Retrospective Monday: Seiklus

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Title: Seiklus
Platform: PC
Date: 2003
Publisher: Independent
Developer: cly5m

I had first learned of Seiklus a few years ago when I was over at the Hardcore Gaming 101 boards, inquiring about what everyone thought the lineage of Fez (2012) was. The topic quickly devolved into a message board boxing match (which is rare for those boards, so I must’ve really asked a bad question…), but before I made it out, someone told me to look up an old PC game from 2003 called Seiklus.

One of the main things that was brought up in that topic (aside from bloodshed) was the idea that there was an “original indie game.” While our excitable gaming media usually insists that Braid (2008) is the game that put indie games on the map, I usually cited Cave Story (2004) as the game that brought pixels and small development teams into vogue. The whole topic seems to cause an endless and bitter debate between hobbyist game historians, so I was glad to find a game that I think quells the issue.

Seiklus, which is Estonian for “adventure,” a tip I got from Wikipedia, was developed by a sole author, the somewhat elusive cly5m, in 2003, using Game Maker. From what I can gauge, this is the first time anything significant had been made in Game Maker, or any game making software targeted at novice computer programmers for that matter. In retrospect, in the history of video games, Seiklus is inevitably a big deal.

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– – –

Seiklus is a humble game. When starting the program up to play it, the loading screen is accompanied by the words “for janell,” a sentiment that echoes throughout the game, however subtle. I can’t in good taste call the game a “love letter,” because I don’t know these people, but there’s a high schoolish and innocuous frankness to the game. The game’s a note being passed around junior high between friends, complete with tenderness, dreaminess, naivety, and simplicity.

Its graphics, large, soft shapes of flat, Paint colors recalls the graphics of EarthBound (1994), and the sole review of the game on my beloved GameFAQs claims it to be “the John Lennon of PC Platformers,” (a comment that must be taken with a grain of salt) furthering these notions. There is no dialogue in Seiklus, cementing its minimalism and lack of superfluous details. The plot of the game is as follows: the protagonist, a tiny white stick figure of a man, made smaller by the colossal environments around him, is sent flying off a cliff after a meteor strikes he and a his female partner (lover, sister…?).

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In order to ascend back to the celestial world above, the protagonist must explore a dynamic underworld – there’s a plains area, a volcano, an arctic world, a haunted temple, a cave that leads into the ocean, and the inside of a great underwater creature (I’ve always liked these areas in games – here, there are these absolutely terrifying three-framed parasites) – and collect these floating fireflies that sparkle and buzz around. It is worth mentioning that the game features no HUD (with only a small inventory and map via menu), which is a design decision a bit ahead of its time.

Each area has a different colored firefly, a different essence, and the player must collect them all in order to climb back up to his heaven-like home. There are also secret fireflies, and some are very well hidden, and most players won’t even realize they exist until the end of the game, where the designer placed a few obvious ones. These final black and white fireflies are well placed here, as they inform the player he or she hasn’t found everything yet.

Seiklus immediately reminds me of Fez, another charming PC platformer. Both games feature, albeit very different, simple graphics informed by older games and both also have wonderful, chiptune-inspired soundtracks. Fez, master of the obscure meta-puzzle, seems to owe something to Seiklus, which has a number of its own unexplained, obscure puzzles and secrets.

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While the game’s connections to Fez are obvious and useful, I found myself being reminded of Dark Souls (2011) as much as anything. The minimalist narrative (as a side note: I’ve been playing through Dragon’s Dogma and while comparing it to Dark Souls, I have decided that minimalist storytelling in games is so much better at conveying stories in games) and feeling of deep aloneness are central to both Seiklus and Dark Souls, weirdly enough.

One of the elements that really makes Dark Souls great is its coherent but wildly unpredictable landscape. One moment, the player is trudging through a corpse swamp, the next moment they’re inside a giant shuddering cocoon, and then, without warning, are immediately thrust into this underground lava field hell. For as humble as Seiklus’ world is, it is as equally unpredictable and equally as exploratory as Dark Souls.

One of my favorite transitions is between the volcano area and the arctic area. Players stumble upon this featureless, retro-futuristic elevator in the midst of the innards of the volcano with no idea where it will take them. After a long, plunging moment, players find themselves in a barren snowfield. This contrast, made more extreme by the differences between the volcano’s energetic music and the arctic’s ambient wind, is incredibly mind-bending and wholly great. These transitions reflect a child’s wild imagination.

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After meandering through the snowfield for several moments, the player is met with this menacing row of unornamental black spires, with a rope above signifying to move up. What follows is a short, sticky, purple fungus area, and then a haunting series of ruins. The layout of the game’s world is original and refreshing, and feels informed by so many great games of the past.

While the gameplay is simple, unexhausting, and generally enjoyable, there are some strange design choices. My least favorite part of the adventure is the cave segment, where invisible creatures pop up out of the ground (usually placed under the floating fireflies), snap up the protagonist, and transport him to the beginning of the area. The section is not too difficult, though, and there is an obscurely hidden item which shows the location of the “clap traps.”

There is an almost Metroidvania quality to the game, as there are items to collect, a few of which aid the player on their quest. This segment takes a lot of patience, but at least one of the most aggressively happy and danceable tracks of all video gamedom plays here, “Believe in Yourself,” a chiptune masterpiece from Emax and arranged by Stalker.

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All of the tracks in the game are very good. cly5m chose a series of chiptunes from various artists, including Radix, a Rob Hubbard remix, and Jochen Hippel, and each track fits so well into the game. While maybe not on par with the legendary cult chosen soundtrack of Space Funeral, cly5m’s choices are very good and very informed and truly add to the specialness of Seiklus.

Another questionable but ultimately rewarding design decision comes in the underwater segment, where players must collect randomly appearing fireflies amidst a school of fishes. After collecting 79 of the fireflies here, the randomly appearing fireflies stop appearing in a jarring manner. There is a tunnel that is well enough lit where the rest of the fireflies are, but the arbitrary number will most likely lead players to continue searching among the fishes for several moments, as there is no real way to know that the fireflies have stopped appearing as the area is so large.

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This segment requests an unprecedented level of exploration and trust from the designer to the player, and is ultimately rewarding in its obscurity, but I do have to imagine this has confused many players. The item collected in this area makes one of the fish follow the player, which is a nice, mysterious detail.

My favorite section of the game is the haunted ruins as it is the most dense with stuff and it also features my favorite track. The first thing noticeable about the place is the flying ghost weather effect hurtling around (there is a strange, perverse fascination with these guys on the internet), and its maze-like structure. It’s a huge area with a lot of secret passageways and it takes some trial and error to collect all the fireflies. There is a sort of puzzle where the player must move a stone pillar in order to enter one of the rooms here, and I’m not positive, but I think it is possible to get permanently stuck (if it’s not, let me know!). The energy and dynamism of the area is also a nice change of pace from the sluggish exploration of the arctic level preceding it.

The track that plays here, “Driller,” which I believe is a Warwick Gaetjens remix of Matt Gray’s incredible C64 Driller (1987) loader tune, is an exceptional song (clocking in at just over nine minutes!) that combines John Carpenter’s moody synth melody in Halloween (1978), the tenacious earnestness of the Sega Genesis, and the urgency and sincerity of the moodier pieces from Final Fantasy VII (1997).

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There exists in Seiklus a sort of “post-game,” where players are encouraged to continue to explore the game’s world to find every last of the secret fireflies. Without spoiling too much, the player can find a warp ability item and then begin collecting pieces of what appears to be the moon. The post-game areas up the surreal qualities of the game’s world, introducing kamikaze hippopotami, an eerily deserted feline altar, and even a spaceship, giving the already strange game a science fiction twist. In an EarthBound universal utopian twist, the protagonist collects the pieces of the moon and brings them to a shrine in the heaven area, righting some unknown wrong before the game abruptly ends. It’s a mysterious and very humble ending, and adds another layer to the protagonist’s reunion with his female partner.

Seiklus is full of great moments, from waiting in the bird’s nest for the eagle to swoop in and carry the protagonist off (also reminds me of Dark Souls…) to sliding down the volcano side in an epic attempt to collect a strange pattern of fluttering fireflies to playing the giant, impenetrable and somewhat magical piano that opens new paths. I know I’ve said this a lot, but I can’t stress enough how humble and simple the game is, how daydreamy it is, how like an Imagist poem is it. Unlike other games with a Paint aesthetic, Seiklus actively avoids being garish and kitsch, and easily gets away with it, making it a peaceful, organized game.

While Seiklus is dedicated “to janell,” it’s a kind of universal game, platforming and exploring at its purest, and players will easily connect with the game’s archetypal gameplay and non-existent narrative.

From cly5m’s own website, “seiklus is a freeware exploration/adventure game that I made in 2003” and that’s pretty much it.

– nilson thomas carroll

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