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E3 press conferences, by their nature, tend to be these really awkward things where middle aged businessmen stand in front of the world and hype up teaser trailers full of gore and violence. It’s sort of like having your dad stand up in front of your family before introducing a snuff film, or a high school principal who seems a little too enthusiastic about how “badass” it’s going to be to have a class watch Saving Private Ryan to learn about World War II. There’s a tension between the respect commanded by “men in suits” and the revulsion demanded by “men’s heads on pikes” that you just don’t get anywhere else short of visiting Vlad the Impaler.
And yet at the Sony press conference, sandwiched between the gritty werewolf manshoots of The Order: 1886 and the pulpy Saturday Morning cartoon super hero world of Infamous Second Son, Sony announced Entwined. It’s a game about a fish and a crane as two forlorn lovers from different worlds doomed to never be together. The presentation showed no combat and not even much of a narrative; just a symbolic relationship explored through mechanics and metaphor. It’s the sort of thing that’s right up a pretentious critic’s alley, so of course I downloaded it as soon as I could. And ever since I finished playing it, I’ve been wrestling with whether not liking this game makes me even more pretentious than I thought or simply not pretentious enough.
I mean, the game’s nice enough to look at as long as you’re not sick of the orange/blue thing that’s been on just about every video game cover for the past half decade. It’s got a peaceful soundtrack that flows nicely between ambient and powerfully present when needed. And the way it focuses on mechanics almost exclusively to generate meaning is something not enough games even attempt, and I strongly applaud and appreciate the effort to do so. But it… it just doesn’t click.
The immediate problem is that everything about it makes me want to play other games. Brothers had a more fleshed out system for controlling two entities at once with a dual analog controller. Dyad had a more rewarding set of mechanics for judging a player’s ability to fly down a tube, and it also dealt thematically with pair bonds and togetherness. And if you’re looking for an artsy, symbol heavy game about flying down a set path in a bit of a trance while procedurally spicing up a soundtrack, play Rez. Entwined seems heavily influenced by these titles, or at the very least is thinking along very similar lines to what makes each one of them special. But it can’t seem to find it’s own ground to stand on.
Actually, I take that back. It’s not that the game lacks identity, it’s that anything that feels genuinely unique to this game it doesn’t quite land. Perhaps the easiest example to cite would be the end-of-level dragon flights. After completing a level, which Entwined calls a lifetime, the fish and the crane merge together to form a dragon that is free to fly. I get what they’re going for here in some sense – after being told strictly where to go in a straight line down a tunnel while apart from one another, these end of level sequences bring the two characters together to soar freely in any direction they want. It’s beautiful abstract ludic poetry, really. Maybe the dragon is their union in the afterlife now that their “lifetime” is over, or maybe the dragon is representative of the beauty they could achieve together if only the fates would allow it, or maybe the dragon reflects on the previous level’s adventures themselves – suggesting it’s the beauty of their struggle to be together itself that the game celebrates. Which actually makes sense given that the dragon’s appearance changes based on how you did during the level. It’s literally the culmination of their yearning.
But this is where “game feel” or ”Kinaesthetics” matter. It doesn’t feel free. The range of motion is too limited; you don’t have six degrees of freedom but a narrow cone of directions to nudge the dragon in. And since you have to collect nodes and find the exit in these end game segments I decidedly felt less skilled, graceful, and expressive than I did in the tunnel. The way the game feels works against so much of what it’s clearly trying to achieve in these segments, and that’s a major bummer. And normally I wouldn’t care so much about game feel – it’s hard to do well and a lot of games don’t benefit from the effort. No one’s complaining about the game feel in Actual Sunlight, for example. But it’s literally the tool that was being used to evoke an emotion here, so I think the criticism holds. It’s just too confining to feel free or celebratory or expressive, which seems like what they were going for by removing the tunnel and encouraging sky writing.
Another key problem is that the only reason I know these two symbols are lovers is that the game tells me that upfront in exposition. I get the “together forever but still apart” thing, that comes from the mechanics naturally – they’re stuck next to one another but still operating independently, they’re forever beside one another but never moving as one unit – at least until their afterlife segment. They are bound together, but they are separate. But what binds them thematically is supposed to be love, a longing to be together, a sense that there is an understanding between them worth going through all of these lifetimes of unquenched desire for. But that doesn’t really come through; at least not until the climax to five minutes of gameplay. Once both characters have their energy meters filled they can then try to reach the end of the lifetime, and *then* they start feeling linked – the failure of one can be kept alive by the success of the other, the iconography at the top of the screen as the two characters draw ever closer together, the quickening pace of the game as these two interact and then release as the two come together into one. It could almost be read as suggestive. And that part makes them feel connected and dependent. But that comes after three to five minutes of this (flying-down-a-tube gameplay w/o any interaction between the two). Brothers sold its premise on the idea that the two needed each other; that the big strong brother and the small nimble brother could each do things the other couldn’t. They were fundamentally two parts to a whole, each incomplete without the other, and that’s what made their relationship resonate. Here the bulk of the gameplay is two avatars flying next to but largely indifferent to one another.
It’s also a game that’s weirdly punishing? And I don’t mean that in a “it’s too hard” or “it ruins the fun!” kind of way, I mean that its use of minor loss states upsets the game’s overall tone. Love isn’t black and white, adoration and understanding aren’t measured by success or failure. A game about these two in eternal yearning should be a game about fungible game states and flexible mechanics; like reaching the speed of light it should feel like I could push ever harder to get ever closer but can mathetimatically just not get there no matter how much I wish I could. Love as systemic asymptote.
Instead the game lets you collect pellets to power your energy bars, then lets you pass through one or more gates to keep that energy. The first character to miss a gate immediately fails that chain of gates for both characters and then loses some energy. It’s an oddly strict, binary loss condition for a game that’s otherwise all about abstract ideas and no real concept of winning or losing. But then you continue filling up your energy bars until you can trigger their union. You can’t really lose – as Will O’Niell put it, your punishment for losing in Entwined is that you have to keep playing Entwined. It’s the sort of “do it again, stupid” mechanic you see when you die in the middle of a first person shooter and have to replay a segment until you do it right, except applied to an abstract game that isn’t really about skill. So this approach to loss feels harsh and punitive with its immediate judgement but it also doesn’t carry meaningful consequences for the relationship of the fish and the crane.
All of this combines to make the game sort of a mess that doesn’t convey the game’s core concepts – it doesn’t feel like a game about longing or desire or love, it feels like a game that keeps asking me to repeat analog stick patterns until I can prove that a fish and a bird can make a dragon. And I go back to my original complaints – if you really want meaningful interaction between two controlled entities, Brothers excels where this game confuses. If you want meaningfully rewarding success states, failure states, and skill judgements while sliding down a tube, Dyad has this game beat. And if you want that formalist approach to game meaning with mechanics and abstract symbols, then… well, okay, Entwined and Rez may be comparable on that front.
It’s just frustrating, because you can systemize how relationships work. From Brothers to The Passage to The Sims to The Walking Dead, you can systemize what it means to be in a relationship with someone in ways that feel real, that feel relevant to your life experiences. And that’s probably the biggest flaw in the way this game approaches its subject matter – it doesn’t ring true. Its approach makes sense on paper – the yellow and blue making the green dragon, the two characters locked together but forever on their sides of the tunnel, the sudden freedom when they’re truly brought together, the repeated lifetimes each showing a theme or tone or challenge the pair faced. Symbolically it works. But it doesn’t touch me; it doesn’t engage me at an emotional level even as it prods me intellectually. All the ludic poetry and clever metaphors in the world can’t save a game about love that doesn’t, at least in some small way, make me feel that love too.