Narcissus, or so the myth goes, was the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. Renowned for his beauty, but also for being somewhat of an ass, he was lured to a pool of water by goddess of divine retribution Nemesis, where he became fixated with his own reflection. (And then died.) The inspiration for Alex Johansson’s Narcissus is truthfully less dramatic, evoked by watching his little brother jump between stepping stones on a river near his home, reflection in tow.
The game was part of the Leftfield Collection at the EGX Rezzed Expo in March and I happened to run into the developer in the closing minutes of the expo. I was met with a unique take on a runner game complete with beautiful pixel art and an 8-bit soundtrack intent on replicating a lost experience.
The aptly-named platformer sees you playing as two characters simultaneously: inverted sprites taking different paths to the same goal. The controls are simple: the up and down keys control the black and white sprites respectively, resulting in a game that can be played either alone or locally with a friend. This, says Johansson, was a conscious design choice:
"I decided I wanted to build a game that was easier to play with a friend than alone, but still possible either way. Arcade machines provide such fantastic physically social experiences, and I didn't feel that there was enough modern games that catered to this."
The idea is beautiful in its simplicity. Being able to just sit down and play with a friend without the need for an internet connection or a spare controller was remarkably refreshing, even if the resulting banter (insults questioning each other's competence) was the same.
A few days later, having completed all available levels with a partner, I sat down with the game again. It hadn’t even crossed my mind to play it alone, and while it lacked the camaraderie of the co-op experience, the new element added to the gameplay and the resulting challenge was just as satisfying.
Make no mistake: though the controls may be simple, the level design ensures that this is not an easy game. If keeping track of both sprites wasn’t already enough of a challenge, later levels see the implementation of various mechanics designed to ruin your progress and/or friendship, such as ramps to boost your jump, bridges that you’ll phase through if the color doesn’t correspond to your own, switches that change your direction, and spikes that result in instant death. Just one mistake by either character sends you right back to the beginning of the level, which makes for a testing co-op experience. Even the most patient of players will begin to resent their partner for repeated mistakes, as I quickly learnt. (Thanks, "friends.")
The build presented at EGX Rezzed comprised twenty-five levels, which are all available to play as a Flash game, but consequent builds have shown off the full fifty levels that will make up the final release. There are also three difficulty modes, determined by the pace of the sprites, for those in need of an extra challenge. It’s worth noting that the timer is cumulative across all levels rather than being reset each time, making each death a crucial error for those attempting a speedrun. (Johansson states that it will take two people an average of 150 minutes to complete the game.)
No discussion of Narcissus would be complete without at least a brief mention of Afr0turf’s soundtrack (which is already available on Soundcloud), composed of five 8-bit tracks that had me leaving my poor sprites to jump to their doom in an endless cycle of failure just so I could listen to the music uninterrupted. The title track 'Uno,' for example, starts as an slow, ethereal tune that quickly transforms into an upbeat, almost frantic accompaniment that complements the gameplay perfectly, especially in later levels or on the harder difficulties. Any fans of chiptune music should definitely check this out.
In short, I played many fantastic games at EGX Rezzed this year, but it was the game I only got five minutes with as the show was closing that stuck with me the most. Johansson has produced a unique, multi-faceted game offering two different but equally appealing experiences well worth your time. And maybe an upvote on Greenlight, too.