By Neil Merrett
One is a charming and intentionally plodding physics-based experiment in 3D platforming, the other a balletic and otherworldly exploration of someone’s mind via the medium of dance moves. Human Fall Flat and Bound may be worlds apart as gaming concepts, yet both marvel in the fluidity, invention and human fascination with movement and overcoming physical limitations.
Human Fall Flat on Nintendo Switch, published by Curve Digital, 2017 & Bound on PS4, published by SIE Santa Monica Studio/Plastic Studios, 2016
As a form of escapism, games allow people to do all manner of things at the touch of a button.
Dimension jumping, superhuman feats of strength or acts of brutal aggression can all be enacted with just a few touches of the X and circle buttons, or perhaps even a flip of a wrist.
Part of the appeal of the medium is that it can make moving or reacting at intangible speeds, or even mimicking the thought processes of the average Premier League footballer – both the good and bad – as if it was just second nature.
We could never do many of these things in real life, yet games can often make it appear all too easy.
Movement as survival
Human Fall Flat instead attempts to capture the maligned wonder and frustrations of human mobility and our physical limitations on a more everyday level.
Your Plasticine-like avatar wobbles around a simple set of 3D worlds in an often ungainly fashion. Here the game’s gravity and a loose form of physics underpin and sometimes undermine everything the player seeks to do.
The player has a slight jump, and the ability to flail around various 3D worlds ranging from homes and construction sites, to castles, dockyards and even a beach. There is nothing to battle, beyond physical barriers that stop you from simply walking into a new level.
The most action packed move a player can make is to hold out their left or right arms using the shoulder controllers buttons and picking things up.
At first, the mechanics are the complete opposite of what we expect in modern games.
Here, the player must concentrate and familiarise themselves with just travelling along relatively broad walkways without falling to start with. This is harder then it sounds when trying to get to grips with a basic, yet alien somehow alien sense gravity.
It is literally like learning to walk all over again. Not everyone may wish to feel so vulnerable when they can be Neymar instead.
Early challenges in the game include learning to use your arms sufficiently to be able push an elevator button. Later on, you have to push two buttons simultaneously and this can prove challenging, even with a second player.
By comparison, a game such as Titanfall 2 has the player in the same span of time running along walls before trying to perform feats of crack Aerial marksmanship across violent battle zones and then leaping second later into giant robot battle suits to bring down a group of ne’er do wells. Both are equally valid forms of the expression of movement.
But while Titanfall 2 may be a celebration of over the top action and Japanese mecha fetishism, Human Fall Flat is more an attempt to admire some very human, if exaggerated, attempts to explore and overcome challenges.
Similar to having to suffer reduced mobility in permanent or temporary forms while trying to find new ways to interact with the world, the game’s challenge is in overcoming increasingly complex obstacles and literal chasms.
There is a wonder of scale in the game. The player goes from walking, to climbing cliffs, before swinging across chasms via ropes and vines, and then learning to traverse water via a simple wooden boat and a set of oars. Later you have to find a way of controlling speed boats and a large tanker.
This is all done by learning how best to move the in-game character’s arms, pushing buttons and trying to understand the physics around them. There is not always a right or wrong way, just a sense of getting by.
Once the player has struggled with pushing a button, or pulling themselves up onto a moderately sized ledge, flinging oneself into a castle tower using a medieval catapult becomes truly thrilling experience, albeit with successive trial and error required.
There is nothing new about the challenges the game throws at the player. But often, the short-hand of pushing a button to perform complex tasks can spoil the wonderment of experimentation and overcoming difficulties on how something works.
Mobility and movement is something people are fortunate to be able to overlook, until we can’t.
In its sometimes clunky and unwieldy control scheme, Human Fall Flat attempts to give a player a sense of amazement about the simple acts of pushing, pulling, running and jumping, and their consequences, even in their mundane everyday way.
It’s like going from a newborn baby to a brainless Hollywood lunk in the space of a few carefully constructed levels.
It is a game about motion and movement and how lucky we are to have it….. And it’s also a bit about catapults.
Movement as expression
A growing number of games, particularly in the indy scene, are seeking to play up the challenge and complexity of how human bodies can possibly stand up, move around and interact within the world around them.
One very different example is the 2016 title Bound, a game that on the surface, seems a slightly psychedelic, multi-coloured recreation of Human Fall Flat and its seemingly simple 3D worlds that you simply have to leap around and scale.
Yet in Bound, every button push on the controller leads to some balletic reaction in a chosen direction, whether a graceful leap forward, a pirouette or a spin on the ground before letting you ascend into a pose.
These are actions few of us will ever be able to perform so gracefully in reality. But Bound, simply because it can, encourages the player to majestically choreograph and create whole dance sequences as they explore a world of bright colours and fractured psyche.
In short, the player is occasionally called on to put together intricate combinations of movement, yet they will more often find themselves wanting to literally dance through often melancholic landscapes for the sheer experimentation of being able to. There are no real enemies to be defeated, beyond trying to understand what sort of combinations can be put together by combining elegant movements, ideally, without falling to your death.
It is dance not as competition or achievement, but seemingly just as a form of expression. You can swing around the in-game camera to fully capture dramatic pose or delicate flourishes. Sometimes, it just looks really good to dance.
At points, the player can find themselves admiring a little sequence they will pull off. Perhaps in doing so, they can understand a little something about dance that years of misspent alcohol-fuelled dancefloor sessions cannot – all this at the touch of a few buttons.
Simple beautiful, movement. How lucky we are to have it, or to be able aspire to it.