A Beautiful but Hectic Mess
Ambiance isn’t something that comes to mind when you think about video games. No, when you think about video games you think about being aurally and visually stimulated. You think of competition and accomplishing objectives that the game has you partaking in so is that you feel compelled to continue playing the game. However every now and then a game comes out that pushes these expectations to the side and just wants you to relax. These ambient games include recent releases like flOw, flower, and in concept Hemisphere Games’ Osmos.
To Hemisphere Games credit they have made a relaxing game for the most part. The look of the game has a clean but minimalistic look to it. Your “mote” is a white fuzzy looking amoeba and the screen is filled with other motes of all sorts of colors, and this lends to this sort of kaleidoscope look to the game that’s pleasing to the eyes. The music is of the soothing electronic variety. Like the look of the game the music is minimalistic by design and eventually will get to you. The music is so soothing, with rhythmic beats and subdued flourishes that it really is the stand out part of the game as each track stays true to the game's ambient vision and is well composed.
So why wasn’t I relaxed when I played Osmos?
Well in the end it was the surprisingly difficult and hectic gameplay. The game is basically built around Sir Issac Newton's Third Law of Motion that "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." So in order to move in Osmos, the player must jettison matter from within his or her own mote. If you eject matter to the left of your mote then your mote will move right, to go left you eject matter from the right of your mote, and moving up and down are the same as well. By rapidly ejecting matter you turn more quickly and ejecting larger amounts of matter will result in your mote moving more rapidly.
What this all means in terms of gameplay is that there’s a level of strategy when playing Osmos. You see there are other competing motes of various sizes, and if your mote is smaller than these competing motes touching these will get then result in you being absorbed and its game over. This flOw like element of Osmos forces you to constantly contemplate on how much matter you should release when trying to meet the games objectives. If you release too much, then your mote will be too small to absorb anything; release too little, and the mote simply won’t move fast enough.
When the game starts out this is fairly simple and easy to carry out, as your objectives are usually just becoming the largest mote in the game world. These early levels really fulfill what Osmos set out to do in the first place, which was to relax the player and put them in a Zen like trance. The reason for this is that they give some room for the player to experiment in but not too much room where you feel the game world is void of action. However as Osmos introduces more objectives like being forced to collect certain motes that are more maneuverable than you, and various barriers, such as enormously large competing motes, things get overwhelmingly hectic. There’s a lot to avoid and a lot to think about and deal with, and this just clashes with the ambient vision for the game. Some of the latter levels of Osmos are just insanely difficult! These latter levels just feel cramped and are a complete stress to try and accomplish. Sure you have to option to randomize levels if you find yourself stuck but the sometimes unmanageable difficulty seems to always be a constant when using this option.
With these harder levels Osmos puts a larger emphasis on the other mechanic that you have in you control: time. Players have the option to slow down time to try and keep expelling matter to a minimum. Also Osmos doesn’t have a timer period, so the game rewards patience and diligence when playing these harder levels. However even with the time control mechanic and no arbitrary time limit breathing down your neck Osmos still has a significant number of lulls in its ambiance.
In the end you won't find any twitchy mechanics, frantic timed objectives, or overwhelming macho music here. Osmos invites you to relax, grow your Pac-Man like amoeba, and enjoy the atmospheric electronica, and if that’s your type of cookie then you might be fully enthralled by Osmos. However be prepared to be frustrated and constantly replaying the same mission types when you delve into what Osmos really is. While it may appear to be a relaxing experience players are going to have the patience to work past the more than occasional frustration that Osmos has in order to fully enjoy the game.