Little Orpheus: On the Side-Scroller

Little Orpheus is a 2D side-scrolling platformer game from The Chinese Room. Released in 2020 as an Apple Arcade exclusive, it was ported to PC and all the normal platforms in September last year. If you’re familiar with The Chinese Room, you’ll know them for their titles Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, two epochal games which almost single handedly brought about the concept of the walking simulator. Little Orpheus is not really part of that. It’s part of a big shift for The Chinese Room – in 2017 they laid off their development team and sold up to Sumo Group, a video game holding company ultimately owned by Tencent. So there’s a bunch of changes going on in the background. Little Orpheus is also designed for mobile, meaning – you know, you can sort of guess some of the features here. It’s very simple to control, there are lots of bright colours, it’s built around short chunks that you can play on the go – all very much moving away from the classic Dear Esther experience. It’s not bad – it’s just very different. It’s more of a traditional 2D platformer, in the style of Black The Fall or Planet Alpha, both of which we talked about a few years back. Planet Alpha is actually probably a fair point of reference, at least in terms of tone. Little Orpheus is a game about a Soviet explorer launched into the center of the earth in a giant drill, where he finds jungles and dinosaurs and oceans and so on. It’s framed within this TV serial format, where each episode ends with a cliffhanger and the narrator asking ‘how will our hero escape this time?’, and then two seconds into the next episode it’s – oh, something happens and he’s fine. It’s silly and pulpy, and it’s pretty enough, but in the broad view, like Planet Alpha, it’s just not that substantial.

The plot of Little Orpheus centers around a Russian cosmonaut, Ivan Ivanovitch, who is being interviewed after his return to Russia. As mentioned, three years earlier, he was shot into the core of the planet, along with an atomic bomb – the titular Little Orpheus. Now he’s back, but the bomb is missing, and the Russian leadership want to know what’s happened. Thus Little Orpheus is narrated from within a Soviet interrogation room, as a Russian general demands answers as to the location of the bomb. In return the cosmonaut tells a long, winding tale, full of dinosaurs and wild Vernian adventures. From a gameplay perspective, the player just has to wander through each level; the tension (such as it is) sits more on the level of the framing device. How much longer can the cosmonaut keep spinning this yarn? When will the general’s patience run out?

As much as I’ve sort of soft-balled this game, as much as I’ve said that it’s not particularly impactful, I do think they have a really tidy match between narrative and game mechanic. The 2D side-scrolling platformer is restrictive – not just in terms of the range of physical actions that you can take, but also in terms of how far it allows you to get into the world. These are deeply, aggressively linear games. You can see it in the screenshot above: there is one path ahead. It’s narrow, prescriptive. You feel like you’re being fed through a machine, like a sheaf of paper going through a printer. There’s visual depth, sure – there are clouds and other bits of ice in the background – but even that feels really closely stage managed. The developers know what you’ll be seeing at any given moment. They know the perspective you’ll be seeing it from. So where developers in other games have to figure out how to frame significant landmarks or monuments (as in Dark Souls 2, below, putting a tower at the mouth of a corridor), the side-scroller deals with its environment almost more like the set of a play. It’s viewed from one direction, from one perspective. It’s a backdrop rather than a space. Generally speaking, I think that makes for a weaker sense of place.

However, in the very specific context of Planet Orpheus, that weakness works in the narrative’s favour. As mentioned, the game is built around a lost Soviet cosmonaut making up a bunch of fantasy tales about his absurd adventures below the crust of the Earth. He’s spinning a yarn, leading the Soviet general along by the nose. The linearity and staged-ness of the game fits in with the kind of story being told. It accentuates that narrative frame. And there are some really tidy narrative maneuvers as well. At certain points, the general’s patience runs out, and he confronts the cosmonaut. He demands to know the location of the Little Orpheus bomb with no further digressions – essentially asking the cosmonaut to skip to the end of the story, to truncate the game and get to the end. He wants to skip to the final chapter. These confrontations often play out within the fabric of the cosmonaut’s story. For instance, around the middle of Episode 4, The Battle of Sannikovland, the general becomes impatient. “I am bored, Ivan Ivanovitch, and sick to my teeth of listening to this rubbish.” He confronts Ivanovitch, and demands the location of the bomb with no further diversions. “I will not tolerate any more. Where is the bomb, Ivan Ivanovitch?” This exchange plays out above the visual of Ivanovitch forcing his way through a blizzard, sinking up to his waist in snow.

His hands are held up against the wind, but also against the onslaught of the general’s interrogation. What is at stake is the continuation of the story: whether it will carry on, or collapse under the general’s impatience. As the conversation continues, Ivanovitch teases the answer – “It was right there!” – before sliding back into his rambling tale: “At least, I realised it must be … because as the storm began to clear, I realised with a strange excitement and trepidation that I was not alone on Sannikovland!” As Ivanovitch brings the general back into the fiction, a cave appears on the horizon. The player exits out of the blizzard just as Ivanovitch escapes the general’s wrath. It’s not a huge moment, but it’s competent. It reveals comfort with metaphor, with the events on one level of the narrative impacting the other. It suggests that even if The Chinese Room have lowered their ambition a little with this game, their broader narrative and technical skill remains intact.

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