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Cool game, disappointing story

This review is from the review blog Dragon Quill. The original review can be found here, and it is appreciated if comments could be directed there, just so I can keep track of comments all in one place.

Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass is an RPG by Kasey Ozymy, the developer of A Very Long Rope to the Top of the Sky. It's clear that the developer learned a lot about game design in the intervening time; Jimmy is actually fun to play, with challenging battles that never feel like brick walls or games of roulette, as well as a tight and intuitive set of tools and mechanics for you to play with. It also just doesn't bother with elemental effects, which I thought was a nice bit of streamlining. There's a ton of content and it's honestly a steal at $15, so definitely pick it up if you're in the mood for a jRPG.

(Don't bother with the postgame, though. It just throws you against the exact same enemies and bosses from the main game with literally no difference except bigger numbers, then caps it off with a really tedious battle that's a total crapshoot followed by you effectively winning halfway through but having to continue punching your way through mountains of HP anyway. Save yourself the time and just look it up on YouTube.)

Unfortunately, story-wise, the author decided to dive into a completely different genre, and his inexperience in that area is very stark. The premise of the game is that it all takes place in the imagination of Jimmy, a young boy -- and because it's a world of his dreams, it's also a world of his nightmares. To the developer's credit, this is not your typical "looks cutesy but is secretly SUPER EDGY!!!" affair: the story does genuinely oscillate between horror and truly lighthearted segments, and most of the horror elements are relegated to the edges, which I thought was very fitting -- to confront Jimmy's repressed fears, you have to go searching for them. It does a really good job of making it feel like the horror is intruding on Jimmy's fantasy, and that he's actively trying to push it back.

My issue is that none of it really goes anywhere. The horror elements are all flash and no substance -- or if there is substance, it's so vague and opaque I can't find it. Individual areas are very well-designed, but they don't seem to add up into any coherent whole. Supposedly, the horror levels are meant to give us a psychological profile of Jimmy via his worst fears, but I couldn't find any consistent thread that paints any meaningful picture beyond the most banal, superficial, and obvious reading. I wouldn't mind this so much if the horror levels were just window dressing, but they're not. The main story is one of those infuriatingly obtuse plots where everything is ~up to your interpretation~, right down to the ending itself, which explains absolutely nothing, not even what the Pulsating Mass is. The horror dungeons feel like they're supposed to be vital pieces of the puzzle, but trying to use them to read into the main plot feels like grasping at straws.

More details to follow, with major spoilers, obviously, but I will say that I don't think the spoilers will ruin the game for you -- the plot's strength is in the characters and areas, and like I said, there's not even a big ending reveal to spoil in the first place.




So as you probably guessed from the title, this is Yet Another Sad Cancer Story. Except we don't actually get to learn this until the endgame and it's never explicitly confirmed.

My only reaction was... seriously? That's it? The most banal, trite, cliche, dead-horse twist in indie games people constantly complain about? That's what the author thought justified this elaborate game-spanning mystery? That's what we get for all the time and effort spent going through all these vague hints with a fine-toothed comb? I just feel cheated of my time and effort spent piecing together this jigsaw puzzle only to find the picture was what I already knew but hoped it wouldn't be from the beginning.

This is something I've seen way too often in video game plots, especially indie ones. Everything is all flash and no substance: people love showing off a SHOCKING TWIST!!! and then the game just... ends. But that's not a story. What matters is what you do with the twist. "The cute kid has cancer" isn't a story, it's a premise. (A genre, actually, if we're being totally honest.) What makes those stories interesting is how people relate to and cope with the cancer, because those are the unique human experiences that can make a meaningful narrative.

There are parts of Jimmy that... look like they're getting into that, but they're all incredibly vague and stashed away in the most secret of secret areas. And they're not even complete scenes -- probably the most galling example is that there are secret areas where you can hear quotes from what are presumably the real world, but they're not even complete sentences, they're one-sided conversations with multiple words cut off by static. So, our key context needs key context. I don't know how the author expects anyone to piece together anything coherent from that.

This story would be much stronger if we were explicitly told this was about cancer from the start. Throughout the game, I was too distracted asking the question of "What is the Pulsating Mass?" to pay too much attention to the symbolism throughout. I assumed the symbolism was all going to be in service to that reveal. Instead, the symbolism is actually where the real story is, but you need the ending reveal to know what lens you're supposed to see it through. You need to go through the whole game a second time to figure out the interesting parts of the story -- how do Jimmy and his family feel about this -- and that's asking a lot of your audience. It would have been much more considerate if we were given that lens at the start and went in knowing this was a symbolic puzzle story. As it is, knowing this is just another cancer story, I'm not invested enough to do a deep reading.

There is also the issue that it's hard to tell whether any given symbol is important or not. As I already said, the horror levels feel less than the sum of their parts.

Here's what I think is the starkest example: the final dungeon of the third arc. For reasons I won't get into because they are pretty much the only legitimate spoiler here, Jimmy has complicated feelings towards a kid's show he used to love. For the climax of the third arc, he goes into an imagined version of the kid's show that proceeds to go through the painfully cliche sequence of everything being initially bright and cheery before transitioning into horror and gore everywhere.

(What really gets me here is that the "dark" Hug Monkey's design makes no sense. The point is that it hugs you, something that requires two arms. So why is it holding something? Does it put the head down before it hugs you? And this is without even getting into the silliness of something holding its own severed head in the first place. I don't know why so many horror designers think that's scary and not ridiculous.)

So, on its own, this is perfectly adequate as a horror level. The progression is well-paced, there's a lot of detail to the graphics, and even though I think the Hug Monkey is dumb I do actually like the other monsters.

But the problem comes when you try to slot this into the greater narrative. What is this supposed to tell us about Jimmy, psychologically? Why is he scared of his happy place being corrupted by gore and violence? That has absolutely nothing to do with shame and guilt, the neurosis this arc revolves around, or the greater narrative with the Pulsating Mass. It's just a painfully generic horror trope. You could reasonably do a thing where this specific nightmare is relevant to the character, but I don't see any evidence for that here.

And all the horror levels are like that. They all just revolve around a single common fear (the powers from The Magnus Archives would have a field day with this kid) that is then never brought up again and never seems to matter at all. They don't even really make sense, really -- why is a kid confined to a hospital bed scared of falling, or of the earth swallowing him up? Occasionally they will tie into the cancer theme, but it's often a non-sequitor tacked on to the end of a generic horror level. All this tells us is the little kid is scared of scary things. And in other news, water is wet.

Late in the game, we do learn that Jimmy watches horror movies with his big brother a lot, and the example movie we're shown does tie into a lot of the more generic horror dungeons, implying that he was scarred by the experience -- but like, seriously? That's the big reveal this was all building towards? Little kids get scarred from watching age-inappropriate movies? Once again, water is wet. This tells us nothing, it means nothing.

I feel like a lot of this is the medium holding it back, too. Making everything revolve around combat pens you in to very specific types of horror, ones that revolve around monsters and violence. Not only is that nowhere near the full spectrum of horror, it's a brand of horror actively undermined by a power fantasy RPG. The monsters aren't scary when I know I can beat them and that there are no consequences for losing anyway. I think the only horror dungeons that actually unsettled me were the beehive and the crow's nest, and that was because the monsters looked like they were suffering. Everywhere else, I just thought "this is really weird/cool", not "this is really creepy". I actually ended up being excited to find new horror dungeons just because they were so much cooler than the normal areas.

...Can't think of a good transition here, but I'm also gonna talk about representation talk real quick, because the developer's said he was concerned about it: A lot of people seem bothered by the only major female character being the mom and the healer, but I actually think Helga is fine. She's far from just a mousy background supporter -- she's very lively and extroverted, and drives a lot of the plot in the early sections. I actually thought she was a nice take on the supportive mother -- she's a beacon of light to everyone, not just to Jimmy, and she's clearly happy being herself as well. I also thought the detail of her being so optimistic she's literally immune to status effects was really cute.

do take issue with the only other playable female character existing only to fulfill Jimmy's weeaboo uncle's waifu fantasy. I know the point is supposed to be that it's Jimmy's naive view of things and he doesn't realize why it's problematic, but that excuse doesn't cut it if you're concerned about representation. The point of good representation is to challenge unseen assumptions. If you have to read into the story to find that challenge, it does no good for the people who really are totally uncritical of the waifu fantasy -- people will see what they want to see.

I was also bothered that
the boy mouse got to have a fun adventure fantasy but the girl mouse got horribly murdered when she tried to do the same thing.

...So, in sum.

I could be totally wrong about all of this. There could be some brilliant subversive narrative underneath it all and I'm just too dumb to see it. But as the Lingering Eye says, if I can't see it, it may as well not exist. When a story leaves everything up to interpretation, people are naturally going to fill it in with the most cliched options, just because that's what they've been primed to expect when they see these hints. I'd much rather the author just display their clever ideas for us to appreciate clearly. That's why I read stories: to be exposed to other peoples' thoughts and perspectives. If I wanted to come up with my own interpretations, I'd write my own story.

I will give props for the lovely art and music, though. It shows really impressive dedication that every single area has a unique track, down to the most minor of pitstop towns, and that helps give every area a unique charm. The enemy designs were delightfully creative, and I laughed out loud at the fire spell animation.


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RMN's Official Reviewmonger
This review is well written and you did a fine job articulating your opinion. On that grounds, I'm approving it.

However, if others take issue with what's written here, I ask that everyone please keep it civil.
Thanks for your review; I always like to read your thoughts. I don't really want to explain the story; I kind of hate how that kills discussion, and it's pretty patronizing. So, if your takeaway from this is that you're disappointed in me as a writer, then that's valid.
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