Electron Dance
17Jul/13Off

Move Right

This is an incomprehensible essay about Ted Lauterbach's complex and surreal puzzle-plaformer suteF. Spoilers within.

A: The Abyss

Chapter A - Move Right

The first level of suteF is called “Move Right”.

In 2011, I thought suteF was fabulous. Two years on, maybe I’m going to change my mind. Have games aged so quickly? Now we're in an age where getting hyped about another puzzle platformer is an illness to be cured. So, ugh, look at this game wearing its tutorial on its sleeve. I am getting flashbacks of One And One Story: “Once again, I remembered I must not fall from too high.”

My little guy has coughed up a little blood but I send him over to the right side of the screen without much hesitation. I like that he’s a little plump compared to the average game protagonist. The level ends.

Then I get offered a tutorial ghost who seems intent on teaching me what to do. However the level after that, the ghost, “Bob”, is intent on showing me where he comes from. He dashes out from     

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C: Playland

sutef-c

The first level of suteF is called “Move Right”.

There are two bodies in the opening now. The game feels like a grim joke; not on the player so much, but the protagonist Aramas. And all of these blue guys are all Aramas. Different incarnations of him. This area, “Playland” seems to be controlled by the red blob that Orbis turned a previous version of Aramas into.

But, I've got to come clean. This isn't 2011. It's obvious to me now that the puzzles and the narrative do not mesh. There’s no real justification of why the Fetus' Hell dimension is filled with boxes and lasers and gravity flips. We recognise that they are components from the game designer's toolbox, but they do not make a jot of narrative sense. Still, it’s forgiveable. Story as feedback. The narrative penetrates where it can, doing its best to confound and shock.

One of the game's high points is a level called “Simplicity”. It offers you an elevator on the other side of the screen. Elevator is your salvation.

sutef-simplicity

Normally, I would expect to fall

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B: The Abyssal Shell

sutef-b

The first level of suteF is called “Move Right”.

The new chapter opens exactly the same, except there’s a dead body here. These are the questions that run through your mind: Did I screw up? Is this a replay? Are these chapters the equivalent of “lives”? Who are all these blue guys?

Whereas in the previous set of levels, I was forced to take control of different characters as they were scrubbed from existence, here I have to “work together” with other characters. The other blue guys here are not quite the same as you. One looks dead in the eyes, the other has a grappling hook.

It shares something with Edmund McMillen’s TIME FCUK where the plot had you conversing with the past and future incarnations of yourself. As the player has no control over this dialogue, it's just an attractive, polished set of smoke and mirrors. In suteF, working together means triggering scripted animations. If I move a box into the right place or flip

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a blue corpse hanging from a hook. This becomes a theme. There are blue corpses everywhere. Further, the level keeps shifting when I least expect it; a splash of static and suddenly the world is different. Tread carefully: this is one strange place. Computer Bear, whoever that is, tells me “elevator is your salvation”.

Then I fall into a laser which smudges my blue avatar into a puddle of blood. “Bob” abandons the puddle and heads toward another blue guy who was on this level. Wait. I've just died and now I'm in control of a different blue guy who is carrying a backpack. A few levels later, this guy gets dropped into something that obliterates him and I switch to another identical looking blue guy. Identical apart from the fact his leg is broken and he can't jump.

The first chapter is an introduction. It introduces not just the mechanics but lots of blue guys who are getting systematically killed in disturbing, horrific ways. Things can only get worse from here on in. I lose “Bob” to another level shift and end up confronting a giant ball with a moustache called Orbis. Orbis turns this latest, or should I say last, avatar inside out to become a giant red blob and–

The game is over.

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the correct switch, the other guys will do their thing. Part of me feels like I'm not really figuring out a puzzle but trying to tap the correct hotspot to progress the plot. But it works better than it should and manages to evoke a sense of collaboration. I’m doing things because the other guys expect me to which is contrary to how these things usually happen – with the player doing all hard work to set hoops up for mindless companions to jump through.

I love the subversive attitude that stains the entire fabric of the game. This isn't just about solving a few puzzles, it's about a designer screwing around with expectations. The game sets pieces in motion and then looms over me, ready to break the back of my skull with a crowbar. I know it's coming. I just don't know when.

I'm betrayed, I'm told “alienation is a cancer growth”, learn my name is Aramas and that a being called “Fetus” has brought me here. At the end of the level, Fetus sends me somewhere a “friend” will take care of me because, apparently, I plan to kill Fetus.

The game ends.

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D: Chaos

sutef-d

The first level of suteF is called “Move Right”. It doesn’t tell you anything about the game. Here's the description of suteF precursor Fetus:

To extract his revenge, the character, Aramas, needs to kill Fetus. However, Fetus can only be killed by the undead. This requires Aramas to construct a time machine while he’s trapped in the abyss (from various laser bots and mechanical parts found in the portal TVs)  to transport himself back in time once he’s dead. You as the player are Aramas before he even conceived building a time machine, and is relatively inexperienced in the ways of the Abyss. Time and space are so skewed when you go through a visionometor (the portal TVs) that in one future or another, Fetus has already been killed.

Orbis, the undead catfish spirit, dwells in the Abyss in an attempt to equalize time and space. His powers are too mysterious to be explained, but Aramas believes Orbis to be someone who has the ability to shift between the 3rd and 4th dimensions of space (time is not the fourth dimension).

The other blue dead characters are different incarnations of Aramas. Some are dead versions in universes where he’s failed. During the timeline in game however, Aramas never runs into himself, other than his spirit form, who Aramas dubs “Bob.” “Bob” disappears some time during the journey, but reappears. The second meeting is between a “Bob” of 1000 years dead as opposed to a “Bob” 30 years dead.

With suteF, Lauterbach chose not to explain anything which definitely makes it stronger: right fucking mad, this game.

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off the edge of the screen and re-appear on the top. But here suteF rewrites the rules just because it can.

Shockingly, the screen scrolls downwards, chronicling a long fall and revealing a hard stone floor onto which Aramas crashes. There are many other bodies here, versions of Aramas that didn't make it. My Aramas' leg is broken and cannot jump any more.

The red blob gloats. I’m told I will never escape from here yet the game pushes me to try. When, eventually, it looks like I’m about to escape, Aramas’ injuries get the better of him. He falls to the floor and dies.

That's when the ghost emerges. Let's just backtrack a second. I've just played through the death of “Bob” whose corpse was last seen hanging from a hook in the first chapter. And at the end of the first chapter, the last Aramas who was chaperoned by “Bob” got turned into a red blob. The red blob that killed “Bob”.

The game ends.

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E: Void

sutef-e

The first level of suteF is called “Move Right” but not in chapter E.

That’s because there is no chapter E.

Lauterbach was going to add it in later, like DLC for a freeware puzzle platformer if that is even a thing. He described it as a reworking of an earlier game from the Fetus universe, something called Descent. Descent is an absolute ballbreaker. It's the kind of game where I shout at the developer to just fuck off with this shit.

But you didn’t know any of that until I told you. Those are facts and Chapter E is mystery. It is a gap in the teeth of the game. A hole that has no right to be there and shouldn’t even be on the title menu.

But it is and this amuses me.

F: The Edge

sutef-f

For the last time, the first level of suteF is called “Move Right”. But the TV screen explodes before I can get there, trapping me on a stone platform with four dead bodies. Lauterbach knocks over the comfortable mechanical furniture again. What am I supposed to do now? Try something else, anything else.

In the later chapters of suteF, the puzzles have accrued enough complexity to defy analysis. I can’t fit all of the cogs and doodads in my head any more, it’s just not happening. Instead, I kick bits around, kill Aramas a hundred times and engage in trial-and-error. Don’t misunderstand, I’m still playing, but it isn't the game you'd expect: I’m lock picking, listening out for the click of each tumbler. (Despite this, I still found the super-secret super-hard “Void Rim” levels frustrating.)

Now... the final showdown with Fetus is a little strange, a little Deus Ex Machina, a little Battlestar Galactica: Daybreak.

The game stacks the showdown chamber with scores of Aramas corpses in a grotesquely beautiful depiction of how many Aramas incarnations Fetus has killed. I have infinite lives; every one of these lives is a real death, the body snatched away and treated as a trophy.

Fetus is all-powerful in his domain which means Aramas' plight should be hopeless. Yet here Fetus hovers in front of a laser and waits for me to press a button. He gets bisected and then ghost “Bob” drops in and tears out his eyes.

Huh.

Now it’d be unfair to say that Lauterbach didn’t explain this convenient turn of events because the ugly red blob told me he would help me kill Fetus. I assume the giant laser of bisecting doom was just the sort of help he was nattering on about. But let's call it: it's an unavoidable cop-out. suteF constructed a mechanical cul-de-sac from which there was no escape. If a game is only good for jumping and box pushing, it isn't offering the player the kind of tools needed to model a climactic confrontation with an evil god. (Refer also to the ending of Portal, nicely lampooned during the ending of Portal 2.)

But Lauterbach throws us one last twist: the final level of suteF is called “Simplicity”.

sutef-simplicity

It will take some courage to move right.

Ted Lauterbach is currently working on a game called Bulletromancer and has a Twitter account @rotten_tater. You can download suteF from Game Jolt.

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Posted by Joel Goodwin

Electron Dance Highlights

Comments (5) Trackbacks (1)
  1. I think I got partway through chapter D before giving up. Not because I thought it was especially difficult, just… annoying? I guess I feel better knowing it doesn’t pay off, because the atmosphere didn’t really keep working its magic on me long enough, either. And while the surprises were nice, I got used to them happening so much that I came to expect them.

    It is pretty cool, honestly. I’m just not that big on puzzle platformers by default and the things that set suteF apart didn’t do enough to change my mind. Which makes getting as far as chapter D kinda impressive.

  2. Hmm, I don’t know if I meant to imply it “doesn’t pay off”. Although the confrontation feels a little contrived, the chamber piled high with bodies and the replay of “Simplicity” are grand moments. I don’t know if I’d call it a great puzzle game, especially as I found myself not engaging with the puzzles as much when it got hard. I like that it pulls together a lot of different platformer mechanics. There’s also a retro throwback mechanic which I found really interesting – you cannot turn around on the spot, you have to physically walk one space to turn around. It’s strong on mechanics yet, at the same time, injects story elements all the way through.

    But BeamSplashX, if you had got to chapter E it would have been super-impressive. Still, I can totally see the charm of suteF not working for everybody.

  3. @HM:
    I meant it wouldn’t pay off in a way that would rekindle my interest lost earlier in play. I found the narrative so esoteric that no ending would really work for me.

  4. I’d also add that – surprisingly – suteF rewarded replays. Not just because I found some more of the Void Rim levels but because I saw some narrative connections I hadn’t previously noticed. I don’t know whether that is deliberate – some of the story beats go so fast, it’s easy to miss them.

  5. This looks like my kind of thing. Instantly downloaded – after reading your article of course.