qrth-phyl title screen

Here’s the blurb that accompanies hermitgames’ qrth-phyl:

Arcade documentary of maze/dot/snake mechanic within changing dimensions, axis locks and the corruption of the system. Collect, grow, avoid your past, find new space, wake up…

Having played qrth-phyl to excess, I can confirm it actually is a documentary, but I’m unconvinced this paragraph tells you much about the game. You’ll end up watching the trailer video and say, huh, that’s Snake in 3D, right?

So let’s clear the decks and start afresh.

qrth-phyl is a procedurally-generated Snake in 3D which is sometimes mind-melting, and often tense once a player breaks out of the early stages. Whereas the shooter I wrote about last week, Leave Home, was a metaphor for teenagers attaining independence, qrth-phyl explores the evolution of game mechanics across generations. And the final line in this article is “this is an astounding piece of work”.

I think that’s a bit better than calling it fucking Snake.  

Wax on, wax off

Last Friday evening I was tired, my brain all beat up. I was sitting at the PC, dejected and not in the mood for any game yet in crept this rogue idea to throw a few minutes at qrth-phyl again. I don’t do very well at qrth-phyl when tired, so it seemed a fool’s errand. I launched the shortcut.

In recent weeks, I had been playing conservatively in an effort to survive through to later stages. This had depressed my scores because my big wins were built on risk-taking, fate-baiting moves. On Friday, I’d had enough of playing it safe and wanted to play it fun again.

Now a session of qrth-phyl is like slowly being dealt a hand of cards; you are never quite sure if the cards are going to go your way or rip you a new one. The cards definitely smiled on me during Friday’s game but this wasn’t the whole story. Something else happened. Something wonderful.

That silly but epic moment in The Karate Kid when Daniel-san realises all those hours spent waxing a car and painting a house were creating the muscle memory of a martial artist? That was me. All those hours of playing it safe had engendered discipline. Stages that would have normally crowded my head with screams of FUUUUUUU were now Zen meditations. Move, find space, breathe, don’t box in, think ahead.

It was an extraordinary session and when the game finally took away the last of my lives, I was stunned by the score. We were talking about an improvement of 50% on my usual showing.

7,438 poiint sequence

So that’s where I ended up after a two-month qrth-phyl obsession. Maybe you’ll be lucky. Maybe you won’t have to work at it like me. But I doubt it.

An open field

In qrth-phyl, you control a snake who eats dots. Eat enough dots, stage finishes. That’s it. Thanks for reading.

Okay, so there’s a moment that usually causes a new player to go “whoa”, although I was fully spoiled in advance. The first stage is reminiscent of typical 2D Snake but, once completed, the snake clambers inside a structure, and now the player is moving freely within a 3D box. It’s a bit like having a laugh taxiing a plane around an airport and then taking the plane over the edge of a cliff, realising you’d better learn to fly… and fast. The dimensional upgrade makes an enormous difference in feel.

The game continues to alternate between these “OUT” stages set on the surface, and “IN” stages within, and the box changes dimensions on each stage. Typically the game is at its most terrifying when it becomes an actual cube as no dimension feels long enough to yield a moment in which you can catch your breath.

While qrth-phyl is procedurally-generated, there are specific variations on the theme that a player will become familiar with, just like a game of Leave Home was assembled from a limited set of highly tuned components. My personal nemesis amidst all the available variations is the one where red cubes are scattered across the field periodically, threading panic through the entire duration of the stage. Whenever I hear wind blowing I know I’m playing that variation.

In the end, though, your most significant adversary is yourself.

qrth-phyl mutation

The snake gets longer with each dot consumed and auto-cannibalism is a no-no. In the later stages, the game expects you to survive with a monstrous length and panic often sets in as you constantly dodge your own body. Sometimes the stress is so overpowering that taking a bite out of your hide is a cathartic act; letting go of a life, just to clear the stage again, is quite the release. It feels even better, though, when qrth-phyl invites you to eat yourself without fear of losing a life… well, you’ll see.

There are also laser traps which are great for racking up score but scar the game space with laser beams temporarily. Whilst they are always dangerous, they are far more likely to kill you on OUT stages because the snake has one less axis of freedom compared to an IN stage. Believe me when I say the player’s job is not to avoid traps but learning when to trigger them safely. As traps can trigger one other, leaving too many lying around means you have set up a chain reaction death-trap that will be impossible to survive.

I’m not going to spoil all of the mechanics, because the joy of qrth-phyl is figuring out the game. Like Leave Home, qrth-phyl keeps its mouth shut about how it all works, making the act of play an exploration.

This is no casual game for your mobile, this is a beast cut from hardcore cloth. The more you demonstrate that you can handle yourself out there, the more demands the game will make of you. You’ll find your snake getting longer and longer, the game faster and faster and the pressure more on than off.

Using a controller, although not mandatory, is really the only way to play. A skill that you will only begin to master once you start getting up to stage ten regularly is the use of the rotate buttons, the left and right triggers at the back of the controller. During IN sections, you sometimes find you can’t figure out where you should be going and rotating the snake can improve your awareness of the environment. This skill seems useless when you’re just starting out but on stages that demand a hundred dots, it means you rely less on luck to guide your snake into a safe haven. Anything that can improve your odds of survival must be exploited.

I can’t play qrth-phyl for long periods. After fighting through ten stages, nerves shredded, I sometimes can’t put myself through it again. Yet I keep on coming back because I want to deliver a better performance. I want the masochism because it pleases me to defy the machine and do better. Points as pride.

I do have one serious grump. When approaching an obstacle at a shallow angle, the snake will try to turn itself away, averting collision. This can wind up killing you. This sudden automatic swerve on the part of the snake causes the controls to feel “weak” or the surface “sticky”. In particular, it means travelling into a narrow channel is dangerous because if you are slightly off target, the snake will to veer away while you are trying to correct into the channel. That’s killed me many times. The snake auto-correct has probably also saved me many times but it feels unfair when it kills you in this way.

Still, qrth-phyl keeps on surprising me. I don’t know if there are any more tricks up its sleeve but I found another one just a week ago that I’d never seen before. I noticed the stars in the background were behaving differently and when I realised why I started to scream inside my head because I knew it was going to kill me. And it did, stealing away my final life.

I adore this game. Despite my concerns that it was “just Snake”, qrth-phyl is a true successor to Leave Home. It’s criminal that hermitgames’ PC sales are “mostly a list of excellent indie devs”.

Now to finish this off, I need to talk spoilers.

It’s time to talk about qrth-phyl’s dark secret: what the game means. Turn back now if you want to figure it out for yourself.

What we leave behind

If you watch carefully, you’ll notice a green wireframe scene in the official trailer that doesn’t seem to exist in the game proper. Neither does the “arcade documentary” aspect make much sense if you just eat dots all day. There’s something else inside this game but, looking at many reviews, some players don’t even know it’s there.

The clue is ghosts.

qrth-phyl screenshot with the word "ghosts"

It appears at the start of the first stage and initially you clock it as a name for the stage. Except… no other stage has a name. Then you reach the seventh stage and see the word “ghosts” follow the snake around briefly. Hmm.

It’s not a name, it’s a sign. The game is telling you that ghosts of the past are to be found on this stage. (The evidence available suggests we might see “ghosts” on stage 13 but I still haven’t managed to prove or disprove this hypothesis.)

Look closer and on one of the surfaces in the ghosts stage, you will find panels that illuminate when the snake passes over them. If all of the secret panels are lit up at the same time, you’ll pass through to the arcade documentary.

The documentary covers the evolution of the mechanics that are appropriated by qrth-phyl. It looks at the original precursor to Snake, an arcade title from 1976 called Blockade and also touches on Pac-Man and the light cycle race from Tron. The theme of qrth-phyl is how game ideas evolve and are reused over the years. What we think of as original, rarely is.

qrth-phyl screenshot featuring documentary "AMOA SHOW"

If you look at the game again, you will notice the entire game is fashioned around this theme.

The snake represents the ever-evolving game industry that continues to expand but, as time goes on, finds it increasingly difficult to avoid eating its own tail, cloning instead of innovating. Whenever the exit opens, the snake momentarily resembles DNA, revealing the snake as a carrier of game genetics. Before you think I’m reading too much into this, take a moment to remember the game blurb contains the phrase avoid your past, find new space”.

There are more signals. When the snake dies, you hear the sound of Pac-Man dying, evoking the ancestor of the dot-eating mechanic. More telling is the game’s opening when the snake starts out as a sequence of black squares, revealing the underlying ludological shape – despite all the flashy graphics, you’re still playing with mechanics that were conceived in 1976.

qrth-phyl reduced to black blocks on white background

For all our re-invention, modern game designers stand on the shoulders of giants. We are always deriving from our past. This isn’t something to be deplored, explains qrth-phyl, but something to be celebrated.

Yet I find the experience tinged with a sadness, as if the achievements of the pioneers who went before are overlooked. It’s the same feeling I had when writing the Where We Came From series last year, that the new players of today are more likely to blanch at primitive game ancestry than regard all that hard work as the scaffolding of modern gaming. Our inherited design DNA.

In sum, I found the metaphorical aspect of qrth-phyl to be superior to that demonstrated in Leave Home. I’m not much of a fan of meta-game commentary because it’s usually fairly easy to pull off, subverting a mechanic is all you need to “say something” about game design. But qrth-phyl does not head down this well-trodden path. It shoots higher, speaking of the culture of game design and the debt we owe to the past.

Which leaves me only one thing left to say.

This is an astounding piece of work.

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15 thoughts on “Returning Home, 2

  1. Wow… if I had any capacity to successfully play qrth-phyl without sensory overload, I’d be on it like white on bleached rice. The delivery of the message somewhat reminds of Demon’s Souls, where one of the biggest revelations requires understanding the black/white world tendency system. That revelation comes unexpectedly in the description of an item.

    That said, it appears hermitgames has also made a Super Mario fangame of all things AND hasn’t kept it separate from the rest of the catalog. I’m going to try it.

  2. Well I’m going to have to take your word for it regarding Demon’s Souls. I’m not sure I’d class qrth-phyl so much as sensory overload – compared to something like Space Giraffe or even Leave Home – the difficulty of the game is often about dealing with minimal information of the space you’re inhabiting. The OUT sections you can usually know better, but the IN ones always feel like constant exploration. It’s a strange thing.

  3. I think Matt James (hermitgames) said he was working on a demo before getting round to the qrth-phyl soundtrack, but haven’t heard anything on that for a little while.

    I haven’t played fren-ze but I don’t think it shares the current “hermitgames” style (don’t quote me on that). Saying that, I think Leave Home and qrth-phyl are important milestones though. If you’re not into shooters then it’s possible Leave Home will leave you cold – it’s not quite bullet hell, but not far off.

  4. Fascinating. Strange. Unique. What an unusual and brilliant concept. What a…

    …gosh, I’m not sure what to say. Innovation hidden within innovation’s lack? The metaphorical structures alone make this a game I owe it to myself to check out, though I admit I suck at Snake and there’s no way I’ll be very good at qrth-phyl. Even so, I don’t mind. I believe the important ones need to be supported, and it sounds like this is one of the important ones.

    Thanks, Harbour Master, not just for the experience of this but for the explanation – I read it without qualm because I’m pretty sure I’ll never get deep enough into qrth-phyl to figure it out on my own. And something that clever deserves to see the light of day, as a spoiler or personal revelation.

  5. Steerpike, qrth-phyl is richer than your average Snake and hermitgames’ unique audiovisual make it a beautiful thing to play with. If you keep at it, you will get better, but I’m aware that I might be hitting my skill wall right now – getting up to stage 13 is proving to be impossible. I got there just once in the session mentioned above, but lost my last life within seconds.

    I’ll mention qrth-phyl again next year, probably in January, as an Example of Something.

  6. Yeah, nice one HM. Nice one for selling me on two games that I wasn’t otherwise that privy with. Nice one. I didn’t read your interpretation of qrth-phyl, just in case, but you’ve made me want to dig in and take a look for myself. I’ll let you know when I pick them up and start playing so we can exchange scores. I never did beat your Fotonica score though, man pig.

  7. Thanks for the writeup, I have been playing it a bunch. One of the interesting things is the interior sections capture the claustrophobia of snake, without being as dangerous seeming as the outside sections. I kept finding myself craning my head towards the screen, trying to see around the edge of the camera.

    The other thing I like about this is that it captures that aba games/reto remakes/llama soft thing without being eye or ear blazing. A different direction in CRT recreation.

  8. Wait, so your highest score is 7000?


    I am being crass.

    Will sit down and hit 20000 again at some point, take a screen capture then send it to you.

    Also, you should just play Spelunky.

  9. @Gregg: If badgercommander is anything to go by, then perhaps there’s no point competing on score.

    @JonBro: Thanks! Yes, just what I was pointing out to BeamSplashX – the audiovisuals aren’t overpowering. But I think it is one of those games that can make you instinctively move your head around trying to avoid stuff in the game!

    @badgercommander: And this is why it’s great that qrth-phyl doesn’t have a leaderboard, so I can bask in the private joy of pushing against my middle-aged skill limits. (I suppose I didn’t need to write them up in public, either.) And particular reason for the Spelunky shout-out here other than the procedural generation angle?

  10. This is now on my “to-play-list” — thanks, Joel.

    The way you write about your own discovery with qrth-phyl reminds me of the lessons I learned playing Super Hexagon, but it seems you had a more stressful relationship with qrth-phyl. Without playing it, I’d venture to say qrth-phyl has some similarities to SH; they both seem to have simple, but deep design, high difficulty, and a kind of zen-requirement to unlocking and surviving latter stages.

    I know you’ve been praising this game for a while now, but I really didn’t know much about until now.

    @Steerpike — I concur that HM’s write-up on this is compelling all on its own. It’s one of my favorite things about great games writing; this reflection that we’re doing, personal as it is sometimes, can have value for others even aside from a shared experience playing the same game.

  11. Thanks Jordan. Although I worry about the games I put on people’s playlists, do any of you have the time to fit more in? =) I’ve only dabbled with the original Hexagon but I think the two, although similar, are very different experiences. Super Hexagon is extremely short, completely consumes you and works off muscle memory. A decent qrth-phyl session will stretch for 20-30 minutes, there are ways to take a break which won’t kill you (pause or even diving into one of the secret sections) and no two sessions are alike so muscle memory is useless.

    As the years drag on, it seems that I find fast-paced, reaction-based games increasingly difficult. It’s not possible for me to get those really top scores for Leave Home, qrth-phyl, Super Crate Box and Waves. I’m not completely sure whether it’s age or whether I’m simply no longer as dedicated: I’m not willing to play again and again for hours straight determined to improve, although some games I have managed to brute force into submission like Fotonica. But that doesn’t stop me from appreciating them and spending time with them.

    Thanks for the kind words about the write-up. I find writing about “the experience” of play, and I don’t really want to brandish the term New Games Journalism here, is tricky. Write too little and it’s just a review. Write too much and you’re inventing details and emotions which didn’t happen. The sweet spot of authenticity is vanishingly small.

  12. Ah, a convenient reminder to purchase qrth-phyl!

    I, ah, didn’t pick up on its metaphorical richness when I sampled it at Rezzed. Here’s to what I may discover.

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