In the trailer, Omegaland (Jonas & Verena Kyratzes, 2017) looks like nothing special. Well, it looks like a nothing special Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985) clone. But knowing the Kyratzes back catalogue, what the trailer didn’t say intrigued me more. It didn’t say why you should play this game. It didn’t say what it did different. It did nothing to really encourage you play it.
And, as you might expect in our postindieapocalyptic landscape, it didn’t really do big business and I don’t think I’ve seen it garner any attention on gaming websites. It’s difficult to share: uh, look, here’s a trailer from the acclaimed Kyratzes stable! It shows a brilliantly derivative game! More derivative than any other derivative game has gone before!
Oh of course there’s more to Omegaland than a Super Mario clone. It feels a bit Pippin Barr, but really long. A bit too long.
It’s not earth-shattering and you’re not missing out on the Mona Lisa of Games. But what are you missing? Why did I struggle with it? And why do I think the ending was the best bit?
I didn’t want to play Omegaland because, look, I don’t get that whole Mario thing. It’s like when people get their brainfreak on about the latest Zelda game and I’m just what is zelda. When Super Mario Bros. was released, I was still devoted to my Atari 8-bit computer and it took quite a few years before I finally got with the console programme – and bought into the Sega Mega Drive through Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Team, 1991).
There actually was a Super Mario clone on the Atari called Bros and I played it although ignorant of the source material. I liked the game at the time but could never get very far because it was punishing for all the wrong reasons.
Mario has never been my touchstone. When someone drops a cute Mario reference into a game it usually goes right over my head. At the time I played, that bit in Braid where the dinosaur dude pops out and says the princess is in another castle just seemed weird. I had no idea that Braid (Number None, 2008) was deliberately channelling memories of Super Mario Bros. throughout.
I’ve discovered I have no love for the “jumping on heads” mechanic. It’s not that I don’t love platformers because my father and I spent far too many hours ploughing through Miner 2049’er (Big Five Software, 1982) during the Atari years, which was game of the year material back then. I also remember the thrill of watching my father play Space Panic (Universal, 1980); we often used to talk about the wacky sounds made by the cabinet – from the creatures climbing out of the pits you’d dug for them, to the jolt when one of the monsters caught you for dinner. Without the blasting reverb of an already busted 80s cabinet speaker, it sounds way too genteel through MAME.
Lacking Mario in my past, I don’t seem to care about putting Mario in my future. I often think of “jumping on heads” as a cheap mechanic rather than iconic or nostalgic and I only recently realised this was partly the reason I had problems digging FREEDOM: Diegesis (Quicksand Games, 2016) which I related in February’s newsletter. And there’s spikes, of course. There are always spikes.
Thus, when it came to Omegaland, I found it a terrible slog. I hated that Marioesque jump and having to land on dudes’ heads. There was only so much I could take in a single session. There were also a handful of levels which seemed frustrating rather than challenging which brought me to the edge of the ragequit abyss. And, my God, it seemed so long. How long would it take me to retrieve all the damn keys to unlock Castle Omega? To reach the literal Omega of this game? Why am I playing something I don’t enjoy?
Because I knew there must be more. It’s too obvious, it’s too simple otherwise. There has to be more behind the door. The name suggested a relationship to Alphaland (Jonas Kyratzes & Terry Cavanagh, 2011) in which a simple, unfinished platformer gives way to an exploration through… well, perhaps that’s an exercise better left to the reader. Alphaland has a lot in common with Standard Bits (doomlaser, 2007) which is an even more abstract and more complex exploration game; think of it as Adventure (Warren Robinett, 1980) on the Atari 2600, but deliberately broken without win conditions.
Both Alphaland and Standard Bits get to the point quickly. Omegaland took an awful long time getting to somewhere interesting and it seemed to have no relationship with Alphaland other than name… until you collect all the keys and give them to the princess.
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It shouldn’t surprise that Kyratzes has no time for stories about trusting a monarchy to do the right thing; you might as well trust rich folk based on the modern parables found in the Gospels According to St. Tony Stark and St. Bruce Wayne. Omegaland’s princess snatches the keys from you, aquiring unfettered access to the “Tools of Development” with which she reshapes the world into something nightmarish. With all this power, her petulance is given form. The green spaces and blue skies are corrupted into a black, glitched landscape and those who survived this apocalypse huddle in refugee camps.
Thus begins the quest to the take back the “Tools of Development” for the people and the slow, uncomfortable realisation I wasn’t even halfway through the game. To be fair, the glitch incarnation of Omegaland is a lot more interesting and it occurred to me that FREEDOM: Diegesis was kin. Although I’d found FREEDOM frustrating, its corrupted reality compelled me to keep going. Omegaland was far less brutal though, just a lot longer than the idea needed to be.
Many of the levels in Omegaland are so spacious and open that you seldom feel you have fully explored them, particularly the more hazardous glitch levels. Occasionally I went above and beyond the call of critical duty to reach some esoteric locations. It wasn’t the scent of reward that made me seek out these secret locations but my calling as an explorer of videogame wilderness.
Jonas Kyratzes is trying to do two things with Omegaland. First, he’s spinning a little story about how power should be for all and not just a special select few, regardless of how they earned it. I’m pretty sure if you carefully rearranged the letters of “Tools of Development” you’d eventually end up with “means of production”.
Kyratzes’ second goal is to celebrate the flood of platform games that came to define the early indie years, unpolished and naked in their inspirations.
“When working on Omegaland,” wrote Kyratzes, “I wasn’t mainly thinking about Super Mario, although Super Mario Land 2 was definitely an influence. Rather, I was thinking about the many odd little platform games I played over the years, some of them made long before indie games were a thing.”
But it was one other nuance of Omegaland that I found special, making it more memorable than I expected.
In action stories, life is only interesting to the audience when something bad is happening. Before our heroes take on the great evil, nothing of note is happening. The heroes need evil to define them, give them something to do. Without the Terminator, there is no Sarah Connor. Without Dracula, Van Helsing is just some guy. The heroes’ terrible secret is that evil keeps them employed.
And when evil is vanquished, the heroes become nobodies. The audience puts the book down and that universe, forged by a battle between good and evil, perishes. (Unless it’s a series in which the author keeps conjuring new bad guys to resuscitate the heroes from their literary graves.)
Traditionally, games have replicated this condition. Games have allowed themselves to become defined by challenge, by something to fight. And when a player defeats that challenge, the game disintegrates. Sure, you can replay just like you can watch a movie again. But the game stops when the challenge ends.
In Omegaland, once you’ve retrieved the Tools of Development and the princess has been executed in front of a cheering crowd, the game does not stop. The whole map is free to explore again and the land previously called “The Flower Kingdom” becomes “The Flower Republic”. While everything has returned to normal, the people are using the Tools of Development to make things safer and better than they were before… and you can see this for yourself.
I was stunned how much there was to see after beating the game, completely devoid of challenge. Indeed, so much to see that I didn’t exhaust it. I became a tourist of the new republic and felt no need to see everything.
“Omega” usually connotes the end of things, but Omegaland does not have an end. And so Omegaland’s final trick is to subvert its own title. After evil falls, life goes on. The heroes’ tale may be over but, for everyone else, it’s just another day. Another of many more to come.
Omegaland is currently available on Steam, the tools of distribution owned by Valve.