There are enormous moments in every medium that fundamentally change its future. The Cubists start painting in a style that reinterprets visual perception; Woolf and Joyce defy grammatical rules to allow readers inside the minds of their characters; Bebe and Louis Barron compose a film score made entirely with electronic components. In most cases the birth of new movements is incremental, the process of one artist influencing another taking place gradually until, before anyone has really realized it, everything has changed. Videogames, though, are an intrinsically technological medium that has seen its greatest leap forward come as the result of widespread internet connectivity. All of us–players and developers alike–can pretty much pin down when the zeitgeist started to shift–when digital distribution made it possible for smaller and weirder games to hit the mainstream. It’s easy to forget just how much of shake-up this time was, and how massively a handful of hyper-successful indie titles from the late aughts influenced developers-to-be.
Basically, this is all just a roundabout way of getting to Nowhere Studios’ Monochroma, one of the clearest examples of a game made in the shadows of giants like Playdead’s Limbo and Jonathan Blow’s Braid.
The age of digital distribution made independently developed games more visible than ever before, download-ready marketplaces like Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA), Playstation Network, and Steam opening the gates to the kind of studios that may not have had the resources (or desire) to put out full-price retail releases. Somewhere around ’07 and ’08, players with an internet-connected Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, or Nintendo Wii could hop onto a virtual storefront and see strange new games available to buy. Indie titles were often given billing right alongside publisher-funded efforts. It was crazy and fantastic (and probably a big reason why videogames are worth paying attention to today). For a certain demographic, the highlighted releases of games like Super Meat Boy and Flower were like our own version of late ’60s radio stations. Everyone was tuned in together at the right time and, if they were into trying something new, they were all playing the same strange new things around the same time as one another.
Just like pop music can never have another band that means as much to as many as the Beatles or Nirvana now that the music industry has changed so fundamentally, videogames will never have another single batch of games that affect so many people so simultaneously again. This isn’t a bad thing, of course. The floodgates have opened and there is a wealth of great smaller games easily available to players now. The medium is healthy. It had a big moment that changed things for the better, wrenching a tiny bit of control out of the hands of publishers and giving independent developers a huge boost in visibility.
But, right on the eve of this change there were an awful lot of players and developers internalizing the lessons of the same games. This is where Monochroma comes in again. Nowhere Studios’ puzzle-platformer shares not just mechanical and stylistic similarities with runaway digital distribution successes like Braid and, more particularly, Limbo, but also their sense of purpose, too. It is a game that is designed from the ground-up to tug at the player’s heartstrings, to imbue a sense of melancholy through slow-paced puzzle solving where failure always means death. The premise may not be outright lifted from other titles, but it certainly sounds familiar. In Monochroma, the player controls an older brother who must piggyback his younger, injured sibling through a black-and-white world filled with jumping, timing, and physics-based object manipulation. The environment they trek through, whether farmhouses or factories, is drenched in fog; the music is sparse and melancholy; the story is told through inference, by extracting context from suggestion. Nowhere Studios is also laser-focused on emotional resonance, on using a bare bones narrative to tackle heavy subject matter. Even though it hardly seems necessary to do so anymore, Monochroma is concerned with proving that videogames can be art. It is, basically, a game that would have been right at home as a spotlight XBLA summer release during the last gasp of the (ugh) aughts.
Despite the fact that just beneath its exterior, Monochroma makes attempts at asserting its own identity (bits of ’50s-style robo-futurism peak through the misty, industrial setting) it still gives the effect of being an outright homage to a not-yet-forgotten time. This doesn’t work in the game’s favour. The controls aren’t as responsive as Limbo‘s, the puzzles aren’t as inventive as Braid‘s, and the story isn’t as effectively told as Bastion‘s. Normally it would seem unfair to make these kind of comparisons. Monochroma invites them, though, and in asking to be held up against nascent classics it ends up falling short of the mark. Its own identity is defined purely in contrast to what it tries to emulate.
Monochroma isn’t the most impressive game, but it’s hard to beat as a snapshot from a period of videogame change that will fade into nostalgia before we know it. Incredible devotion to the lessons of a very specific period of time mean that Nowhere Studios has created an interactive monument to the years when games entered a new era. Its gameplay and aesthetic may not seem remarkable now, but they are nothing if not true to the past. This is a rare thing, to be given a glimpse into a pivotal moment in a medium’s history (and to see how weirdly old it feels now) not through a book or documentary, but with a real, playable entry released only years after the time it’s referencing have passed.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor, and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, and The Escapist. He is also editor-in-extremis for videogame site Digital Love Child. He tweets tweets @reidmccarter.