Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Indie Spotlight: Auditorium

Normally, I focus on AAA titles on this blog, simply because they take the biggest chunk of my gaming time. I don’t just play those, however, and from time to time I get my hands on a nice indie title or two. Indie games are interesting not only because they tend to be cheap, but also because they often contain new ideas that the big name franchises are too scared to try. Today, I’ll have a look at Auditorium – one of the titles featured in the indie bundle I highlighted on Tuesday.

Disclaimer: I have been asked by the game’s developers to provide feedback on the game and I’ll happily do so. I have no further relationship with the developers, material or otherwise, and the only influence they had on this post is encouraging me to write it in the first place.

Auditorium is, in the developer’s words, an audio/visual journey about the process of discovery and play. The goal of the game is to redirect streams of colored particles into equally colored receptacles. Filling up one of those causes a tune to be played and if you activate them all at the same time you complete the composition and can advance to the next level. The combination of the sounds and the stunning visuals of the flowing particles is quite entrancing in its simplicity.

It looks even cooler in motion.

The player steers the flow of particles with a variety of tools, a small selection of which is available in every level. Some essentially generate wind, blowing the particles in one direction or another, some speed up particles that pass through them, reverse their direction, or change their color. The player can modify size and placement of these gadgets in order to direct the particles directly to where they are needed. Certain level elements can complicate the process. There is a black hole, for example, that will suck in every particle that gets too close to it and there are rings that change the color of particles that pass through them in almost every level. The challenge of each level is to find the correct positions for the gadgets given to you that allows the particle stream to fill up each and every receptacle with the right color.

The image above should describe this well. The red stream coming from the top right corner gets converted into a yellow one and pushed to the left where it crosses a yellow receptacle, gets converted to pink, and hits a reflector gadget. The returning stream passes through the pink receptacle and then gets pushed to the top left by the same gadget that did the original left shift. A third gadget pushes the stream downwards again, through the yellow receptacle and uses the reflector gadget once again to activate the final sounds.

Physics engines seem to be very popular for casual games these days, as exemplified by games like World of Goo and Crayon Physics. Auditorium is no different, the developers used a very simple simulation of particle flow, invented some ways to modify said flow, and added sound and visuals to create an appealing game. What really impressed me was that the game doesn’t need to give the player any instructions at all. Everything is intuitive to use and the functionalities of the various gadgets can simply be found out by putting them in the way of some particles and observing the results. All gadgets and obstacles are introduced one by one in what you could call tutorial levels at the start of each act. You simply get a gadget, a receptacle or two and a stream of particles to try the new element out on.

But enough of the praise, the game has quite a few issues as well. For one, it’s a very small game, even for an indie title. Not a real surprise there, the times in which two guys in a basement could push out huge game titles are long gone. Auditorium is of decent length with its fifteen acts of four to seven levels each, but there isn’t a whole lot of variety to those. Both audio and art assets are severely limited in scope, and especially the audio part gets quite annoying after a while. When you’re creating what feels like the same few simple tunes over and over again, they tend to get on your nerves. That gets even worse when you are stuck on a level for a while and only hear some elements of the same tune until you finally figure out how to complete the puzzle.

I would have wished for a more dedicated integration of the audio element in the game anyway, it is called Auditorium after all. As it is, you can play the game with sound turned off and it will in no way influence your ability to solve the puzzles, it will only ruin the atmosphere for you. If they ever want to turn this game into more than a small indie title, the developers must find a way to actually include the audio into the gameplay mechanics. Maybe they could have receptacles that play tunes that don’t fit into the overall symphony and must be circumvented in order to solve the puzzle. They could also include a free-form stage that allows users to compose their own music & visual representation from the assets included in the game anyway. The concept of the game seems very well fit for a sandbox mode, but all we get is some relatively rigidly designed levels.

Sure, most levels can be solved in a variety of ways which is very cool and in my eyes a must-have feature for puzzle games days. The levels still limit the player to a very small selection of gadgets however, and it is very rare to find a level that doesn’t actually require you to use all those gadgets to complete it. Speaking of gadgets, some of them can be really annoying. While most are straight forward, some of them are quite unpredictable and turn an interesting puzzle game into a game of fiddling with positions and sizes of gadgets until you have found just the right calibration.

Disentangling a mess like that - not fun.

One gadget, for example, essentially acts as a source of gravity, pulling passing particles towards it on constantly declining orbits. The gadget is very useful when trying to circle particles through multiple points of interest while using only few gadgets. The issue with this particular tool is that it often needs to be combined with other gadgets to be really effective, and that is a fiddly task indeed. I prefer my puzzles to be solved in my brain and expect the game’s user interface to facilitate the translation from my brain to the screen. In the case of Auditorium, I often found myself knowing the solution but being unable to implement it because it just took too much fiddling to do right.

Auditorium stores small screenshots of how the player solved a particular level, but fails to take that concept further. Why not store wallpaper sized screenshots for me to use, or maybe even exporting my solutions as a screensaver somehow? The game generally does very little aside from ushering you from level to level. As much as I generally dislike achievements, this game needs something to both string the individual levels together and make them more different from each other. Sticking with the musical theme, one could add some thematic connection to famous composers. Ending an act with, say, Beethoven’s Fifth surely would be more rewarding than some generic tune. Or how about some video game music, if classics don’t get you the right audience? Many video game tunes are especially designed to be loopable, which would make them a perfect fit for the game. Hell, make it cheap and find some aspiring young musicians that would die to get their name out there.

Overall, Auditorium is a fun little game if you need something to play in a break. It runs in your browser, which is a plus for everyone on locked down work computers. There’s a demo on the website, so there’s really no reason not to go and try it out. Until midnight EST you can still get the indie bundle with Auditorium in it for only $20, which is fine. Whether getting the full game for $10.99 is really worth it you’ll have to decide for yourself. Me, I didn’t get $11 worth of gaming fun out of the game, especially not when compared to other $10 casual titles such as Plants vs. Zombies or any of those cool deals you get in digital distribution these days. At $5 I would give out a full recommendation, but as it is I can only encourage you to play the demo and decide for yourself. If you have some disposable income though, supporting indie developers with clever game concepts is never a bad idea.

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