The Puzzling (Mis)adventures: Volume 10: Monochroma Bridge
Video games – and platformers in particular – are usually characterized by their vivid colour palettes, but there's something deliciously dark and brooding about black-and-white backdrops. Following in the footsteps of Limbo are two new puzzle-platformers that largely forsake the use of colour. Monochroma and The Bridge are very different games, but both provide rich atmospheres, and compelling, cross-genre gameplay. But be forewarned: though their settings may be black-and-white, their stories are anything but.
Looking at it, it’s easy to (incorrectly) classify Monochroma as a derivative Limbo clone – after all, it features a dark atmosphere, a purposely limited color palette, and is a methodical 2D side-scrolling jaunt through a foreboding, unwelcoming, somehow askew world that’s as intriguing as it is off-putting. But this would be short-changing the game, as Monochroma does several things that make it more akin to other recent games, combining disparate elements to create a competent game in its own right, though falling short of becoming the same sort of instant classic as its older puzzle-platforming cousin.
Looking beyond the graphics, the first game that came to mind when playing Monochroma was Starbreeze’s 2013 game (and our 2013 Adventure Game of the Year) Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. In a similar vein, Monochroma is a game about two nameless brothers (one older and physically stronger, the other more fearful and less resistant) who must make their way through a stark, industrial landscape, surviving traps and overcoming puzzling obstacles along the way. However, this is where the comparison ends, as Monochroma only gives you control over the older of the two siblings; early in the game, the younger brother takes a spill and evidently hurts his leg, making him unable to walk on his own. Or stand. Or even crawl, apparently. It is up to Older Brother to carry Younger Brother on his back whilst making their way home… or wherever it is they’re going. (I was never quite clear on this point.)
Essentially, the first half of the game is one big escort quest. Older Brother is required to carry Younger Brother almost nonstop, which restricts how high and far he is able to jump. To solve the game’s environmental puzzles, Older Brother usually has to find a well-lit spot to place Younger Brother down, as he appears to be afraid of dimness and shadows, and will refuse to relinquish hold unless in direct light. This improves Older Brother’s mobility to run, climb, and clamber his way around the area, seeking to remove an obstacle or open up the way for the two to move forward. Usually, Younger Brother becomes endangered at some point during a puzzle, requiring you to think of ways to solve the puzzle and keep Younger Brother safe. For example, pulling a lever may open a door to proceed to the next area, but will also set in motion the conveyor belt Younger Brother has been placed on, slowly sliding him toward giant interlocking gears to be crushed to death.
Interestingly, I most enjoyed the sections during the second act of the game when it ditches this escorting mechanic in favor of a more straightforward, solo puzzle-platformer approach. Triggered by the brothers becoming separated, this section stood out by offering a clearer purpose for progression – Older Brother cast as rescuer rather than babysitter. It also established a bit of a bond between the two siblings, beyond the shepherd/human baggage relationship they shared up until that point. Equally as important, from a gameplay perspective, it puts the spotlight on overcoming the actual obstacles rather than tediously scooping up, moving, and depositing finicky Younger Brother over and over again.
The puzzles themselves are all integrated into the fictional world Monochroma inhabits; my immersion was never broken due to out-of-context logic puzzles. The difficulty of figuring out how to proceed is generally fair, though I admit I did have to consult an online walkthrough in one instance in which I simply couldn’t see the forest for the trees. All the solutions are “right there”, without any tricky pixel hunting or inventory management required, though they are as industrial as the world they’re set in, and sometimes require figuring out how a piece of machinery works, which levers perform what action, etc.
Speaking of seeing, Monochroma’s visuals are one of its strong points. Highly stylized, the game limits its use of color, depicting the world and its characters entirely in grayscale, the only exception being the color red, which stands in stark contrast to the drab surroundings. The visual pop of a blood-red scarf fluttering in a colorless scene cannot be overstated. The developers have carefully picked and chosen where to insert these color flourishes, and they’re often used as a motif in association with the game’s antagonists: a mysterious man who is after the brothers, and a nefarious corporation, identified to players only by an imposing letter ‘M’.
It’s these antagonists that provide the impetus to move forward, as the ‘Younger Brother is hurt’ idea is never greatly capitalized on. Fairly early on, the brothers become the target of a brutish man, who looks like a cross between Puppet Master and Freddy Krueger, as they unwittingly stumble into his lair in an abandoned warehouse, becoming witnesses to a disturbing secret. Having now seen too much to be left alive, they find themselves mercilessly hunted by him for much of the remainder of the game. At times, it becomes a heart-stopping struggle to solve puzzles on the fly with such pursuit hot on your tail, though these sections occur only at prescribed moments. Most other puzzles are free of time constraints, with the exception of those that involve other “countdown mechanisms”, such as a rising water level.
Monochroma’s story is told entirely without words, and it is left to the player to piece together what is happening based on visual cues you encounter. I really liked this approach to storytelling, as my imagination often attached incredibly twisted meanings to what I was seeing on-screen, and I’m not entirely convinced that some of it might not have been what the developers intended. In the end, the game doesn’t hold players’ hands when it comes to narrative, and leaves a few things open to interpretation.
The interplay between the beautiful yet colorless visuals and story that goes from mundane to fantastical works really well. Equally as important is the game’s sound, which is to say the tag team combination of a good soundtrack interspersed with long periods of otherwise silent atmospheric noise. It’s not that there is too little music – rather, the developers have made sure that actual songs play when they’re of most use to the overall experience. The soundtrack includes emotional pieces that highlight the overwhelming feeling of desolation in this rainy, industrial place devoid of any noticeable human life, as well as frantic selections to really amp up the thrilling moments. In between, expect to hear the likes of a gush of torrential rain, and the creaking echoes of a dark hall cast in shadow.
Despite top marks in the presentation department, a few quibbles hold Monochroma back from greatness. Most importantly, the jumping controls seem too unresponsive; more than a few times I found myself plunging into a sea of burning oil or a wood chipper because my on-screen self decided to tumble off an edge even though I had pressed the space bar to make him jump. It seems that Older Brother still runs another half step or so before actually jumping, leading to some tricky timing frustrations.
While this is something that I could usually get used to with a bit of time, Monochroma simply isn’t long enough for anything to get ingrained in my memory – most players will probably be able to run through it in anywhere from two to three hours. It’s not that the game world is small; in fact, it seems adequately large. But running from one puzzle section to another means you’ll be passing a large chunk of the intriguing world by without so much as a second glance – and it’s a world I, at times, desperately wanted the freedom to explore a bit more in-depth. Added to that is the relatively low difficulty of puzzles, which can usually be solved quite quickly visually, then take a few attempts (due to the sticky jumping controls) to achieve. Veteran gamers used to the labyrinthine logic traditional adventures are known for might actually find themselves stumped once or twice, attempting to make a puzzle much more complicated than it is actually meant to be.
Since its launch, the developers have added full controller support, though the game can be played well on any keyboard, with arrows for moving and jumping, space bar for setting down and picking up Younger Brother, and the Alt key to perform actions such as pulling levers and pushing crates. They’ve also addressed early concerns that the graphics were too dark to see vital objects and even the characters and backgrounds; with its adjusted brightness settings, the game finally does look fantastic, though certain animations, such as climbing ladders, look very spasmodic.
Monochroma cinematic trailer
Monochroma is a dark story set in a bleak world, and I love the fact that it hinted at even darker things just beneath the surface. Whereas it isn’t the hardest game you’ll find, it does present an intriguing setting, and expertly makes it come alive with great sound design. Though it has many positives, it ultimately fails to fully cash in on the emotional bond between the two brothers, casting one purely as baggage I had to lug around from place to place, while never quite sure where I was even going, other than “further to the right”. As a result, it didn’t stick with me for very long after it was over… and this is the kind of game I would really enjoy sticking around for a while.
As soon as you enter the black-and-white sketched world of The Bridge, its similarities with other indie games immediately become evident. It has the same hand drawn quality and time-reversal mechanics of Braid, the world rotation controls of games like And Yet It Moves, the disorienting illusions of Antichamber, and even some of the pretentiousness of, well, Pretentious Game. In drawing from all of these influences, however, this clever little puzzle-platformer still manages to stand apart with an identity all its own.
You play as an anonymous intellectual (with a clever nod to Isaac Newton), who finds himself trapped in a series of dream-like levels reminiscent of the Kafkaesque etchings by M.C. Escher, which have taken over the rooms of his house. On each level, you must acquire the key to the door that leads to the next area, with no other apparent motive than to move on. But in this surreal place, physically reaching your objective is always a little more difficult than it seems. The protagonist can only walk left and right (no jumping), but you can use the space bar to reverse time and the arrow keys or second joystick to rotate the whole level. This ability transforms walls into floors, catapults you over long distances, moves barriers and pushes enemies away – or pulls them in, if you're unlucky. It's the only way to navigate through the game's beautiful labyrinthine designs, where there's no up or down and corridors overlap in mind-blowing ways.
Each level is completely self-contained, and due to their limited scope there is not much exploration to be done. Initially, most of the challenge simply comes from how to get from point A to point B, but as you progress further new obstacles are added. For example, you must still rotate the level in a certain direction to move, but the key is also trapped behind a wall you need to raise by moving a sphere with a scary demonic face over a trigger. However, trying to rotate the level so the ball moves over the trigger may push you away from the key, and the reverse may send the ball towards you, crushing you in the process. In the end, it's all about timing and being in the right spot.
Other mechanics introduced in later levels are duality and gravity manipulation. Duality works by standing in certain spots marked with a bridge symbol and warping to its mirror position, usually a place that's otherwise inaccessible, where the character turns white and can only be affected by things of the same color. You can warp between these two points as many times as you want, and it's often required for solving puzzles.
Gravity manipulation happens behind the curtains of a small structure referred to as “the veil”. I found understanding the veil very frustrating, as the visual cues are not exactly clear and there's no text tutorial whatsoever. When you enter the veil, you can see your spirit floating away from your body and into some object involved in the puzzle. What does this mean exactly? Are you now in control of the object? Not really. The veil allows you to change the direction in which gravity affects the object you're "possessing" by rotating the level while your position remains locked. It's one of the most interesting additions to the gameplay, but its function can be easily misunderstood by the lack of information. A consequence of this is that I solved many of the veil levels without truly understanding what was going on, instead just randomly rotating things around. It doesn't feel very elegant.
These base mechanics support the metaphysical themes of the game, which are often referred to through verses that appear on screen during different transitions. This text often feels like overkill, however, as notions like infinity, space and time are conveyed effectively enough through the imagery and puzzles themselves, without hammering players over the head with overtly abstract commentary.
Though its narrative may be a bit too heavy-handed for my taste, The Bridge was still a beautiful and evocative experience for me. The designers paid great attention to detail in replicating the feeling of M.C. Escher with unsettling yet mind-bending illusions. Observing lithographs where stairs can simultaneously be inside and outside of a room is one thing, but playing through such an experience, walking behind a column and discovering how it slowly becomes your support as the world spins around you is close to magical.
At times it was as much fun just to stand still and rotate the world endlessly as it was actually playing. This allows time to enjoy the game’s intriguing, ominous soundtrack. There are no more than a few songs, but since the game shouldn’t take more than three hours to finish, the score doesn't really come off as repetitive – although that’s without taking into account the mirrored game mode that you can enable after finishing the game.
As the name indicates, all levels in the bonus mode are mirrored versions of their original forms, but this time, right from the start they include obstacles from late in the main game to spice them up. The majority of puzzles in the original mode are in the easy-to-medium range, with just a select few feeling like major obstacles, but in mirrored mode everything is considerably more challenging, significantly increasing the game time. This mode has an alternate ending though, like much of the game itself, it raises more questions than it answers, leaving the interpretation up to players.
The Bridge trailer
Overall, despite some minor annoyances with character movement (the protagonist seems to slide whenever the world is slightly tilted) and the somewhat annoying writing, The Bridge is a game that you'll probably be tempted to run through in one sitting as you keep wondering what the next challenge is going to look like. Its minimal story and self-contained levels may not be enough to hold the interest of more traditional adventure players, but with its slick, black-and-white sketch aesthetics and compelling physics- (and physics-defying) based puzzles, there’s an addictive quality to this mind-bending, pick-up-and-play puzzler to make it worth your time.