Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tiny & Big in: Up That Mountain - Black Pants' Instant (Even As A Work In Progress) Classic

I absolutely love independent games and this year's crop of IGF 2011 entrants and finalists just may be the most creative to date. From the super-popular and amazingly successful Minecraft or Super Meat Boy, innovative gems such as Desktop Dungeons, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and more, there's something for every taste (as well as plenty of games a non-gamer would try). A few of the nicer surprises have been the as yet unfinished projects that show off some amazing innovation in visuals as well as gameplay.

For me, the best example of this is the beta demo of Tiny and Big in: Up That Mountain, developer Black Pants Game Studio's wonderfully fresh and funny episodic 3D adventure/platformer (for PC, Mac and Linux) that features stunning comic-styled visuals and excellently implemented game mechanics that are simple to understand while allowing for a number of ways to tackle environment navigation. The current demo build is a bit raw and definitely needs more work, but what's here will make you crack a smile that lasts for as long as you're playing.

The premise is simple: You play as Tiny, a strange-looking type with a talking radio backpack, a laser cutter and a grappling hook. You're after Big (who's actually smaller than Tiny), another weird-looking guy who's stolen your sole inheritance from your deceased grandpa: a pair of white rib underpants with possible *magical* qualities. Yes, it's flat-out silly (that is, IF you take your games too "seriously"), but the "plot" here takes a back seat to the character and level design, humorous dialog and most importantly, the physics-based gameplay. This isn't some derivative mod using a popular game engine, but a game that hits you immediately with its clever art direction, offbeat humor and a bit of really cool theme music. Characters communicate via big word balloons, sound effects appear onscreen when interacting with objects and most importantly, there's no timer running to push you along. Gameplay has your basic platforming mechanics, but when Tiny needs to interact with certain objects in the environment, that's when the fun truly begins.

Using the hook and rope (pressing and holding the right mouse button), you can latch onto and pull objects around to use as steps in order to reach higher ground. The laser cutter comes in handy when there's nothing around but a bunch of tall rock columns and you need to make those steps. By clicking left mouse button and dragging the mouse across these columns, you can cut them into pieces, quickly switch to the hook and yank the column down towards your position. Granted, you don't want to be in the EXACT spot where that column is falling, nor do you want to back off a ledge while you're in the process of bringing down a 20 foot slab of rock.
Getting up that haunted hill is tricky and even when you think you've got Big in your grasp, he manages to escape, thanks to those underwear teleporting him away when he puts them on his head. There's more... but you'll want to download the game yourself and see..

As for the visuals - just peek at the trailers here and see for yourself. This isn't "cel-shading" (a term that's been overused and incorrectly described as a technique in games where it's not) at all, but a mix of standard illustration and coding that's amazing to look at. For a small team of five guys who love games, there's a huge amount of passion and energy here that's more than admirable. If the final version has bit faster movement (add a run button, please) and that extra layer of polish, it's safe to say that Black Pants will be on a few radars as long as they keep that creativity pumping out stuff like this. I like the lack of voices so far, as well as some of the sound design. All of the elements are in place (despite a few bugs here and there) for an instant "sleeper" classic with wide appeal.

While the beta isn't incredibly long and needs a bit of polish (well, it IS a beta!), there's a great game lurking here that's got superb crossover potential across multiple platforms. T & B screams loudly for a Wii and PS3 (with PS Move) ports (3D enabled, at that) and I can even imagine a 3DS version or some sort of side-story provided Black Pants has the opportunity to tackle these projects. A few years ago, a game such as this would have gotten a retail release in a heartbeat, and I'm actually hoping Black Pants can find a publisher who can combine all the episodes (which will have the overall title of Grandpa's Leftovers, if I'm not mistaken) into a single package so as many gamers as possible can get their hands on what's looking like a truly amazing project.

Best of luck to Black Pants in the IGF 2011 awards - I have the feeling that we haven't heard the last of them. As I've said above, go download and play the game so you can see for yourself just how cool it is.

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