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Parallax hopes you’re into binary code

Simplicity can breed great games. At its best, minimalist art of any kind offers exactly what is needed and nothing more. Super Hexagon might be the purest expression of this impulse in recent games. Its design helps you become that little triangle frenetically trying to find chinks in the hexagonal armor whirling around you. But minimalism entails risks, too. If that “exactly what is needed” doesn’t click, you start to wonder why you’re there. Maximalist spectacles like Metal Gear hold our attention even when the core actions of the experience falter. You press on. You want to know what happens next. Why else would you climb that impossibly long ladder?

Parallax strives for Super Hexagon-level minimalism, but I think it could take a lesson or two from Metal Gear. It’s a minimalistic three-dimensional puzzle-platformer, which makes it Antichamber’s first-cousin and Portal’s skinny brother-in-law. You pop into a level, jump through some hoops, hit a few buttons, and, if all goes well, put your feet on the goal, which gives way to the next level.

Parallax sets itself apart from these predecessors by ratcheting up the difficulty. 

Parallax sets itself apart from these predecessors by ratcheting up the difficulty. Imagine one of the portal-hopping, switch-pressing, contingency-planning puzzles from Portal—tricky, but at least you could check your work at a glance. Now, split that over two parallel-yet-interlocking universes that you have to travel between, remembering the effect of a single switch-flip not just in your current universe, but in its parallel, too. This is Parallax’s greatest strength and—as with any good tragic hero—its undoing.

Holding conditional information for two parallel visions of the same universe in your head at the same time isn’t something we’re accustomed to doing. And when the cues separating the universes are a white-on-black vs. a black-on-white color scheme, the details can get very muddy indeed if you’re not paying close attention the whole time. By the time you hit the later levels, this is the kind of game you need to play with a still-steaming coffee cup. I found myself able to get through one or two levels, then quitting to think about anything else besides the difference between world A and A’. The puzzles themselves muddle things further; they seem like they ought to be simple since they’re all constructed from binaries: on/off, right/left, in/out, light/dark, etc. But there’s emergent complexity there, because off is on in the Twilight Zone that you move in and out of.

Playing Parallax requires the same kind of thinking you bring to writing a computer program: You have an idea of what you want to happen, make a couple of choices, and then you spend an hour banging your head against a set of irritatingly simple Trues and Falses trying to figure out why on earth it isn’t working the way you want it to.

Now, I like failure in games. By helping us fail (and fail spectacularly), games give us chances to learn in ways that we can’t get anywhere else in our child-proofed world. But repeated failure can weigh on your motivation. And that burden gets heavier when your reason for continuing on is only, “To continue.” Parallax has no plot. It has no character(s). We get no indication of where this Will Shortzean universe is or who made it or why we’re here. We get puzzles. And we do them because they are puzzles, and puzzles demand doing. Because level B-7 is after B-6 and you haven’t finished B-6 yet, have you? This type of circular motivation is where spectacle could save Parallax from itself. Any kind of motivation (even the kind you forget!) is better than knowing that there is no motivation. Failure only really becomes meaningful when you’re failing someone else. Locked in its hermetically sealed chamber, Parallax becomes too hard to care about and too easy to quit.