Pioneers Are Like Engineers But With Pie

If the world of written fiction can have numerous novels a year that all represent coming-of-age in a war-torn country or stories about families struggling with somewhat comedic dinner-table conflict, gaming can probably have at least a couple interactive platforming stories that deliver some abstract narrative or artistic meaning in some way. I say this because, well, there are probably plenty of complains that a game like Dolly is derivative, unoriginal, or “just another artsy platformer.” We’ve gotten to the point where form is less about doing something “new” and more about manipulating the tools and language we already have to create something “meaningful.” For those that don’t want their games stuffed with Art, the word “well” probably suffices.

Dolly is a game done well.

While it borrows essentially all its interactive structures from Super Meat Boy, this isn’t wrong. Every platformer has borrowed from Mario, or probably Donkey KongThis game is using the language of its predecessors in order to create a fresh and equally legitimate experience. Point is, things should be able to be derivative without being deemed unoriginal or stolen.

Thanks to what might be my favorite visual style — not to mention color scheme — of 2015, Dolly is anything but unoriginal. Dolly is visually splendid. As a person that already enjoys the ragged and somewhat impressionistic nature of modern pixel art, I was on board the minute the first setpiece came into view. I couldn’t help myself, really. Dolly is a strange game in that sense, because the “game-y” bits almost doesn’t have to exist in order for it to be impressive.

Now, listen. I’ve said that a lot in the past about games — that they don’t really need to be interactive, that they maybe should have just been short films, etc. — in a negative sense. This is different. In this case, I mean to say that Dolly could exist independent of interactivity and still be stunning; an art gallery featuring Dolly’s levels would be compelling to me. No question. But Dolly is a bit more than visuals, and that’s what keeps it on the Good Game Bus.

Gaming is good at struggle, at challenge. Dolly presents this, steadily increasing the difficulty through the half-hour-or-so of gameplay. But this challenge isn’t without context. It doesn’t have much context, but the action of the game takes place within a real narrative. While that might just be the fact that the gameplay is bookended by a conversation between a caregiving person and a doctor, that’s context enough. All of a sudden, the iconography in the game — a giant human head, a chain-heavy robot, an elk — is imbued with potential meaning. Without the sparse opening and ending lines, Dolly is merely a mildly challenging romp around some cool-lookin’ things. But when you add the introduction / conclusion, the game transforms into a journey, into a struggle, into an interactive story that has meaning aided by its interactivity. You struggle alongside Dolly.

The pixelpaintings are legitimately breathtaking, and the sparse story marches right along in time with the minimal soundtrack. Together, these elements create a space that’s positively pleasant to be in, to explore, and from which to draw meaning.

I’m pretty sure that’s all I’ve ever wanted from a game.

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