Death isn’t so bad in Bit.Trip FLUX

Bit.Trip FLUX is a hard game to write about. On one hand, you could simply say that the game is the spiritual sequel to Bit.Trip BEAT. On the surface, it plays exactly like BEAT, only backwards. Scratch that surface though, and you may see that the game is so much more. In its own way, FLUX is a retrospective examination of the entire Bit.Trip series, a metaphysical expression of the afterlife, and a statement about the meaning of life itself.

Yeah, it’s a tough game to write about all right, particularly because I’ve only had the opportunity to play through it once. I think I’ll need to play through FLUX many, many times before I truly “get” it. It’s the kind of game that just about anybody could complete in a few hours, but “winning” it an “getting” it are two very different things. Even Alex Neuse (the creator of the Bit.Trip series and the level designer of Bit.Trip FLUX) was having some trouble “getting” it. After I’d played through the game once, he grabbed the controller from me to show me “the path of enlightenment.” I think he managed to stay on the path for about five seconds before he fell off and rejoined the rest of us on the mortal plane. It was like watching God screw up a prayer. I was both amazed, amused, and deeply intimidated.

I swear to Alex Neuse God that what I’m saying actually makes sense.

Like I said in the opening, Bit.Trip FLUX is essentially a direct sequel to the “Pong + Rhythm Action + Shmup” hybrid wunderkind Bit.Trip BEAT. The game plays the same way, but with a few tweaks. Instead of controlling a paddle on the left side of the screen, you control a paddle on on the right side of the screen. Instead of the having little squares (called beats) coming at you from the right, they’re now coming at you from the left (at least, most of the time. Oh, and now, sometimes they’re circles). Instead of multi-colored objects, every beat is now white or gray (usually with a cool outline).

A lot of things are the same, though. The music is just as catchy, the bullet patterns are arguably more glorious, and the graphics are much more flashy and evocative. On the most basic level, you could say that Bit.Trip FLUX is Bit.Trip BEAT on steroids.

Being the overly analytical type though, I can’t just leave it at that. I feel a desperate need know if the similarities between BEAT and FLUX mean anything. Alex Neuse — the previously mentioned creator of the Bit.Trip series — has been forthcoming enough to reveal to us that each Bit.Trip game thus has been a metaphor for a stage of human development. The most recently released Bit.Trip game, Bit.Trip FATE, represents old age and death, while the first game in the series, Bit.Trip BEAT, is about the sperm and the egg getting together.

So if FATE is about death, and BEAT is about pre-human existence, then what is FLUX about?

What more is there?

My theory is that FLUX takes place in the post-life/pre-death moments, after the physical body is dead, but the brain (and/or the soul, if you believe in that sort of stuff) still lingers on. Just as our consciousness is not yet connected to our physical bodies in our sperm/egg stage of life, our consciousness is no longer totally connect to the mortal plane when we’re physically dead.

I think that is the reason BEAT and FLUX play the same way. They both represent the times in our lives when we aren’t quite alive in the conventional sense, yet we still exist. Our standard notion of consciousness isn’t really part of the equation when we don’t have bodies yet, which I guess really simplifies things. That’s probably why BEAT and FLUX are the most simple, and arguably most consciousness-freeing games in the series.

That said, the goal of a sperm on its way out of the body, and the goal of a soul on its way to the afterlife aren’t entirely the same. As such, BEAT and FLUX also have their fair share of difference. Chief amongst those differences is motivation. In BEAT, your main goal was to survive until you get to “the end,” which makes sense, as that’s also the sperm’s only job.  In FLUX, survival isn’t really an issue anymore, which makes sense, as you’re already dead. Instead of survival, the post-death soul is motivated to take what it has learned from human existence, and move on. That’s exactly what you do in FLUX.

The game pulls this incredibly high-concept premise off in a couple of ways. For one, Bit.Trip FLUX includes elements of every Bit.Trip game thus far. It feels like Gaijin Games tried to take all of the lessons they learned in designing the five previous Bit.Trip titles, and apply them to this final chapter. Some of the game’s new power-ups are from CORE, the inclusion of “enemy beats” is straight from VOID, and the inclusion of totally optional, dangerously placed score increasing pick-ups seems to be from RUNNER and FATE. That’s just the start of the ways that FLUX is reminiscent of the Bit.Trip games gone by.

Speaking of RUNNER, that’s the game FLUX reminds me the most of, despite the fact that BEAT and FLUX share the same gameplay. That’s largely because FLUX has a very similar death/replay system as RUNNER. In FLUX, you don’t “die” when you lose. (Because you’re already dead, remember?) Instead, you’re quickly whisked back to a checkpoint — usually just a minute or two away from where you lost). From there, you get to start over with no penalty other than a decreased score. Also like in RUNNER, there is only one way to get a Game Over screen in FLUX, and oh what a Game Over screen it is. I’d love to tell you about it, but that would be telling (and telling is lame).

Back to the point, adapting RUNNER‘s “gentle restart system” allows FLUX to be much less punishment oriented than BEAT, and much more focused on rewarding you for playing well. In BEAT, there were minimal rewards for playing well. Like I mentioned before, BEAT was mostly about staying alive. Sure, there were “three states of existence” to experience depending on how well you’re playing — “Nether” for poor play, “Hyper” for standard play, and “Mega” for excellent play — but for the most part, the player’s priority isn’t to hit the next mode, it’s to avoid death (and a painful restart).

In FLUX, restarting is much less of an issue (with the exception being a few truly difficult parts). Instead of avoiding death, FLUX is more often about transcending your current plane of existence. Since this is a videogame we’re talking about, it makes sense that the path to that higher plane is through a higher score. In FLUX, you get all seven levels of existence modes present in Bit.Trip FATE (including Nether, Hyper, Mega, Super, Ultra, Extra and Giga) plus an all new mode: “Meta.” Each mode has a totally unique background graphic to coincide with it, as well as mode-specific alterations to the game’s score and sound effects. Visually, it’s like getting eight games in one, each with their own visual message, though you’ll have to play very well to see them all.

All the modes are cool in their own way, but it’s in Meta mode where the guys at Gaijin packed the most complex visual metaphors. Not coincidentally, it’s also the mode that’s hardest to get to. In my play through of the game, I did not enter Meta even once. Actually, I didn’t even come close. I think the furthest I got was Ultra, which is two away from the highest plane.

Even Alex Neuse, the man who designed Bit.Trip FLUX‘s levels, could only stay in Meta for a few seconds before losing his mojo. That’s what I meant before about seeing God fail at praying. Knowing that even the designer of the game could easily fail to become one with his own creation showed me that even though FLUX may not have the immediately identifiable difficulty that BEAT had, it still has endless room for replay value.

I’d like to say more, but I’m already worried that I’ve ruined you for the forthcoming review of Bit.Trip FLUX, which I’ll be sure to write up as soon as I get the chance to play through the game a few times. There are a lot of specifics that I’m leaving out, and I won’t know what score to give the game until I’ve re-experienced it a few more times, but I think it’s safe to say that if you enjoyed any of the prior Bit.Trip games, or if you’re just a big fan of sperm/death/rebirth/Pong, then you’re going to love this game.

Jonathan Holmes
"Where do dreams end and reality begin? Videogames, I suppose."- Gainax, FLCL Vol. 1 "The beach, the trees, even the clouds in the sky... everything is build from little tiny pieces of stuff. Just like in a Gameboy game... a nice tight little world... and all its inhabitants... made out of little building blocks... Why can't these little pixels be the building blocks for love..? For loss... for understanding"- James Kochalka, Reinventing Everything part 1 "I wonder if James Kolchalka has played Mother 3 yet?" Jonathan Holmes