Thursday, March 5, 2009

Commander Keen

Year: 1990
Rating: ****
Everyone is talking "Rollercoaster" or "Sand Box" and which is the future. Keen is neither but he's still pretty special.

Commander Keen is a strange and weird breed. A platformer for the PC. In the early days of consoles the platformer was king. This was never really the case on the PC it's hard to know why. Maybe it's because the PC with it's keyboard interface could easily support complicated genres like management sims, strategy games, RPGs, flight sims, adventure games, god games ect from the get go. Genre's that never took off on the console because mapping their controls led to horrible and unworkable UIs (In some cases still lead to). Ever tried to play Sim City on a console? You never ever want to put yourself in that situation. Maybe it's because the people who owned PCs tended to be older and thus had more patience for genres that take longer to learn. Like I said it's hard to really know why.

Still people did make platformers and one of those was Commander Keen. At first it looks like a fairly dodgy Mario clone with a couple of extra features but much worse sound and level design. But then you see the old school ID logo and read names like John Carmack and if you've got any sense you'll give the guys who would go on to create Doom the benefit of the doubt.

I know I said that at first the level design looks dodgy compared to Mario but it only looks that way if you judge it by what Mario was trying to achieve. One of the reasons Mario is held in high regard these days is because it's level design achieves an incredible sense of flow. Each level is simple and linier and the player always knows what they have to do next, it never confuses you just arranges a neat progression of challenges for you to overcome. Flow is currently game designs favourite buzz-word/mantra and in this way Mario was very ahead of the times. I appreciate flow it's generally a good idea but then I remember when re-playabilty and non-linier were the mantra. The simple truth is that while maximising flow is a great way to design games it is not the only way. If Commander Keen's objective was to maximise flow then it'd be a failure. Luckily this wasn't ID's objective.

To get to my point I'm going to back up and talk story. Commander Keen is about a small boy who in order to escape his bed time builds a rocket ship and flies off to go explore Mars. Aside from it being a cute concept (which it totally is) this also shows that Keen's number one objective is to explore. He's not racing off to save a princess or rescue animals. His mission is to poke around a planet and have a goddamn adventure. When he gets there aliens steal vital space ship components which he then has to find. How do you find things? You look for them and cause you don't have a clue where they are it ties neatly into Keen's original objective of exploration. Mario's got to rush to save Peach so a tight well flowing level design makes sense for that, it's the kind of narrative that needs to push forward at all times. Keen is in no such rush, he's exploring taking his time having fun on an alien world. Hell it's actually not in his interests to finish up quick cause then he'd have to go home and get to bed early.

The level design of Keen consists of huge sprawling environments with seemingly randomly placed challenges and basically no set path. In fact, in some of the levels it's pretty darn easy to just blast through to the exit and ignore 90% of the content. If your going for the now standard Half Life 'roller coaster' approach to action adventure design this doesn't work at all. But Keen isn't a roller coaster, I wouldn't go as far to call it a 'sandbox' either. Nah Keen is something better. A jungle gym. I like jungle gyms cause they're full of interesting little challenges and paths but you're free to play with them however the hell you like. Hey player, see that teddy up on that ledge? I bet you can't get up there. Do you have to? Nope, but hey wouldn't it be fun to try. And it is.

There's another thing in Keen that is totally out of vouge these days. Key collecting. The arguments against key collecting are many. It leads to backtracking and artificially lengthens the game. It sucks when you've found the exit but you can't continue cause you haven't hunted down the key. And worst of all key collecting wastes the player's time. Keen gets by these arguments by doing key collecting right. First off exits are easy to find so you never feel like you've slogged through hell only to have the fun come crashing down because you haven't got some arbitrary object. Backtracking is fun in Keen because it contains so many extra paths and optional challenges that whenever you backtrack you're almost certain to have missed something the first time around. And how exactly is it a waste of the player’s time if they're having fun? Oh sure it makes the experience longer but if that longer experience is still fun isn't that better? But why have key collecting in the first place? Because it's a way of making you explore the levels. If you didn't have to collect keys you'd just race through and miss all the content. Key collecting makes you explore, the game design makes exploring fun so key collecting becomes fun. It's kind of elegant and beautiful in it's own way.

(A quick little shout out to the pogo stick. In Keen you can jump or you can use the pogo stick to jump really high. But the catch is the pogo stick is difficult to control so in any jumping puzzle situation you've got to balance hight with control which can sometimes be a tough choice. I like tough choices.)

Today Keen plays like an anachronism. What it did well has largely been forgotten in favour of other more fashionable ideas. But I can't help but wonder if one-day jungle gym level design won't become the new buzz word.

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