By Mento 14 Comments
Hey friendos, this week I'll be exploring games that concentrate on insects and other members of the invertebrate kingdom. That's right, the plucky arthropods that live in our hearts during the day and in our ears during the night. Insects, as any entomologist will tell you, are the most varied of all the classes in the animal kingdom; as well as being kind of icky, there's also a near-endless amount of abilities, appearances and mannerisms for game designers to play around with. This, along with the general disinclination we have towards our chitinous chums, is often the reason they're depicted as mindless antagonists in video games, commonly up-scaled a little so they're more a match for our guns, crowbars and spaceships.
However, there are a few exceptions that puts the player in the role of an insectoid protagonist, and the level design of these games often have fun with how much larger the world of humans appears to these tiny adventurers. Here's a few notable examples:
Deadly Creatures follows a young male scorpion and a female tarantula as they tear ass and tear asses across a small patch of some unnamed corner of a southern US wasteland. Ostensibly simply surviving, the pair clash with all manner of wildlife arthropodal (beetles, other scorpions and spiders, mantises), reptilian (lizards and snakes) and even mammalian (rodents) as they skulk around hunting for tasty grubs and crickets to eat. Frequently, the overarching sub-plot of a pair of hicks digging up some Civil war treasure converges with the paths of the duo, and you'll often see snippets of their ongoing tale in the distance throughout the game.
Among the game's positive traits, such as the stark atmosphere and excellent level design, is the strong variance between your spider and scorpion protagonists: The former is far more dexterous and sneaky, eventually able to scale ceilings and move around with web strands that largely focuses on the oft-vertiginous platforming half of the game. Though capable in a straight fight, she's better when focusing on hit-and-run tactics and "death from above" lunges from high altitudes. Were I to compare this game to the Batman Arkham duology, her sections more closely resemble the stealth combat scenarios Batman finds himself in whenever he reaches a room full of easily spooked goons and convenient gargoyles and wall fixtures. The scorpion, inversely, is more a combat-built tank that is able to fight pinsir-to-whatever against anything the game throws at it and will frequently brutally murder its opponents in God of War style QTEs after dropping their health low enough. His chapters generally involve more fighting and less traversal, though he is uniquely able to dig through cracked walls and explore more subterranean locales. Their paths also converge, with several locations repeated for both, though the copy/pasting feels far less egregious given the disparity between the two characters' respective skillsets.
I posted a blog about wonderful weird Wii games some weeks back, and I really feel this ingenuity has been one of the Wii's major strengths. Certainly more so than the ambivalently-received motion controls, which this game happens to use only sparingly. Deadly Creatures is definitely deserving of a retroactive placing in that blog, regardless of how creeped out you are by the verisimilitude of the walking animations.
Though a far more light-hearted take on the "insects antagonist humans" paradigm, Mister Mosquito is every bit as odd as you'd expect from the Japanese. Invested in procuring blood from the conventional if slightly dysfunctional Yamada family, your hero has to avoid the many traps they set up to ensnare it, as well as avoid their enraged attacks once they detect your presence in their proximity. Each level is similarly set-up in a way that you need to feed several times from an increasingly agitated host to have enough blood to ensure your survival over the upcoming winter. As the game progresses with the usual video game laws of escalation and difficulty curves in full effect, the humans become all the more irascible and borderline insane from your bloodsucking escapades, with things getting rather bizarre rather quickly.
Because you're a flying insect, the game takes on something of a flight sim feel as you guide your mosquito around enormous rooms full of interesting junk and attempt to stay out of the sight of whichever human the stage is focused on. Should you accidentally invoke their rage by getting spotted, it becomes a battle of attrition as you avoid their slow-moving but quite fatal attacks and dive-bomb certain highlighted "relaxation" points situated apparently randomly around their body, acupuncture-wise, to bring them down to a more serene state of being. You're also free to explore each level for various collectibles, though the best unlockables come from achieving the level's blood volume requirement as quickly as possible.
Honestly, as weird as the premise is, it's the very Japanese attitude of the game that's the cause of many of its more inscrutable elements. Like Deadly Creatures, it appears to have been made on the cheap (for better or worse) by a talented group of designers who clearly knew how to innovate.
As we're on Deadly Creatures still, Bad Mojo appears to be, in many ways, its most obvious source of inspiration. What is immediately apparent about this game, about a man cursed to wander his repugnant apartment as a cockroach, is how incredibly bleak it is. While you scurry around a series of rendered photo-realistic environments, avoiding many threats both obvious and deviously hidden, you're given snippets in the form of FMV sequences about the man, his vocation and his plans leading up to the unfortunate transmogrification, as well as delving into the life of the building's other resident; a down-and-out landlord who takes out his woes on his deadbeat tenant and appears to drink himself into a stupor every night.
The game is a mix of an action-like platformer and the more classic graphic adventure set-up; where you're given an environment and several moving parts and asked to figure out how to solve a presented problem to proceed to the next area and reveal more of the story. As a cockroach, you're unable to pick up objects in the conventional sense, instead relying on your ability to walk up walls, fit through small gaps and push very light objects. The game isn't shy about completely nauseating you either, whether it's from the quickly transitioning screens as you speedily dart around or the rather disgusting, cluttered locales full of vermin in varying states of health (or decay, as the case may be) that are generally only reserved for particularly gruesome episodes of Hoarders.
Though I mentioned the darker tone being its closest link to Deadly Creatures, both games are remarkable in how they're able to excellently weave a narrative from things going on in the background that are occasionally quite easy to miss. As you piece together more of what's going on, either through what the game explicitly provides in cutscenes or through whatever is found serendipitously via non-vital exploration, there will come a point where you can change the game's foregone conclusion to a "true" one more befitting that of someone who has taken the time to fully understand everything. FMV games often get a bad rap, with good reason, but Bad Mojo stands out as one of the few that works - provided you have the stomach for it.
So there's three games I could happily recommend to anyone who isn't squeamish about insects - and possibly even those who are - for their inventiveness, quirkiness and moderately solid gameplay. I didn't mention SimAnt, which seems like an obvious inclusion, because I haven't actually played it. Hey, we all have gaps. You might also be wondering why I didn't include Buck Bumble. This is why I didn't include Buck Bumble. I hope that clears up any lingering confusion you might have about this article, but as always questions and further examples of this sort of thing are welcome in the comments below. Thanks for reading about a bunch of bugs, I guess! Talking of stick insects (best segue yet?)...