It is fitting that we ran a post-mortem item on The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom in 2008, but now in 2009 are ready to run a preview for it. The game warps perception and might hurt your brain.
What Is It?
The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom is an Xbox Live Arcade puzzle game originally created as a student project. I last played it when it was part of an independent games showcase two E3s ago. Now it's one of the first downloadable games being published by 2K Games. I was shown the game at E3 2008 and again, last week, at PAX, by Matt Korba, lead designer at The Odd Gentlemen, a tiny studio with a mission statement about making games for the "thinking gamer."
What We Saw
Korba stood at my side with impressive patience as I tried a few of Winterbottom's planned 80 puzzles. All that I played involved Winterbottom needing to obtain pies that floated in his black-and-white world. They float in the fashion of coins in a Super Mario land. Mario can just jump and get coins. Winterbottom can run and jump too. But he can also have the player record his actions and play them back in the form of Winterbottom clones. Those clones can populate the level, serving as platforms, pie-fetchers, batsmen or any other role their recorded movements render them to be. I'll explain more below.
How Far Along Is It?
The game isn't coming out until next year, so I believe there's more puzzle-tuning to do. Plus, Korba told me that people are still finding new ways to solve some of the game's puzzles. So the situation and the design appears to be fluid.
What Needs Improvement?
Lining Up: You run. You jump. You record your own guy's moves and then interact with the replayed moves, the clones or ghosts of your own actions. That's all good, but that is a design based on a player's faith that all of the clones should react to each other in a predictable manner. You want a jump of a certain distance to always land on another clone's head. You want a clone that lands next to another one who is thwacking his umbrella in front of him to get knocked back in an arc, if he lands closely enough. Sometimes, during my hands-on time, things didn't go as planned, a byproduct of either the game not being precise enough — or of being too precise to the point of not fudging things. There's an argument for a game being made to understand the gist of what the player is trying to do. Then again, easier written then programmed. Maybe this is a necessary element.
What Should Stay The Same?
The Puzzles: Each puzzle I tried was fun. A basic one had me recording and placing one Winterbottom beneath a highly-elevated pie, then standing on top of that recorded Winterbottom with another one I was directly controlling and then jumping to grab the tart. Easy. Later, I tried a puzzle (pictured here) that involved an arc of pies that would only appear in numbered sequence, one pie at a time. I had to hit a switch and then collect all of them before the switch flipped back a few seconds later. To make this work, I tried to place Winterbottoms at both sides of the arc of pies, each of the clones recorded to stand there and repeatedly flick their umbrella toward the center. Then, jumping into that with another Winterbottom, my hope was he would sail back and forth, essentially becoming the ball between two Winterbottoms playing catch. It sort of worked.
The Look: Besides MadWorld and that underwater dungeon in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, I have not played many games that were primarily rendered in black and white. This is one of them. It's even more attractively old-timey thanks to lighting that illuminates the scene in the fashion of a glowing old black-and-white movie that's being projected in a theater just a little more brightly than recommended. It's a refreshing look.
The Depth: Levels of Winterbottom clone quotas that might, say, keep you from creating more than six. Korba showed me how to beat one such challenge using just two clones. He told me that a producer on the game just figured out how to do it with one. Then he told me about red Winterbottom clones which are dangerous to the touch and are introduced in later levels. He could have gone on. I was impressed with the basic mechanic in the game and was pleased with how it evolved and changed even in just the few puzzles I experienced.
I approached The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom thinking that the game would feel more routine now that I've played through Braid, a game with its own time-manipulated puzzle-platforming.
But Winterbottom feels fresh and distinct from Braid both because of its jolly spirit and in the busyness of its puzzles. The game's challenges start as calm conundrums, but once I had four Winterbottoms knocking each other around the screen, I had a fascinating frenzy of my design. I was charmed and ready for more.