Double Up is a monthly series spotlighting independent game developers in New Zealand. Each month an article and an interview will focus on a new and interesting gaming experience.
It’s fair to say that modern games aren’t too happy. The grimdark and combat heavy nature of many games isn’t a new observation, and you’d be hard pressed to find any major game companies outside of Nintendo focusing on lighthearted and fun experiences. It’s no surprise then, that indie developers have filled this vacuum with games and interactive pieces that cover a huge range of emotions. The upcoming iOS game N E U T R O P I A is explicitly about happiness. Maintaining and spreading happiness is the foundation of the game, the cornerstone of its mechanics, and the ethos behind the game’s creation. In this slick and thoughtful 2D puzzle game the player must transform ennui-ridden cubes into beacons of joy, spreading happiness throughout the world.
Every level starts out as a blank canvas. Grey cubes sit patiently amongst the clean dividing lines that make up the level, their faces vacantly displaying the number zero. Tapping on one of them generates a pulse of activity – the world turns crimson as other cubes morph into spinning red characters, their minus one value displayed above a sad face. The cube you picked, however, turns yellow. Its value of plus one can be increased by converting neutral grey cubes, or bumping against other happy squares. Eventually you gather a little posse of happiness, their value cap of plus eleven morphing into a smiley face. Bumping up against a negative cube will take you down a number, eventually draining you of all your joy. Similarly, negative cubes lose their bite when hit and can become neutral again. The goal of N E U T R O P I A is to convert the negative cubes and bring peace to the level, all while navigating tight mazes and cunning traps.
The true stars of N E U T R O P I A are the cubes themselves. Imbued with more personality than a cube has any right to have, they make N E U T R O P I A a joy to play. Grey cubes that want nothing to do with you will plainly tell you to stop tapping them. Yellow cubes with joyfully shout “Get greys!” and whiz around the map. If you inadvertently select a red cube, it will pulse and squirm, yelling at you to let go of them. Jovial clusters of yellow cubes can be made by tapping on a happy square and summoning the others from across the map. While together they’ll wiggle happily, and sometimes go kaleidoscopic as a dance party starts up. Navigating N E U T R O P I A’s levels with these odd little characters makes the game a fun exploration rather than a challenge. The game doesn’t present itself as an object to beat, but as an experience to be had. Gliding your cubes around the map to the hopeful techno soundtrack is an oddly absorbing experience, each level being short enough to tempt you into playing the next one, and the one after that.
N E U T R O P I A differs from other puzzle games in its abstraction. While similar games create worlds with grassy platforms and themed characters, N E U T R O P I A is content with the inherent ambiguity of controlling small numbered cubes. The player can project whatever they like onto the game. Are they a crusader for happiness, bringing light and colour to a dull world? Or are they stuck in a never-ending war between anger and joy, a balancing act with an enforced outcome? The game brings up these questions but leaves you to answer them. In N E U T R O P I A happiness is a choice, something that is consciously developed and built upon. It is both amplified and diminished by interaction, becoming a fragile and precious resource. Although the idea of simply choosing to be happy is a contentious one, N E U T R O P I A uses this to empower the player. With enough guile and cunning happiness can be found and kept, casting out the sharp little demons lurking in the corner.
Although somewhat marred by a frustrating puzzle or imprecise controls, the core ideas in N E U T R O P I A shine through. Although the number is constantly increasing, there are few games that take the abstract concepts of emotions and human experience then decide to play around with them. N E U T R O P I A has a strong sense of what it is and what it wants to be, but still has so much potential to grow and explore new ideas. Wherever future development may take it, you can rest assured that N E U T R O P I A will always want to be your friend.
N E U T R O P I A is planned to be released on iOS, follow @NEUTROPIA on Twitter for more information.
Author’s disclaimer: I was part of public beta testing for N E U T R O P I A. All opinions are my own.