Soft Body is a graceful, lo-fi attack on brutalist modern shooters

Soft Body is a statement about the austerity of shooters. It slithers between the erect polygonal tissues of videogame hard-bodies to deny their supremacy in the battlefield. Those rigid utilitarian figures epitomized in Gears of War—made solely to shoot guns and lift heavy objects—look like hammers dripping with sweat in comparison. Can these guys even reach around to wipe their asses with that much bicep?

Unlike the steroided soldiers, Soft Body is a gymnast that curls and dances around them. Being a bullet hell non-shooter, it demands a polar opposite form of play to the heavy-footed feel of modern military shooters and their perpendicular beelines between cover. Rather than these realistic shooters, it hearkens back to the genre’s roots in abstract 2D spaces such as Robotron and Tempest, where nimble evasion ruled and slow-moving cover-to-cover progression was only a glint in its progenitor’s eye. 

find joy wiggling through tiny gaps between spirals of bullets 

Zeke Virant originally created Soft Body for his Master’s thesis at the NYU Game Center with the intent of making movement feel “great and rewarding.” He has succeeded on all accounts. Moving the orange spirit around is like pulling an eel through water on a piece of string. The thumb rolls of your analog stick have immediate feedback and a spineless flexibility.

This natural grace isn’t your weapon, but it’s often the best one you have when faced with Soft Body‘s bullet hell arenas. It encourages you to take risks and to find joy wiggling through tiny gaps between spirals of bullets, skirting danger in displays of dexterity. The high skill ceiling of Soft Body‘s shifting arenas encourage this level of mastery as they trap you in small cages, where you perform the impossible dodges of a magician’s assistant during the sword box trick.

Zeke compares Soft Body to learning to play a musical instrument. It’s an appropriate analogy for at least two reasons. Firstly, the game itself is musical. Progression through the shifting, multi-stage arenas requires that you paint enclosing rows of tiles a bright yellow by running alongside them. Doing this causes them to play a strange tune that sounds like a cassette tape being rewound.

Shots also pop, and ambient synths shimmer as accompaniment. These different sounds don’t mesh initially due to your inadequacy. But a player of higher skill will move through the levels with grace, turning their movement into improvised musical composition.

Then you have the Ghost Body. Merging with this pink sprite allows you to push noisy objects around. More than that, it weaponizes your movement and can also be controlled remotely with the second analog stick. In Zeke’s words, mastering the use of this second body is as demanding as “singing and playing an instrument at the same time.” No wonder I’m yet to get to grips with it.

Soft Body‘s self-described triumph is found in one of its less cryptically-named levels, which is titled “The Guitar Solo From “Jump in the Fire”.” As it describes, the game is the exhibitive, full-energy and fast-fingered guitar solos in Metallica’s ’80s metal anthem. The rest of the track is Marcus Fenix’s battlefield stomps, with its chuggy guitar riffs and dull, repeating drum beat. I know which part gets me most excited.

You can vote for Soft Body on Steam Greenlight.