Style and Substance: “Klaus” Wants It All

My full review of Klaus can be found over at Slant Magazine. Worth emphasizing here, however, is that despite the subtle repetition of puzzles (acid and lasers operate in the same fashion; the touchpad-assisted operation of objects never gets any more complex than in the first level), Klaus is still a worthwhile game. All that industrial filler actually works in the context of the Kafkaesque story, for Klaus is rebelling not only against his corporation, but against the Player’s control, and I’m not sure that a more immediate subversion of the game’s mechanics (which doesn’t occur in earnest until midway through the fourth of six worlds) would have been as effective.

The question, then, is a matter of pacing. Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV, two obvious points of inspiration, have minimal story and are able to focus entirely on puzzle design. Klaus, on the other hand, attempts to explain things mid-game–a problem shared by Stealth Inc. 2: Game of Clones, which lost the tightness of the original’s gameplay when it shifted to a Metroidvania approach. One has to be careful with the use of story in a puzzle game, then–probably one of the reasons why Portal is still so lauded, and why The Talos Principle, which partitioned off the story, leaving it there only for those who were interested, succeeds at carrying the narrative for so long.

Another issue I had with Klaus was the breaking of the fourth wall. If the Player is a stand-in for the corporation, someone who must be rebelled against (rather than in Tearaway, where the Player is recognized as a helpful participant in the Story), then the story really falls apart. Who, after all, is the Player supposed to be? Even the true ending of Klaus doesn’t adequately explain it–Klaus may be a robot or a clone in search of sentience, but what exactly does that make the Player? Because of the sense of mystery that Klaus is going for–the main character’s amnesiac–the creator is forced to have Klaus interact and explain things to someone, but games of this nature are generally better with a visible antagonist (GLaDOS) who can keep things focused.

These, however, are big-picture questions about game development, about trends and stylistic choices within a specific genre. They’re subjective, too: the ideal version of the game that I’d like to play. Klaus is a bit inconsistent, but it’s never not a good game, even when you’re having K1 float through an aerial gauntlet for the sixth time in a row. There’s room for both style and substance, and for the most part, Klaus has both. At the very least, it’s a game I want to continue talking about, so I’d definitely recommend it.

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