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Vol. 2, Issue 13
February 23, 2000

Pixel Obscura:

In Pieces

by Josh Vasquez


Sudden histories revisted.

  few columns ago I wrote about intros to games that try to encapsulate a mountain of back-story in an almost comically brief span of time, such a set up being pretty precarious.   Septerra Core, a new game from Valkyrie Studios and Monolith, is yet another example of the tightrope this narrative technique forces creators to walk.

Of course, no one is forced to do anything.  Choose a style and fail and you can’t turn around and blame it for your downfall.  Not that Septerra’s opening is the kind of thing that would promote as dramatic a thing as a "downfall," maybe just a slip.  The game’s opening is a perfect example of frantic plot weaving.  While we watch a series of vague images, a woman recounts a myth that presumably gives depth to all the goings-on.  The result is neither ridiculous nor sublime, instead coming across as rather bland. 

In this case being unremarkable is a more serious problem, however, highlighting the piece’s otherwise relatively minor flaws.

The "film" opens with the image of a spinning armillary sphere on a desk in some polished study.  The sphere is replaced with the image of a planet composed of various layers, all revolving around one another.  A female voice tells us that this is the world sphere, a site of great power.  Long ago “the Creator” took off for parts unknown but not before sealing some kind of unimaginable force in the sphere, leaving his son Marduk to protect it.  The only thing that can unleash the world sphere’s strength is the Key, which apparently vanished soon after Marduk did.  But now the time approaches when the key must be found and used to reawaken whatever waits in the sphere and thereby save the universe.  All pretty simple...except that it isn’t.

The narrative tries desperately to take root but isn’t given much of a chance by the breakneck pace of the delivery.  The most damning thing is that the narrator speaks farcically quickly.  Now, I know that time is a factor for the designers but this really seems a tad too much.  Might as well get that Micro Machines guy to do it and save valuable seconds.  It doesn’t help much either that the actual visual presentation is a bit wilted.  While the animation of the sphere is quite nice, the epic battle between Marduk and the villain is a let down, both looking like figures straight out of street fighter with none of the acceleration.  And even though the sphere is indeed nicely realized, fine detail with a hint of the mysterious, the overall effect is numbed by the rushed pace.

Despite these complaints, I must admit that Septerra Core has a definite charm.  The hurried pace, while absolutely detrimental to the piece, is also appealing on a gut level.  You feel as if time really is running out and you’ve got to suck it all in before being shot out into the game’s universe, like a skydiving instructor shouting last minute instructions in your ear before pushing you out the plane door.  Such a fiendish jumble of facts also gives the impression, whether deserved or not, of control and confidence, the narrative so sure of itself that it can afford to hurry (“hey relax, it will all pan out in time”).  I can’t say this is deliberate on the creators’ part, given the nature of the piece that would be patently ridiculous, but the technique can be seductive.  Just think about how those thrillingly brief movie trailers put it to good use, drawing you in even when you know the film will most likely stink up the screen.  Make the audience think they’re seeing more than they actually are, and they might just bite.

Septerra Core’s opening is, overall, nice to look at and for a short introduction it deserves some praise, especially for it’s somewhat skillful juggling of complicated backstory.   The information is pitched wildly, but moves with enough grace that it doesn’t completely fly over the viewer’s heads.  The problem is that there just isn’t all that much to be caught.  A few bizarre names and dramatic bits about heritage and saving the universe are not enough to hold it all together.  Much like the multi-layered sphere itself, Septerra Core’s opening waits for something to unify its glittering pieces.


- Joshua Vasquez is the resident film critic here at loonygames. He also writes for the Internet film site Matinee Magazine

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Credits: Illustration © 2000 Dan Zalkus. Pixel Obscura is © 2000 Josh Vasequez. All other content is © 2000 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited, so don't do it, or we'll cut you in twain.