Platformers are not traditionally known for their existential plots, philosophical questions, or heavy narratives about nationality, biology, and the unknown self. While the mascot-laden wealth of platformers in the medium are defined by their tight controls, excellent gameplay, and collect-a-thon addictiveness, their storytelling direction has long been dictated by a certain plumber in a tattered pair of overalls. This while other genres have spent the last few decades elongating their tentacles into the reaches of boundary-pushing possibility.
Analgesic Productions have added another layer to the creative cavern by giving us a platformer that is as entertaining as it is thoughtful.
The Meaning Of Life
Sephonie is something different. Not since Psychonauts have I played a title that so surreptitiously blended precise platforming antics and psychological environmentalism. Though where Psychonauts provides bawdy tongue-in-cheek humor, Sephonie laces melancholy, humanism, and poignant grace. Here we have something that's a little bit VanderMeer's Annihilation and a dash Yoshi's Island, while the breakneck pacing and gooey strangeness never once drowns out the voice of character or purpose.
The newest indie title by Marina Ayano and Melos Han-Tani (known for the remarkable Anodyne 2) tells a modernist story that might hit too close to home for some. It's a story about intertwining nations and intertwining people, but it is also a story about a familiar apocalypse, one that might be prevented—and even cured—if humans would just put aside their differences and work together. Sephonie's path toward enlightenment takes some poetic turns, and as with everything by Analgesic, it's best to go in expecting the unexpected.
Three individuals find themselves on Sephonie island—the researchers Riyou Hayashi of Japan, Ing-wen Lin of Taiwan, and Amy Lim of the United States have joined together to discover, research, and catalogue foreign and strange species with help from their ONYX drives. ONYX is a nebulous piece of hand-waving science fiction tech that allows them to link with local flora and fauna, learning more about each species while also understanding a bit more about themselves. With each linking of ONYX, their appreciation of the island grows—and so expands their philosophical understanding of life in general. It's during their nascent exploration of the island and linking with its inhabitants that they learn all is not what it seems.
Wall-Running Away From My Problems
Gameplay in Sephonie is split graciously between parkour-style wall-running and jumping segments and Tetris-esque block puzzle mini-boss events. The platforming gameplay is unique and built for sequence-breaking and speedrunning events. Sephonie's movement controls were even recently open-sourced for other developers to experiment. Much of the game's platforming segments are spent in the cavernous bowels of the island, where you must run, jump, dash, wall-jump, and wall-run from one side of a labyrinthine expanse to the next. The controls are surprisingly intuitive and comfortable, and even across the game's short length, there are enough new moves and upgrades provided to continually vary the central gameplay.
The puzzle segments are especially satisfying, an entertaining and relaxing bit of cooldown from some of the more frustrating platforming sequences. Interfacing with each biological organism via the ONYX links is sporadic, and these segments are graciously spread throughout the parkour loops—no aspect of the gameplay ever felt worn out or overused. Plus, the levels themselves adapt to both a sense of the player's growth and the evolution of the narrative. Caves become caverns become layered swamps become cityscapes become geometrical nightmares all tangled up in a deeply introspective metaphysical narrative.
Fish and Feelings
The story that unfolds across Sephonie is more than just a naturepunk cataloguing expedition. While the more narrative-heavy components of the nation-spanning tale are comprised of lengthy stretches of scrolling text amid static backgrounds, the impactful weave of each character's crises is physically integrated into each level. Yes, this is a story about three disparate people working together, but it is also a tale of global politics, growing pains, and fixed childhood nostalgia between Taiwan, Japan, and America. Sephonie is about interconnectedness, about how you cannot remove any one thing without jeopardizing the whole, but it is also about unexpected salvation in the face of impossible odds. When it comes down to it, the melancholic musings about differing childhoods and adult insecurities carry the same weight as world-altering pandemics.
Sephonie island is a conscious creature, a thing that understands itself about as well as any single one of us, and part of the journey is in our trio helping the island resolve its curious nature. Island settings have long been inimitably lonely—even the likes of Yoshi's Island and Link's Awakening have carried with them a sense of overwhelming dread and claustrophobia in the face of colorful level design and vibrantly strange characters. This game of artificial barriers and humanist endeavors very carefully treads the line between dependable platformer and narrative experiment.
Puzzling Ourselves Out
Analgesic Productions are no strangers to weird storytelling. While Anodyne 2 was based primarily on dream logic, Sephonie utilizes its seemingly straightforward narrative agenda to build a tale that's sensitively queer, remarkably odd, and frustratingly familiar. Each individual member of the team struggles with their own adult problems and unresolved traumas, and as they continue to link their ONYX devices to the island's major creature components, they find that they are not individually up to the task of saving the world. There are no easy answers here—and the game's ending and epilogue are sure to achieve some mixed impressions among players—but there is no denying the heavy emotional impact or deeply moving nature of what Sephonie has to say about life.
Sephonie is a game of our times, a title that can only exist out of indie experimentation and the particular cocktail of its creators' lived lives, an adventure that will weigh on my mind for a period exponentially longer than its short playtime. As we swing from one type of apocalypse to the next, it is these vignettes that solidify my personal faith in humans to synthesize a meaningful way forward—even if the only answer to any given problem is, ultimately, love.
Sephonie is more than worth your time and money; consider it an investment in empathy.
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