Your perception of indie games differs a lot depending on the circle you run in. If you are a ranty “games are art” fop like myself, you think that the numerous new ideas introduced through the indiesphere are responsible for the continued evolution of gaming. However, if you are a person who doesn’t spend their life typing longwinded arguments on the internet for money, you probably think that indie games are kind of all the same thing and have never really evolved since Braid. There was a joke that I heard at PAX East a couple years back at a panel about game development: “How do you make a successful indie game? Make a puzzle platformer and paint is a shade of quirky.”
And to this I say, hell yeah! There’s so much you can do with a platformer. Arguably the most archetypical video game, Super Mario Bros. is a platformer, and we have been innovating on that for decades. Why not explore that design space? We are nowhere near done with it.
I have never been so validated in my convictions as when I played The Pedestrian, the recent release from Skookum Arts. At its core, The Pedestrian has the same DNA of every other puzzle platformer. You’ll push crates, flip switches, avoid death traps, and so on. But it’s the very concept that surrounds this core that makes The Pedestrian like nothing we have ever seen before.
In The Pedestrian you play a symbol. Specifically you play the male or female symbol that you might find on traffic signs, warning signs, and bathroom doors. You begin your life as a doodle on a whiteboard which, oddly enough, seems to be a plan for the very game you are playing. However, you then wander off to explore the great big world, making your way through factories, subways, cities, and more. You do this by jumping from sign to sign, doodle to doodle, and that’s where the game gets interesting.
The most central mechanic of The Pedestrian is the ability to zoom out and move signs around. You can connect them, one to another, via drawn on doorways, ladders, and other ports. You can then resume control of your symbol and move around a platformer world that you essentially created. This alone is enough to make The Pedestrian one of those games that innovates on the puzzle platformer formula in a way that makes it beg for a play. However, it keeps remixing this formula time and time again, and that’s where the real value of The Pedestrian lies.
You see, the world of signs and doodles and the real world seem intrinsically linked. Open a gate on a sign and you’ll open the gate in the real world that the sign was referring to. Flip the controls on a doodle of train controls and the train itself will rocket off to another station. By manipulating your environment like this you can freely travel the giant world of humans as a circle on top of a crudely drawn body made of tubes.
Some of the remixes introduce new mechanics specifically in the doodle world. You’ll find yourself overlapping signs to pass between holes. You’ll find yourself connecting signs up to power supplies to generate power inside the items depicted on the signs. There’s even a segment where the game becomes full 3D, forcing you to play a 3D puzzle platformer at the same time you play this 2D one. All of this is on top of the normal bells and whistles you’d find in puzzle platformers like jump pads, keys, moving platforms, and the like.
The Pedestrian also proves that presentation can make or break a game. The signs and doodles you wander through are very simplistic, but the real world you wander through is beautiful. It feels alive, from busy city streets to rain soaked rooftops. At the same time, it feels like you are in a world of giants, scrapping to get one inch closer to an undefined goal as the big wide world moves around you. You never quite get a sense of perspective like when you teleport to a doodle on a napkin stuck in a sewer drain.
And the soundtrack is just amazing. It’s filled with a wide varying score, ranging from atmospheric ambience in a deserted subway, jazzy beats on the city streets, and soaring orchestral productions as you jump from sign to sign on the rooftops. The soundtrack is adaptive too, much like Untitled Goose Game but to a lesser extent. You’ll hear soft and gentle versions of whatever track is playing as you zoom out and consider where to place signs to make progress, perfect for thinking. However, when you go back into platforming mode, the soundtrack picks up becoming more energetic, and swelling to a crescendo as you figure out the solution and make your way to the next level.
Yes, The Pedestrian is “another puzzle platformer.” But that’s OK, because if anything it proves that there’s still so much room to play around with in this genre. It may not have anything deep to say, this isn’t an allegory for war or depression or whatnot, but it does make you feel something deep. You’ll genuinely smile whenever you hit the “Eureka!” moments that come with solving puzzles, but you’ll also have the same grin on your face whenever the game lets you sit back and mellow, taking in your surroundings as you complete more simple puzzles and platforming segments between major levels.
I’m going to say that again. This is a game, where you play as a symbol you’d find on a bathroom sign, with no story, that makes you feel things. If that doesn’t scream indie hit to you, I don’t know what does. Frankly, if the indiesphere keeps churning out puzzle platformers like this, I’ll be happy if the genre never dies.
(P.S. Always keep your eye on the background because you might find some cute little jokes thrown in along the way.)