“Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible.”
-Maurits Cornelis Escher
Art fans rejoice.
The question of whether games are art or not remains either up in the air or an obvious affirmative but the concern of games depicting art is answered in The Bridge, a puzzle game by indie developer The Quantum Astrophysicists Guild. While artsy indie puzzle games are a dime a dozen, The Bridge is unique in utilizing famous art as more than just inspiration or aesthetic. Significantly, its relationship to established art is in adapting the surreal work of M.C. Escher to interactivity.
Maurits Cornelis Escher was Dutch artist who emphasized mathematics and optical illusion in his work, creating illustrations, woodcuts, and lithographs with physics that would be impossible to realize in reality. He created objects which could only exist in the mind. Escher regularly broke the fundamentals of symmetry and geometry to create artistic tessellations and architecture that are both beautiful to behold as well as strangely satisfying in their perfection. Other concepts he explored through his creations were intellectualism, mirrors, relative perspectives, levels of reality, and the infinite.
While Escher was not well-liked by critics for most of lifetime, his art has grounded itself in public consciousness. Though Escher had no measurable, personal interaction with Surrealism as a cultural movement and though he did not pioneer the unique qualities exemplified in his own work, his art has become a part of popular culture so many years later. The distinctiveness of his work has made him a legend, an influence to be recognized or not within many future creations. How could David Bowie try to entrap our heroine Sarah at the end of Labyrinth without Escher’s endless stairs? How could the Penrose Tribar, impossibility in its purest form, exist without Escher’s inspiration?
“The flat shape irritates me – I feel like telling my objects, you are too fictitious, lying there next to each other static and frozen: do something, come off the paper and show me what you are capable of!”
Fascinatingly, The Bridge draws from Escher’s body of work not merely to craft the peripheral imagery of backgrounds and settings. That, I suppose, would’ve been too easy. Rather the game allows you to interact with settings that resemble the illustrations themselves. Even if you aren’t an art fan, you’ve likely seen Escher’s iconic dreamscapes at some point or another, especially “Relativity” with its nonsensical stairways. Observing the illustration, your mind’s eye creates an imaginary protagonist to clamber over the steps at all angles. The Bridge lets you play out that bit of imagining.
The game begins with a man resting beneath an apple tree. The player is prompted into waking him up by tilting the game world, turning it side to side in introduction to the game’s central mechanic, until an apple falls from the tree by the laws of gravity and pulls a Newton on the man’s on the head. From there you can take the man toward his house. Along the way, steep slopes can be turned into gentler inclines or even flat fields by continuing to tilt the game world either left or right, like trying to straighten a picture on your wall when it’s hanging from a single nail.
At last at his home, there are locked doors to be opened. Behind each door is a series of individual levels. The goal in each level is to safely take the man from his spawning point to the exit door. At first this involves simply maneuvering the man past obstacles to his destination, tilting the game world so that his perspective of ceilings and walls changes into passable floors. Falling off the structure of a level guarantees death and eventually the game begins to introduce actual hazards in the form of spiraling warp space and gigantic, grimacing orbs that can crush the man in his tracks. Tilting the game world becomes at times a matter of crucial planning, stopping at the start of each level to plot out your steps before proceeding, though there is a simple rewind feature built into the game which makes surviving your mistakes a cinch.
The levels are framed as the locked (repressed?) portions of the man’s mind or perhaps more properly his imagination. Trying to make out exactly what The Bridge is trying to convey thematically is difficult considering the overall lack of text and the isolated, cryptic language the game uses only in short bursts (upon completing a chapter of levels you’ll encounter a bust in a hall with a brief accompanying speech).
My interpretation of the game is the player character is Escher himself who has met the work of Isaac Newton. The game talks about finding someone who shares “my” passion for esoteric mathematics before agreeing to work on some of “my” ideas.
Escher and Newton are the perfect partners, the dreamer and the physicist, art and science, the unreal with the real. It appears that Newton died, or that Escher realized he was dead (since in the real world their lives were separated by nearly 200 years), and without the tether of realism Escher spiraled into madness as he neared the end of his own life, which is depicted in the hostile nonsense confronting the player. Escher’s own work becomes threatening as he retreats into his mind to cope and the levels represent the layered frustrations of the artist and the anguish of the seeker. The game hints at Escher and Newton’s singular creation, a kind of undulating cube, and the duo’s incredible discovery but Escher looks toward crossing “that bridge”.
The Bridge attempts to channel as many of Escher’s themes as possible, wrapping them together with a thin veil of philosophy jargon and meditative horrors, such as being isolated in eternity. Latter levels are inverted as if glimpsed through a mirror. The internal struggle to envision physical impossibilities. Intellectual brilliance and breakthrough.
Exploring infinity either as a mental concept or as the thought of an afterlife, the story ends with the image of the man walking over the Bridge and… well, you’ll just have to play the game for yourself to find out.
The 8-bit Review
The impact of The Bridge’s visuals is eroded by their familiarity in the market. This is an indie game. Of course everything is seen through a hipster-colored lens: sketched pencil lines bring the player character into each world, even the choice of font seems appropriate for a student film project. Personally, I find this quite enjoyable but it bears the unfortunate dullness of having been played out before.
The saving grace is perhaps how well the visuals serve the overall presentation of the game as calming, slow, and slight, and also how well they represent Escher’s body of work, which was mostly in grayscale. The Bridge is just short enough to prevent the monotone visuals from becoming too boring, though, and there’s diversity enough between the details of the stages and adaptations of Escher’s works to encourage prolonged interest. However I can only imagine that this is mitigated directly by the player’s proficiency at completing the game’s puzzles. Dragging the game along by finding yourself stuck on a specific puzzle may make these graphics ultimately tiring.
One thematic element to take note of involves colors in dreams. Studies indicate that dreaming without color is rare, that it was once more common, and that the elderly out of all age ranges most often experience colorless dreams now, the conclusion being that our elders grew up with black and white television sets. If, as I assume it does, The Bridge involves Escher exploring his subconscious, his imagination, his dreamworld (whatever you wish to call it), then the black and white imagery is indicative of his old age in reality despite being depicted in his fantasy as a young man. If this was an intentional choice, then the overwhelming presence of grayscale in the game is purposeful rather than pretentious.
The score by Kevin MacLeod is quite limited but beautiful. Its pensive and contemplative, a godsend for a non-stressful, slow paced puzzle game. Occasionally rapid music is used in this genre to push players toward making mistakes but The Bridge doesn’t roll that way. There is no time limit for completing levels and as such, the music knows you have nowhere to go, nowhere to rush off to, and it takes its time.
My ear caught notes of optimism in the mysterious and sometimes wistful music. The use of short, repeating motifs also seems to evoke the madness confronting Escher in his imagination. Mostly you’ll note how ruminative the music is, welcoming you to chew on the scenery for a bit to understand what’s in front of you. It is as if the score invites the player to listen closer, to stop and observe.
At times, The Bridge seems more interested in telling its cryptic hint of a story rather than grasping the possibilities of its gameplay gimmick with temerity. Though there are many individual levels in the game, they tend to all feel the same. This doesn’t help keep The Bridge from monotony. Later levels introduce backwards gravity and lighter than air rather than heavy dangers, but these new features are few and added only infrequently. The pace of tilting the game world does not change. The walking speed and irritating inability of the player character to ascend even a meager gradient does not improve. Every level can essentially be conquered through patience and trial and error, especially with liberal use of the rewind feature. Died by turning the game world clockwise? Rewind to a safe vantage and start turning the game anticlockwise to see what happens.
Ultimately, The Bridge seems too short, an idea which wasn’t completely pursued to its end, while also feeling too long, the lingering flavor of its uneventfulness. All the while it wavers between being fun and frustrating, though the joyous sense of accomplishment at completing a difficult puzzle is worth playing for.
Traversing the Standard and the Mirrored Worlds gives you 48 stages to take a stroll in, more than enough to sate your appetite for The Bridge. However the biggest blow against this game’s replay value comes in the form of the puzzle solutions themselves. Once you know how to complete a stage, you can complete it again easily. There seems to be only one possible solution per level, almost exclusively, though tilting in order to achieve that solution may involve minor variations in operation.
The Bridge lends itself to “figuring it out”. Sometimes you’ll need to plan your steps. Sometimes you’ll have to just dive in and see how mechanisms in a level function before hitting that rewind button. The Bridge has its challenging stages but none of them should baffle to the point of total deadlock. With enough patience and willingness to try different approaches, the player can complete the game, skill or no skill.
The impact of the game’s central mechanism, tilting the game world, means that all challenges can be overcome with time, but it also means that The Bridge is quite accessible to any audience. Many puzzle games maintain a sort of pride and self-righteousness in ensuring they are perceived as “smart”. It’s the same kind of pretension that can bleed over into (high) art appreciation, or really any group based around the subject of taste and its refinement. Likely we can think of people who try to impress others by what they like, and maybe we’re those people who make that attempt ourselves!
With The Bridge, there’s very little of that involved since engaging with the game doesn’t require a vast intellect. It shouldn’t be seen as an obscure pleasure restricted to intellectuals, then. There are too few options available to the player for that. At some point, there’s little difference between The Bridge and picking between two doors labeled A and B. Finding that door A leads to hideous, screaming pain, you can always go back and jiggle the handle on door B instead, without penalty and without consequence (beyond a visual vestige of the player character hovering in space where he “died”).
While indie games and puzzle games are plentiful, I cannot say I know of any other game that so embraces the themes of M.C. Escher’s work, or even a game which attempts to depict his persona. Presenting the game as the retrospective struggle of a genius with his art form also seems distinctive. The story doesn’t necessarily benefit from panning out in this way but even in attempting to explain and analyze the plot there is a lot of uniqueness to be found.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
The Bridge is not a poor game. It’s an idea that didn’t quite reach its ultimate fruition, like the confused imaginations of its protagonist. I enjoyed it as a relaxing venture into escapism and an interlude from platformers and dragging heroes through open worlds. Further, there are only a few games that I get to play together with my wife anymore now that we have two very young children. The mobility of the Nintendo Switch (where I played The Bridge) and our love of Escher’s work, as well as the manageable brevity of this game’s levels, allowed us to experience a bit of it together and I appreciate that. There’s no need for panicking when playing The Bridge. It’s a slow game but that allows for reflection, conversation, and taking someone else’s advice in solving some problems.
Aggregated Score: 6.1
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Categories: Game Review