to say, it’s one of Anodyne’s strongest attributes.
In a similar vein, the game’s soundtrack is another stout forte. Sean Hogan (seagaia), the team’s composer, has crafted a sullen electronic score that somehow manages to be sulky, haunting, nauseating, restless, enchanting, and at times, beautiful. For a game of dreamscapes, prose, and violence, it fits seamlessly. The score surges with an almost malevolent emotional quality, something hard to quantify that helps to establish the overarching tone of the setting and narrative. It walks hand-in-hand with the aforementioned visual qualities, ultimately providing an evocative sensory experience that mirrors works like The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther.
The setting, as described above, is disproportionately responsible for communicating narrative in Analgesic’s newest work. The fiercest criticism to be mustered towards Hogan and Kittaka’s piece regards the threadbare storyline that’s meant to hold the experience together. While Zelda games were always concerned with saving the princess (and probably the world as well), Anodyne doesn’t happen to provide any resurgent character motivation or reason for player investment. There’s a reappearing Sage that will constantly remind you of your quest—which is something vague having to do with darkness and a mysterious Briar—but nothing that’s resolved in any way. The story, in this sense, seems to be a placeholder for a more nuanced, unexplained, and perhaps too subtle narrative regarding addiction and the nature of personal relationships.
Stories in games can be communicated in many ways, and it’s surprising that a game of this caliber only succeeds at some of them. As previously stated, the audio and visuals flawlessly set the tone of the piece. The language, unfortunately, along with some gameplay elements, leave a lot of room for improvement. Hogan and Kittaka surely understand the message that they mean to communicate, if only we, as the audience, could understand it at the same level.
Dialogue, as a starting point, jumps the fence between poetic abstraction and needless ambiguity. Boss battles, for example, begin with cryptic messages that confuse more often than they illuminate. Tombstones litter the game world, each containing a strand of English words that—despite the aspirations of the game’s creators—come across as utterly random. It’s obscurity with no apparent purpose, and it hints that perhaps the men at Analgesic Productions aren’t fully aware that abstraction is meant as a process of simplification.
Traditional game reviewers will probably be citing the game’s jumping mechanics as one of the title’s most glaring flaws. While these segments are challenging, they’re hardly enough to distract from the more egregious blemish of fragmented exploration. As a hallmark of past Zelda titles, exploration is essential to Anodyne’s gameplay. Regrettably, it takes a few missteps. An assortment of 50 collectible cards feels like filler content, especially when you consider how little they add to an understanding of the game’s narrative.
Additionally, the work’s many diverse areas are sewn together in a manner that feels haphazard and disorganized. I’m sure the Hogan and Kittaka had some noble, grandiose reasoning for why these segments are connected the way that they are. The issue is in the expression, as the justification just isn’t communicated well. Strangely enough, this is somewhat analogous to the state of the game as a whole. Some may argue that these organizations, and the majority of the team’s design choices, are somehow acceptable under the pretense that this is all a dream world, which absolves it from all logic and reason. To this end, playing though, and subsequently venturing to understand Anodyne’s message is much like trying to interpret a dream.
In some ways, this should be seen as a laudable success on the part of Hogan and Kittaka. These obvious parallels [of trying to interpret a game about a dream in the way that we interpret actual dreams] are poignantly post-modern, bringing nuanced meaning to McLuhan’s definitive thought that “the medium is the message.”
The double-edge, however, reminds us that art is expression, and expression shouldn’t be needlessly vague and ambiguous. If the implied story, at it’s simplest, involves the exploration of Young’s subconscious, than we should come away with a better understanding of his character. Instead, we’re left with an ethereal dreamscape that hints regularly at a larger implied framework, but never reveals enough to give us a sense of what’s really at stake. By the game’s conclusion, Young is left as a wide-eyed, mysterious man-boy, and the ephemeral glimpse we’re given at his emotional state begins to fade.
Ultimately, as the profession of dream interpretation shows us, our personal, slumbering thoughts can often be shown to hold coherent, relevant meaning. The difference here is that we are not Anodyne’s Young. We know nothing of his past life, his struggles, or his motivations. As a broken fragment of the already threadbare story, character development is strangely elusive. How then, are we supposed to interpret this dream that Hogan and Kittaka have constructed? In the end, Analgesic productions have failed in their ability to express complexity. Their work’s audio and visuals present an immersive world held back by our collective inability to fully empathize. You can see what they’re getting at, but we’re dream analysts, not psychics.
MSRP: Around $9 USD, though it frequently goes on sale. The soundtrack is available for purchase both separately ($5) and as a bundle with the game ($12).
What I Like: The rich, pixel-painterly visual aesthetics, the emotional soundtrack, the conception of a new take on a classic genre, and some of the puzzles.
What Needs Improvement: The narrative, the map layout and exploration, the collectables, the jumping puzzles, and the statement of the underlying themes.
Source: Studio supplied review sample