Quantum Conundrum

In any dimension, cupcakes are delicious.

In any dimension, cupcakes are delicious.

As my about page says, I try to stay impartial when it comes to being a fan of specific developers or production companies – I’m only a fan of good entertainment, and there have been far too many surprise hits and big-budget flops to always expect good or bad products from a single team.

That said, I am a gigantic fan of overgrown indie game developer Valve Software. Honestly, it’s hard not to be – just take a look at their track record. We have Half-Life, a pair of top-notch, industry-shattering action shooters whose third installment has a gigantic fan community despite never having been announced; Team Fortress 2, a huge simulated economy system that happens to have a comedic and fluid multiplayer FPS attached to it; Left 4 Dead, one of the few games that manages to balance horror and cooperative multiplayer; and, of course, Portal, a darkly comedic puzzle game that the notoriously caustic Yahtzee Croshaw has called “the earthly embodiment of Christ”.

Said second coming was masterminded by a team of former students, who were hired personally by Valve’s famously Santa-like CEO, Gabe Newell. The creative heart of this team was Kim Swift, a former advanced physics student who has an affinity for deconstructing the laws of time and space, which brings a palpable creative spark to the games she makes, as can be seen from both Portal and the subject of today’s review, Quantum Conundrum.

When Kim Swift struck out on her own from Valve to make the game, she lost a lot of financial, technological and creative backing, but I can see where she was coming from, because her end of the deal was all but total creative control over the unproven Airtight Games staff.

The problem with this deal, at least for us consumers, is that Portal wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without that financial, technological and creative backing. And QC (as I’m calling it from now on, so I don’t have to keep reminding myself of that inane title) demonstrates that. Even after Ms. Swift sold out, comma space man, and went to Square Enix to finance and distribute the game, she just couldn’t recapture the Valve magic. It’s a good game, even a memorable one, but Portal was a platinum record and this is just a solo album. The singer’s great ideas were only great after they were filtered through the minds of the other band members, and without the cohesive group it just isn’t the same.

I’d like to note that within a week of the game’s release, I was told by no less than six separate reviewers to not compare QC to Portal. To which, my response is twofold:

1) From a development standpoint, QC was bigger than Portal. Before the latter game took the internet by storm upon its release, it was nothing more than a two-hour demonstration that was made to get the creative team some experience. It contained reused engine assets from the Half-Life games; a single voice actor who was already recording for another project by the studio at the time; and a story by the writers of said other project. The game I’m reviewing got an entire mid-sized developer all to itself, significantly modded its licensed Unreal 3 engine, signed on high-profile actors and accomplished comedy writers, and features a distinctive, fully realized world and visual aesthetic. If anything, I should be holding QC to a higher standard.

2) Screw you, I can compare what I want.

We start with a short prologue, told in silhouettes on blueprint paper. Here we’re introduced to our main character: Mad scientist Professor Quadwrangle, as portrayed by John de Lancie. De Lancie is, of course, best known for playing the fan favorite archetypal trickster/sympathetic demigod/hopeless romantic (yes, you read that last one right) Q, on Star Trek: The Next Generation. The game’s comedy writers restrain themselves to only making a few very minor Trek references, and in fact his performance reminds me of nothing so much as the narrator of a children’s show – authoritative, composed, witty, and just condescending enough so it isn’t too annoying.

When was the last game you can remember that had a freeze ray?

Guess which one of these characters you’ll be playing as.

This condescension is probably fitting, though, because the player character is a child, whose age is in the ambiguous single digits. Our hero (who will be referred to as male despite having no indicated gender) has been dumped on Professor Quadwrangle for a weekend by his apparently neglectful mother, and finds the house in a state of disarray due to the Professor’s latest experiment. The Professor has somehow been trapped in another dimension, and asks you to restore power to his house so he can get back to his native dimension. This is imparted to you over the Professor’s phone, which can somehow work between the vast gulfs of time and space (and I can barely pick up a signal when I’m in a basement).

Of course, there’s a complication, and you now have to power on every room in the house armed only with a Nintendo Power Glove that can rotate you between different dimensions. The glove, as the Professor explains, functions via an ill-defined power source – and here’s where the premise hits its first logical pothole. If the glove uses this power source to function, and the objective for doing all these puzzles is to restore power for the house, why can’t you just plug the glove into the mainframe? I like how they try to establish a better-defined motivation and MacGuffin than Portal’s “TEST THIS BLACK HOLE SHOOTING GUN HUP TWO HUP TWO”, but the plot of games like this are always difficult to keep consistent with the intent of the puzzles you’re solving.

These puzzles, when they’re not being asphyxiated by all the other diversions and distractions which I’ll get to shortly, are by far the game’s highlight – simple, elegant, and on an excellently-realized difficulty curve. You’ll lose yourself for hours in the various tricks and methods that the four manipulable dimensions and dozen-odd puzzle elements make possible. Each puzzle has multiple solutions, and when found they each give you that addictive sense of accomplishment and ingenuity. Whatever vitriol I have towards this game, I want it made clear that the foundation and experience of the game is marvelous.

You'd even miss the baffling "schlup" noise pressing a button makes.

If you played the game with the volume muted, you’d probably enjoy it much more.

On the technical side, QC leaves something to be desired, as the flaws of the Unreal Engine (compared to, say, Source, cough, cough) are on display here in this game centered around physics. At launch, the game was notoriously buggy to the point of almost total unplayability, but it’s been remedied by patches. I’ll also note that whatever shortcomings the engine has are more than made up for by the near-perfect level streaming, something I feel should come totally standard for all linear games.

As we familiarize ourselves with the puzzle mechanics, we also start to see the game’s aesthetic. I’m reminded of the Doctor’s most recent TARDIS by the general effect: It’s fantastical, wondrous, and highly exaggerated, everything being done in sweeping curves and misshapen diagonals, down to the huge shelves full of loose books and the paintings on the walls. The only real concessions to the game’s premise are omnipresent tubes of bright orange liquids referred to as “Science Juice”, and occasional portraits of the Professor, in a spiffy labcoat and goggles that would put Rocky the Flying Squirrel to shame.

And anyway, he'd look even cooler with a ponytail.

Reality check, folks: Einstein got to let his hair go because he was a theoretical physicist; there are safety guidelines about this for practical scientists.

The idea of making the entire mansion look like it was drawn by an eight-year-old is a novel one, and my only quibble is that it isn’t really conducive to actually solving puzzles. The misshapen form of some of the objects make keeping them on a button hard; and everything’s so bright and flashy already it’s hard to tell when you’ve actually accomplished anything. This would be minor if solving puzzles wasn’t the entire damn point of the game.

We’re also introduced to QC’s humor. We start with the quirky, cartoonish equivalents of Portal’s Cube, Fizzler, Big Red Button, and Switch. Respectively we have an exaggerated, spindly-locked safe; DOLLI, a benign and doglike robotic face that occasionally vomits sofas; big green buttons (completely different from the big red buttons, of course); and a drinking bird in a top hat, named Desmond. No, please, my sides are splitting.

He wouldn't be the toughest act to follow, methinks.

He’ll be here all week, folks! Give him a big hand!

The other portion of the humor comes from a myriad of puns, references and totally unrelated gags, which are everywhere from the narration, to the titles of the aforementioned shelves of books, to over 100 randomized ones that you get to see after you die. It’s been said that puns are the lowest form of humor, but at least these are consistently funny, which is more than can be said of most of the puzzle-element-based humor. I do find it suspect, though, when the best material in the game is stuff that has nothing to do with the actual premise or setting of the game. If the premise for your humor-based game isn’t funny, which would be a better idea – revising the premise, or stuff it with irrelevant and humor that would probably self-identify as “omg, so random”?

After a few more puzzles, we are also introduced to Ike. Apparently, Airtight Games just wasn’t sure if the Electric Company-style narration, visual aesthetic ripped from a second-grade classroom’s wall, and cutesy, upbeat music made it clear enough that this was a childish game (I’m not saying this is a bad thing; and in fact it’s a refreshing change from oversaturated bloom-filled fantasy RPGs and grim’n’gritty military shooters). And so, for completeness’ sake, we get an unnaturally-colored fuzzy critter. Ike (pictured at the top of the page) is green, unintelligible, and completely pointless: his role in both plot and gameplay could just as easily be filled by a nightstand, and that isn’t an exaggeration.

Though one would argue that those annoying little squeaks and giggles are worse.

At least, unlike Ocarina of Time’s Navi, he never speaks…not that that helps matters.

I’m beginning to think that between this and the puns, the game’s writers were a team of well-meaning robots who used this game to attempt to understand the human concepts of pleasure, enthusiasm and humor:

“BLEEP BLOOP. QUIRKINESS FACTOR 7.8 PERCENT BELOW NOMINAL AVERAGE.” “RECOMMEND ADDITION OF SMALL, ATTRACTIVE, FANTASTICAL MAMMAL. BEEDLY BOOP.”

“BZZZZZ. GENIUS. VRRRRR.”

Once the initial exposition of story elements and tone of the game is given, the game actually settles down into being quite good. The gameplay takes center stage, the humor is dialed back, and the art style starts getting more integrated with the gameplay – the entire childlike aesthetic I mentioned above is basically thrown out the window as you flip between dimensions, in favor of what are essentially solid colors: The dimension where everything is lighter is done in pastel pinks and light-blues, the dimension where everything is heavier goes for dark red spikes and black metal, the dimension where time slows down is a hazy yellow, and the anti-gravity dimension is a sickly green.

Since cynical and dark reinterpretations of idealistic and childish media seem to be all the rage lately, I’ll throw my own hat in the ring: You play as a deluded child with severe synesthesia, who’s staying at the home of his well-meaning uncle whose house is filled with brightly-colored objects, and who imagines an hours-long adventure through a ridiculously huge mansion, while in reality he crawls around the house as he’s followed by a pet gerbil. I’ll leave you to discuss this, because I’ve never been one for those sorts of theories, but I just felt I should put it out there.

Ninety percent of the rest of the game is pretty much the hardest type of video game to review: Uniformly above-average, near-plotless gameplay. Not much to either report on or make fun of, other than to groan every time the little green fuzzball shows his face or the Professor quotes an internet meme. Once again, I’m not focusing much on this part, but it’s the huge majority of the game and you’ll come away from it with a good experience.

But all good things must come to an end (see that, QC? I would have enjoyed that reference, not the insipid internet memes you have on display), and the ending is really poorly handled even by video game standards: The Professor reveals that the bright orange Science Juice is getting unstable from all the power you’re providing it, meaning you have to get to the final puzzle, the “Uber-IDS”, to get the Professor back into our native dimension before the entire house falls apart. Of course, the room you’re in collapses almost immediately. You fall down a few miles or so as you play a quick round of Super Hexagon, you wait for a minute while the Uber IDS charges up, and then…nothing. In a transparent case of “Your guess for the ending is as good as ours”, the Professor exposits that the science has constructed nuclear in its half-life, or whatever, and now the world is in a state of dimensional flux. I call this even worse than most video games because it doesn’t allow for much possibility of a sequel or any follow-up, which is never a good idea for an unproven developer’s first game. I really have no idea why they went with this ending. Trying to set yourself apart from Portal is understandable, but that stops working when you do that by having a much stranger and more disappointing ending.

Who says video games are getting too violent?

The ending continues from here, but it would have been much better if it hadn’t, if you asked me.

Speaking of QC trying to set itself apart from Portal, the ending is then rounded out by –  you guessed it – a quirky, upbeat song. The song basically epitomizes the game for me: Even though it’s objectively okay and has a pretty catchy melody, I don’t like how the point of the song is basically a recap of what you did, rather than any new insights onto the world of the game; meaning it basically exists for its own sake rather than to add on to the game. I let “Now You’re A Hero” slide for doing the same thing, but that’s a special case.

Of course, even though the ending is so strange and incomprehensible, multiple downloadable mission packs have been released since the game was released, so what do I know. I’d check to see how they retcon the original ending, but I don’t want to pay ten bucks just so I can complain about something a little bit less.

Quantum Conundrum, for both those who made it and those who played it, did all that it needed: it was fun, well made and received above-average sales and reviews. The poorly-done setting permeates the game too much for me to enjoy it, but that won’t be an issue for many people.

Two thumbs up: Most of the puzzles

Thumbs up: John de Lancie; the visual aesthetic; some of the puns

Thumbs down: The physics engine; a few of the more uninspired puzzles; the setting-based humor

Two thumbs down: Ike; the ending

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