Amphora is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful and unique puzzle-adventures I've played, and also one of the hardest to describe. Imagine Aladdin's lamp from The Arabian Nights, except that instead of a lamp there's an amphora (a sort of ancient urn) and instead of a genie there's a benevolent smoky presence with telekinetic powers. And Aladdin's a girl who's being protected and guided by the genie while being blissfully unaware of its existence. Add in a story of life and love and war and revenge, all told in the form of shadow theatre, and you'll get some idea of how unique this game is. It is by no means perfect – it can be frustrating at times, and the story is pretty short and not that original – but when it works, it offers some lovely moments.
Playing as the genie (for want of a better word), you act as a sort of guardian angel to a little girl, watching her grow from a baby through adolescence and on into womanhood. I initially assumed that the amphora was a family heirloom, but it turns up in some decidedly odd places over the course of the game, such as a city under siege, at the bottom of the sea, and an army training range. Perhaps there's some kind of ceramic magic going on, but it always seems to wind up where it needs to be, a bit like the Doctor's TARDIS. Over the course of the game you'll help your charge through good times and bad, happiness, love, loss and revenge; quite a broad palette for a puzzler! Without words to guide you, it's a story told in very broad strokes and it's ultimately quite familiar, but it tugs at the heartstrings nonetheless.
Events play out as a series of self-contained scenes (it seems a bit prosaic to call them levels), each representing a significant moment related directly or indirectly to the girl’s life. These are grouped into three acts covering different phases of her life. As the girl’s guardian, you must help her through each one, but discovering what exactly that requires is part of the puzzle. Unlike the traditional three-wishes-type genie, your powers are far from omnipotent: you’re tied to your amphora, for starters, leaving you a limited sphere of influence. You don’t have much of a physical presence, either, just a puff of smoke that follows the cursor. Fortunately, that’s enough to let you grab small objects (and animals), move them around and turn them. (Sadly, though, moving the amphora itself is beyond you.) You’re also able to conjure up a sort of mystical rope, drawing strands of it across the screen to link objects together. This is all handled with realistic physics, so objects fly through the air and bounce around and even your rope swings about unless you anchor it tightly.
Despite these limitations, you'll find yourself tasked with everything from giving your baby girl her dolly back, to saving her from drowning, creating the perfect romantic moment and launching ships. Under your care, she grows up and falls in love, only to be caught up in a war that threatens to break her heart. Through it all you're there, gently guiding her and keeping her and her loved ones safe.
The developers were inspired by the ancient art of shadow theatre, and the results are nothing short of gorgeous. In real shadow theatre, the characters are flat, articulated puppets traversing cut-out scenery between a light and the screen. (If you've ever put your hand in front of a light and tried to cast rabbit-shaped shadows on the wall, you've got the idea; just imagine that raised to high art.) Amphora takes this idea and runs with it, putting silhouette characters in front of a smoky, multicoloured background and layers of silhouette scenery. The characters aren't simple dark shapes, however, instead having coloured highlights that reminded me of nothing so much as panes of stained glass. Smoke is also a bit of a recurring theme here: moving the cursor around leaves a smoke trail and completing a level causes it to dissolve into puffs of smoke and fade away. I frequently felt like I was playing a painting, or perhaps a paper cut-out, and sometimes just had to take a moment to drink it all in.
The characters move like marionettes, too. Seldom has the term rag-doll physics seemed so appropriate or fit the setting so well: you can just imagine there's a virtual puppeteer below the horizon. Some of the animals can be picked up and moved around, but the people are too heavy for that (though you can pull them around and watch them bounce back into position, as if spring-loaded). It's all more puppetlike than lifelike, yet that doesn't stop you from identifying with them as people. I felt a bit like a benevolent god making sure the girl's life stayed on track.
The music completes this impression of dreamy unreality, with simple but atmospheric arrangements that are by turns serene, menacing and sad. In keeping with shadow theatre's origins, many of the melodies have a middle- or far-eastern flavour, fitting for a Japanese tea garden or a Moroccan souk. That said, there are delicate piano and harp tunes too; the developers claim the game is inspired by the "colors of the world", and they've included the music of the world as well.
The interface is minimalist but effective, introduced in stages over the first few levels. The first thing you notice is that you can’t venture very far from the amphora: try to move the cursor further and a circle fades into view, showing the boundary of your influence. Bump into that boundary and you’ll come to a stop. Within that circle, you can move objects around by left-clicking and dragging, and rotate them using the arrow keys – though beware that physics applies here too, and it gets hard to rotate something if you grab it too far from the center. Right-clicking and dragging creates an ethereal rope or chain, provided you start over an object it can attach to. You don't necessarily need to attach the other end to anything initially, though, and many of the puzzles hinge on being able to drag another object into position to attach it later. (This is one area where things got a bit frustrating: the attaching process is somewhat fussy and I initially got stuck because I tried and failed and didn't realise I just needed to position an object more carefully.) The one other thing to remember is that while these ropes are fairly strong, they do have their limits and if you put too much strain on them they can snap. (You can also cut them deliberately by right-clicking and swiping across them.)
It's to the game's credit that it manages to take such limited interaction and ring changes on it over the course of its 3-4 hours of playtime. Early on, you're able to use the rope to bind objects together, hold them down or hang them from the ceiling. Just when you've got the hang of that, though, you get a chain instead, stiff enough to build more elaborate (if shaky) structures, albeit with a definite tendency to droop. You'll find yourself performing such tasks as building an umbrella-holder for a turtle, turning a log into a device for pushing buttons, and making a frog-powered bell ringer. Many of the puzzles hinge on the amphora's limited sphere of influence, with the puzzle goals being frustratingly just beyond it, leaving you to find creative ways to get objects to where they need to be. And in case you're thinking that you can just use the game's physics to throw things around, the developers are one step ahead of you: anything you throw suddenly loses most of its momentum the moment it passes the edge of the sphere.
When things work out, this physics-based gameplay can be very satisfying; the only problem is that it can also be finicky, and I often found that working out what to do was much easier than actually putting the plan into action. One level, in particular, has you making a very long extension arm to get an object into position, but punishes you for any hint of droopiness. I was practically hitting the desk in frustration tweaking this and that before I finally managed to get the item through a narrow gap without hitting anything. In the end, it wasn't a moment of insight that led me to a solution, just luck and determination.
Sometimes, too, it can be less than obvious what you're expected to do. This is the one respect in which the story-driven gameplay can be a hindrance: your goal is defined by the story, but you don't always know which way the story is going to go. One level stumped me for ages and it was only afterwards that I realised the goal was the exact opposite of what I'd been expecting. After a lot of thrashing around trying to achieve the impossible (in retrospect) I took to just throwing things around and – lo! – accidentally did what was needed. That was the most extreme example, but on a number of occasions finding the solution was more a matter of finding things to do and doing them than working towards a goal. The logic was generally clear to me after the fact, but there were definitely times when a few words of voice-over would have gone a long way to helping me understand what was going on.
One other minor but frustrating bug deserves mention. Most of the time you can undo your mistakes: if you throw an object too far away and can’t get it back, for example, it’ll usually fade out and reappear within range, and you can cut away any excess ropes you've drawn. Occasionally, though, it's possible to get stuck and need to reset the level. Pressing Escape brings up a menu with a yellowish smoky background and from there you can choose to restart. The only problem is that if you do, the background remains in place, meaning you usually can't see what you're doing. This can be fixed by exiting to the main menu and going back into the game, but it still seems like a glaring mistake.
In the end, though, these are quibbles – rough edges on an experience that left me smiling. It's not overlong, but the combination of gorgeous graphics, soothing music and the slight but affecting story made it a curiously meditative experience – at least if you discount the intermittent bouts of frustration! It's like nothing so much as a trip to a quirky theatre: it leaves you blinking when the lights come up and not totally sure of everything that just happened, but with the definite feeling that you've experienced art and that your mind is a little broader because of it. If you're looking for something different and have the patience to see it through, the world of Amphora is definitely worth a visit.
Charming, beautiful and often satisfying, Amphora’s vague goals and finicky physics can be frustrating at times, but if you have the patience you’re in for a unique experience.