In Standpoint, grief is life’s most elusive puzzle

Ever since Portal, I’ve been suspicious of any first-person puzzler that tries to pretend it doesn’t have an elaborate narrative. Standpoint is that kind of game: whistling nonchalantly, waving away your concerns while saying, “Nope! Nothing to see here. Just your simple, standard, totally addicting videogame puzzle, folks.”

Well, Standpoint, you ain’t foolin’ me for a second.

To be fair, the game doesn’t pretend to be fooling anyone. But it certainly dances around giving the player any hard and fast answers about its story. But even that plays into the bigger scheme of the narrative, as an exploration of grief inside the mind of man who’s lost everything.

Standpoint begins at ground zero: Loss. 

Following the five stages of coping (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), Standpoint begins at ground zero: Loss. Similarly to the rest of the game, its opening scene presents a jumble of juxtaposing emotions. The disembodied voice of a woman wavers between elation and desperation, her simultaneous and contradicting sentiments creating a choir as you walk down the clinically white corridor. “I can’t wait!” she exalts—while another, more anguished shout cuts through the joy to declare, “I can’t do this again!”

To the credit of the voice actress (Stephanie McConville), there’s an almost immediate connection established between the player and the disembodied woman. She’s your only companion, and your guide to escaping this labyrinth of a spinning world. But Standpoint certainly makes you work for the story, even rendering crucial plot points optional collectibles called “secrets.”

“Despite there being quite a fleshed out backstory to the characters, their lives, and how their times were spent… there’s only about 10% of that explicitly stated in the game,” says lead designer and programmer Nathan (also known as “Vethan”) John. “I really wanted something that allowed different people to come away with different interpretations.  I’m happy if 99% of Standpoint players don’t bother looking into the actual story, so long as that 1% really enjoys discovering and discussing what the game meant to them.”

Though I promised I wouldn’t spoil anything for that 1%, the abstract nature of the game world does clue the player into one of the most important aspects of the premise. Everything, from the ephemeral obstacles to the sound effects, reflects the neuro-pathways of a brain struggling to understand the painful events of its past. The levels transform to reflect the stage the protagonist’s mind finds himself in: starting with the vague grey-blue of denial, and through the fiery red anger phase.

The gravity-shifts leaving players groundless as the world falls away from underneath them. 

Standpoint‘s primary mechanic also reflects the most commonly used metaphor for loss: the gravity-shifts leaving players groundless as the world falls away from underneath them. For Nathan, the fact that the player can turn the world’s gravity around at will symbolizes “turning an idea over in your head, while reaching the end of a level represents arriving at some form of a conclusion.”

Though the gravity-shifting mechanic came first in Standpoint’s conception, Nathan was inspired to center the game’s theme around loss after his grandmother passed away in the summer of 2013. After a year of trying to prepare for her inevitable passing, Nathan decided the best way to honor the woman who had always supported his game developer dreams was to dedicate his first solo project to her. “I like to think that if she could see it and me, she’d be happy to know she’s still inspiring me in some way.”

To an extent, Nathan hopes Standpoint—like any good piece of art—can serve players “as a kind of emotional mirror, helping you reflect on how you’re feeling and the reasons why you feel them.” Though the game’s story isn’t autobiographical in nature, distancing himself from the narrative felt necessary for both his sake and his audience’s sake. “I always find problems are far easier to deal with when you’re not involved, so guiding another character through their healing process might help point the way for yourself.”

Nathan worked closely with the game’s writer Michael Gillespie to ensure the puzzles coincided with the story beats, creating a seamless experience of mechanical and narrative flow. In the denial stage, for instance, there are false walls that require the player to stand at a certain angle in order for them to be passable. During anger, the puzzles explode into a series of intimidating and vibrant obstacles.

Problems are far easier to deal with when you’re not involved. 

The music, composed by Dan Murdoch, completes the emotional journey by distorting the sound based on the speed of your falls. So, each time you zoom away from a particular puzzle or crash through a glass barrier, the soundtrack reacts to your momentum.

Regardless of whether you dive into Standpoint‘s story, the sensorial aspects of the game do a fantastic job of communicating the simultaneously elating and withdrawing experience of coping with loss. Each puzzle you finish or stage you move past feels like a milestone. But, conversely, the more you are able to cope, the further away your loved one feels.

Though the above describes a sneak peak of the final version of Standpoint, you can try out an early demo for free over at indiedb. The full game will be available for purchase on February 19th for PC, Mac, and Linux. You can also catch it on consoles later in the year.