Coffee & Lager: LostWinds

tokulostwinds“A lot of subtle but very important gameplay appeal comes from the fact that the player controls two characters, and the dynamic between them. Toku is a young boy who is relatively vulnerable and whom you basically just move left or right with the nunchuck, and he stays vulnerable throughout the game…The other player character, Enril the Wind Spirit, is controlled by the Wii-mote and does get much more powerful as the game progresses. There is a nice symbiosis to their relationship because Enril has almost god-like powers in many ways, yet lacks the physical presence in the world that Toku provides. So the two work very well and naturally together as the player wields the power of the wind to protect, guide and do battle on behalf of Toku.” – David Braben, Frontier Developments

* This is the first installment of Coffee & Lager, an exercise in studying the sobering and inebriation of existing games. This month’s game of choice: LostWinds

Braben frames the dualities that LostWinds plays off of quite clearly, as the above interview with Gamasutra this week would suggest. “The key ideas came when one of our game designers Steven Burgess was watching the trees and leaves from the window on a windy day. He remembers thinking about how many ways the wind shapes and manipulates different things within the world, and if only there was some way to become the wind in a game.” LostWinds empowers the player in a number of ways, such as staying true to its inspiration of environment manipulation, without hogging any room for the quieter moments to be heard.

The Coffee

  • LostWinds, mechanically speaking, controls very fluidly. Thematically, it dances a fine line of affordances and constraints, and does so rather intuitively. The limitations of your wind gusts and  the patience the player has to have with Toku (mostly in the earlier half of the game) sets up a very subtle anticipation to keep playing and seeing how this duo works in unison. Initial tasks of successfully platforming and opening up new pathways are enough to be satisfying for the effort put in not only in their visual grace, but in establishing a meaningful relationship between the two characters while underscoring their weaknesses in an inviting and constructive manner.

  • Toku’s adventure starts off as an elegant example of giving the player vital slices of information: sleeping under a tree in the title screen (and first frame of the game experience) while Enril the Wind Spirit (your cursor with the Wii Remote) can move around the screen to make menu choices. What this doesn’t reveal right away is the power of that moment- Enril trying to awaken Toku, and feedback the environmental backdrop provides the player with (trees/shrubs moving to quicker gestures). Having these two characters work with one another sets up a groundwork for understanding the sensibilities of the game under the radar.
  • Each controller (Wiimote + Nunchuck) takes the role of a character. Just as well, each controller successfully represents the relevance of its design. The Wii-Nunchuck is for all intents and purposes the center of the N64 controller gutted out: a joystick with a trigger behind it. This is what controls Toku, and to reiterate Braben’s description, “…is relatively vulnerable and whom you basically just move left or right…” At some point it almost feels like Toku’s limited potential accurately represents a timeworn game design, whether or not Frontier intended that perception. Enril being tied to the cursor gesture-based motions of the Wii Remote is what ultimately liberates the game by making use of the current console gaming model (soon to be reiterated by Microsoft and Sony), Wii’s interface/control scheme. LostWinds marries two completely different but proven approaches to game design and user interaction behind a very pleasant skin. Including such a vulnerable element as Toku into such a large chunk of the game is what makes this interesting to take away from.

The Lager

  • The world of Mistralis is rich with feedback to the player’s impulses. Leaves tossed around and shaken off Cherry Blossoms, grasses and ferns tugged, citizens clothes being blown taught, and babies tossed up only to be caught by their mothers are a handful of the ways the player’s interactions are traced within the backdrop. It’s a simple nod to the essence the game seems to be founded upon, and it helps convey the power of Enril effectively. The idea that wind could manipulate a level/environment is only suggested in these recurring moments, but it helps establish a tempo within a game like LostWinds, whose pacing and aesthetic has a lot of breath to it.
  • Platformers are traditionally a genre not native to open-world elements. LostWinds’ world exists as one continuous panoramic that doesn’t break up into segments between episodic levels. This affords the player a chance to thoroughly explore the entire environment, and get a chance to loosely play and reiterate play with the wind element. After playing the game a few times since its release over a year ago, I’ve been hard pressed to not want to navigate through every crevice of Mistralis. How exhilarating and immediate reaching higher destinations with the ease of “wind” is has yet to catch me off guard.

The recently announced sequel to LostWinds, “Winter of the Melodias takes Toku & Enril through the colder climate and, according to David Braben, will be available on the Nintendo Wii’s Wiiware digital download service in the coming months.

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