Arriving at Evergate from Lemmings
Tracing the connections between a new game and a selection of classics
Evergate is a precision puzzle platformer that I recently reviewed for Switch Player Magazine. I concluded that:
Evergate might not quite reach the giddy heights established by other recent releases, but it isn’t one to miss out on either. The graphics are familiar, but they are impeccably produced. The soundtrack is an absolute knockout. And, most important of all, intricate level design combined with playful mechanics and a vast array of challenges make Evergate an addictive, highly replayable delight.
It’s a game that, while superficially impressive, also has a lot more depth in gameplay than might first be evident. Where Evergate really succeeds is in its flexibility. On one hand, it’s a very linear experience: stages divided into levels, each of which is tackled before moving onto the next. And many of these levels are just barely bigger than a single screen, given that the default camera view is a very wide one.
Although completed levels can be replayed in any order, it’s a far cry from the open-world design featured in many modern platformers. But Evergate marries this traditional level structure with elements that add plenty of variety. First, individual levels have several potential paths, and a big part of the challenge is in figuring out quite what route you should take. Alternatives are always great to offer in a game because it’s this very sense of choice and interactivity that differentiates video games from other media.
Second, the challenge and upgrade systems open up a world of possibilities. Beyond just reaching the target gateway in each level, you can beat the timer, activate every crystal, or collect every petal dotted around the screen. And each time you complete one of these additional challenges, you’re awarded “essence” which counts towards ability upgrades; these can increase jump height, slow your fall, or even stop fragile terrain from collapsing.
Still, despite these innovative and finely balanced gameplay elements, there’s no denying that Evergate bears a strong resemblance to a recent smash-hit sequel…
Ori and the Will of the Wisps (released in 2020).
Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and its 2015 prequel, Ori and the Blind Forest, are stunningly beautiful games. This latest entry in the series, in particular, looks like a work of art in screenshots alone, let alone when it comes to seeing the game in action.
On the surface, Evergate borrows heavily from this aesthetic, although it’s clear that a much smaller team can’t quite rival the production values on show in Ori. Still, the use of light, clouds, color, and other elements combine to strongly evoke this metroidvania. The wide shots contribute to a cinematic experience in both titles, and the main characters could almost be related.
Beyond its visuals — and exquisite soundtrack, something which Evergate also has in common — Ori’s main appeal is in its handling of the genre: a large map full of avenues to explore, with puzzles to conquer along the way. This is in stark contrast to the more confined series of levels presented in Evergate.
I don’t think this makes Evergate less of an engaging experience, though; there are still times you can get swept up, playing for long stretches of time, especially when you’re on a roll, mastering a new technique or style of play. Now and again, a level poses a particular challenge that demands many repeated attempts. Although this can get frustrating, particularly when combined with the tricky controls, frustration is often a part of a challenge, something which rewards players all the more when it’s finally overcome. And if there’s one game that does this particularly well, it’s…
Celeste (released in 2018).
Celeste is a wonderful collection of contradictions: a low-res game that still manages to look amazing, at least in part due to its excellent use of color and — again — light; a platformer that is quite linear, yet still feels open; a plot that has a basic sliver of action, yet wins many a player over with its characterization and moments of empathy.
Individual mechanics — alongside the often employed requirement of remaining airborne — are what connect this game with Evergate. Both titles present interactive objects and hovering in mid-air, which alters the mechanics of the character in vital ways. Whether it’s the disappearing platforms that send Madeline tumbling in this game or the fragile leaves that Evergate’s Ki must be careful not to linger on, the behavior is the same.
Celeste, too, makes great use of smaller screen levels, although there’s possibly more scrolling here than in Evergate, as the game progresses. Each title, too, takes the opportunity to introduce breaks in the action in which to play cutscenes which advance the plot, although Celeste’s pacing is superior, something which really makes the story much more of an integral part.
But Evergate’s additional challenges feel more achievable: they’re presented to the player right up-front, rather than hidden as they are in Celeste, often to frustratingly obscure extremes. Thankfully, Celeste mainly restricts its secrets to optional extras, keeping the core pathway fairly straightforward throughout. Without this, it would likely lose many players along the way. So let’s return to a game from way-back-when that happens to capitalize on the sense of mystery that Evergate makes use of so well. It’s none other than…
Lemmings (released in 1991).
On the surface, of course, Lemmings is a world away from the other titles shown here, as you might expect from a game that’s thirty years old. However, we should remember how ground-breaking and liberating it was at the time of release, and recognize how even such an old title can help influence modern times.
What Lemmings might’ve lacked in the hi-res graphics of today’s games, it more than made up for in personality and humor. The individual lemmings (looking more like tiny human punks, let’s be honest) were incredibly well animated, given they occupied just a handful of pixels each. Everyone who’s played this game remembers the exhilarating rush of schadenfreude when pressing the “nuke” button, waiting for that moment when each lemming would explode in quick succession.
When I first played Lemmings back in the ‘90s, I could hardly believe what I was witnessing. Here was a game that broke ground in not just one aspect of game design, but two. Instead of controlling just a solitary character, here you’re given control of up to 99 independently “controlled” creatures. And the sense of freedom that came with the ability to modify the landscape was practically overwhelming. I can’t think of a game produced before Lemmings that conveyed such a sense of power, of possibility — and did so whilst maintaining a classic ‘one level at a time’ puzzle structure.
More than Ori or Celeste, Lemmings — for me, at least — embodies that sense of experimentation, of freedom that Evergate recreates so well. Both games manage to utilize a sense of doubt in the designer’s intent: time and time again, when I play Evergate, I find myself wondering “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?”
And I don’t think the answer to that question matters too much. Branching out your own way and doing something other than what the creator intended gives a welcome sense of accomplishment. But finding a fiendishly complicated method of achieving a goal that was intended all along serves to increase the connection between player and designer, a wonderful shared experience that blurs the lines and repays experimentation in a highly satisfying manner.
What do you think? Are there other games you’ve played that fit alongside these, graphically or in their sense of liberating mystery, or by some other measure? I’d love to hear your ideas!