a review of Soul Bubbles
a videogame developed by mekensleep
and published by eidos
for the nintendo DS
text by Hamish Todd
We here at Actionbutton.net know that the word “intuitive” is not a superlative. The most intuitive game ever made is Osmos (***1/2), a game about being a bubble that absorbs other bubbles. If you think this premise sounds cliched, then it’s because you’re not a genius, and aren’t aware of all the implications that the concept has. These implications are entirely intuitive, yet discovering and placing them in a videogame required nothing less that oneness with the universe on the part of Osmosâ€™ developers.
Mekensleep were fairly at one with the universe when they made Soul Bubbles. It’s a game about blowing a bubble from point A to point B. You blow by stroking your stylus across the screen. The place you first lay your stylus is the place from whence the blow shall come, and the speed and length of the stroke determine strength and range.
It’s a truly beautiful, rubbery friction, and when you grapple with a strong wind for power over the direction of the bubble, your arm will twist and wither with the feeling of it. You also blow your bubbles into and out of small spaces. The way this happens shows a ferocious dedication to physics programming, but we’ll get to that later. Squeezing a bubble out of a tunnel is like pushing a handful of Play-Doh through a star-shaped hole, like having a tug-of-war with a monster made of bubblegum. At one point, they make you squeeze a bubble through the bleached ribcage of a dead animal. It’s some of the best tactile fun you can have, up there with World of Goo (****) and Noby Noby Boy.
(it irritates us that if Keita Takahashi played Soul Bubbles then he probably had the version that was changed for japan, wherein the main character has purple hecking spiky hair. This Tetsuya-Nomura-ization looks scandalous in context, and gives us serious reason to hate Eidos, though we’ll say the western release actually feels pretty meddle-free. We once saw a speech by an Eidos executive that made us want to be sick, but that’s another story).
Some more tactile fun follows from this with beautiful intuitiveness. For example, you can cut a bubble in half. When you do this, the slightly intuitive thing for the game to do would be to have the pieces spring apart, which is what you want. But gloriously what happens is the very intuitive thing: they stick together. You have to find a sharp-ish outcrop somewhere nearby, and blow the bubbles (at the correct angle) onto it, so that it separates them. There is no shortage of outcrops, but each time you have to do this is a little challenge due to variety in angles and shapes of enclosed spaces.
There are a bunch more things like this; bites of common sense within a world that has redefined what is common. There is one more that we feel like mentioning: there are levers in the game. Almost every game has levers, which your avatar will push if you press the “push lever” button. In this game, you push levers by pushing them.
This gives the game a brilliant consistency, for serious lack of a better word. To expand: there are isolated challenges within levels. These challenges are not something that present you with a menu when you approach and tell you what you need to do, and restart the challenge when you fail. There’s an optional (annoying) clue, but importantly there is nothing automatic about the way the game treats your actions (with one buzzkilling exception that isnâ€™t worth mentioning). This strongly contributes to the feeling of the system being something that works.
We don’t know how to say how good this is. We might say it’s like like the Metroid Prime or Symphony of the Night feeling of a world that continues breathing after you turn off the console. Or maybe it’s more like mathematics, in that the statements remain powerful and important even after you stop thinking about them. We’re not experiencing something invented by humans, with mathematics. We’re discovering something that has always been there, but was never given the opportunity to exist.
Crucial: Half Life 2 was praised for its physics engine. We like physics systems, and we don’t just mean us here at Actionbutton.net. Physics engine have been around for a long time. Can we say at what point it was realised that physics is one of those things that is just fun?
(Weâ€™re not implying, when we say â€œjust fun”, that itâ€™s trivial — itâ€™s very deep, of course. We just hecking hate the words “intrinsically”, “inherently”, and “in and of itself”)
So, is physics fun because it’s more realistic? Is it fun because it has that depth, because the player knows there are thousands of implications that will be interesting to discover? Or, is it fun because it’s impressive? We kinda hope no-one would go with the first one. We’d go with the second one. The makers of Soul Bubbles, they’d go with the third one.
Know this: the guys who programmed Soul Bubbles were artists, probably the best artists on the team. We don’t know anything about their team dynamics, but we suspect they were repressed, or that they were a repressed part of the renaissance men who usually make games like these. Yet, we suspect their code inspired the whole thing. Fittingly, Eric Chahi is a fan of the game.
So these programming visionaries put up with their team’s bullstuff, and ended up with a physics engine better than any on the PS2, on the Nintendo DS. Let’s take a second to be impressed, because we owe it to them. They for whom programming was not a means to an end. They who should have just left the team and made a physics simulator, because that’s what Soul Bubbles is at its absolute best: a physics simulator from fairy land.
Where to go, from here? Shit. This review is already almost 1,200 words long, and we are about two sevenths of the way through our notes. heck it. All you need to know is that the rest of the team just tore apart what could have been the best game on the DS. The level design is at best spectatorship — for the physics system and the beautiful 2D art — and at worst janitorial work — picking up the drearily, samily hidden collectibles. The level design could have made us use all the potential that was in the physics engine, but it wasted that potential: you can find play, find challenge, only when you take the challenge into your own hands. Wasted potential of the highest, or lowest, order.