Ask any college professor and they’ll tell you that it’s the narrative that drives the medium – whether it’s a novel, movie, or piece of art. The same holds true for the games industry, and in most of these cases the narrative is driven by spoken dialogue or lengthy exposition. It’s been something of a growing trend in the gaming industry, what with the next generation of console wars battling for the best frame rates an the smoothest graphics, and illustrating those achievements through cinematic cut scenes that would rival any Hollywood blockbuster.
Norway based, indie developer Moondrop has changed what we know as the modern form of the video game narrative, dialing it back to a more simplistic – but no less beautiful – method. Using elements of the traditional shadow box or shadow theatre, an ancient technique that originated in southeast Asia, and combining it with the colored beauty of a classic stained glass window, Moondrop has created a puzzle game that really deserves more credit than to just be called “a game.”
Amphora is a journey through a traditional story of love and perseverance, taking its visual medium to task as the story is conveyed without a single spoken or written word.
We’re all used to the silent protagonist and their abundant over-use of the ellipse (see also: every JRPG ever), but Amphora is different. There is no dialogue whatsoever, not even the hint of a silent conversation by use of the aforementioned ellipse. Neither is there any kind of dialogue box walk through or tutorial. The thing is, Moondrop has created such a successful visual style that spoken or written dialogue just isn’t necessary and, indeed, would be a detriment to the overall experience if it were there.
The story opens very simply, introducing you to the experience that Amphora will provide over the next few hours. The tableau is a child’s room, a crib to the right and teddy bear fallen on the floor to the left. The sound of a cooing baby reaches your ears among the haunting and seductive music of some far away land. The colors are warm and vibrant, the atmosphere calm and peaceful. An amphora (fancy word for urn) sits in the middle of the floor, a wispy tendril of smoke rising from it and ending in a clawed hand that might be more at home in a child’s nightmare.
You are the creature in the urn. Never once was I under the impression that I was some terrible, evil monster, though. As I directed the hand to pick up the teddy bear and place it gently in the crib, much to the delight of the baby inside, it was apparent that I was some kind of protector or benevolent spirit, here to guide the child on whatever journey was about to take place.
As the screen fades in a swirl of gentle smoke, the baby’s bedroom is replaced with a new tableau, and a new simple puzzle to solve – help pin the laundry on the line while the mother spends time with the little girl, who’s grown since last we helped her with her teddy bear. These early levels are short and simple, depicting a gentle, carefree life; but they are absolutely captivating in their memorable style of the stained-glass shadow box.
The ambient music by freelancer Paal Solhaug that plays throughout integrates seamlessly with the visual design of each of the levels, sometimes fading to allow the quiet chirping of the night crickets to be heard, other times swelling and growing with the drum beat of the invading army.
Progressing through the story, watching the child grow into a young woman and helping her fall in love, opens up new abilities for you, the urn spirit, to use. You can manipulate objects with your hand, as you did with the teddy bear in the opening scene, but you can also right-click to drag a thin string, what reminded me of a line of dewdrops on a length of spider silk, to which you can then hang other objects on, or connect two objects so that one exerts a force on another. Over time, that silky dewdrop will evolve into a tougher chain, able to hold heavier objects, to a sturdy, thorny vine.
Though the urn spirit posses these powers to manipulate the world around it, it does have a limiting factor, similar to a genie in a bottle. As you approach the limits of your reach, an opaque circle will appear in a radius around the urn, indicating you cannot reach any farther than that point and must therefore use your power in some other way in order to manipulate the object that’s outside your sphere of influence. This forces you to sit back and take a wider look at the scenario before you.
While the puzzles themselves have relatively simple solutions – particularly at the beginning – you will encounter a point at which it will take you a few tries before you solve what Moondrop is asking of you. I found that at about three key places I had to stop an evaluate what task the level was asking me to accomplish before I could then go about figuring out how to solve said task.
As an example (warning: slight spoiler!), one scene opens to reveal the front half of a large sailing ship, with a man hanging over the bow with a spear poised to throw in his hand. There is a dock off to the right with another spear on it, and a block of ice floating in the water in front of the boat. My initial impression was that the man was fishing for the ice. So, after a few attempts to simply throw the block of ice onto the ship, which I succeeded in doing but did not get a level clear indication, I had to take a step back and think. Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with anything, and a quick visit to the Amphora Steam community told me that I was supposed to pull the ship off the ice it was stuck on – something I hadn’t even noticed at the time. Once I knew that bit of information, it was easy to realize that I needed to hook the boat off the ice using the extra spear and the ice block for additional leverage.
Those periodic set backs will definitely happen, but as to how long you’ll get stuck will depend on your powers of observation and your determination to try any strange solution that pops into your head. Solving the puzzles was never the issue, but figuring out what the end result needed to be was the tripping point. Even so, nothing was so complicated as to be hair-pullingly frustrating, which for the puzzle genre is a welcome relief. The satisfaction of realizing what needed to be done was immense: a sense of accomplishment is always a welcome feeling.
If anything, where Amphora falls a little short is in its length. Steam clocked me in at around six hours to completion. That time was spread out over the course of about three or four days, but in the grand scheme of things that’s not a lot of time to enjoy all the visual beauty that Amphora offers. While I understand that, at some point, games like this need to end or else they risk being abandoned and never finished – and obviously indie developers create on a very limited budget – Amphora seems to fall on the short end of short. It also doesn’t have much in the way of replay value, though I suppose you could try to think of different ways to solve certain puzzles (since I know for a fact some of my solutions were not the intended ones), some of the levels don’t really have alternate methods to solve them. Once you know… you know, and there’s not much else after that. But this could be to its credit – wanting an experience to continue on far beyond the finishing point is hardly the worst criticism you can make about a game. Better for a game to end and leave you wanting more, than to outstay its welcome.
The wordless narrative is compelling, and it’s easy to become heavily invested in the life of the young girl you’ve known since infancy, to help her fall in love, and to save her family as war and turmoil come to their doorstep. I’m impressed with the level of emotion that Moondrop was able to put into their tale, and also with the number of times I simply sat back and drank in the stained-glass tableau — it is truly a gorgeous experience.
Visually and aurally, Amphora succeeds on a grand scale. It could be one of the simplest and yet most visually stunning games I’ve experienced in a long time. Musically, the ambiance is both subtle and powerful, eliciting visions of both the ancient East and a far away fantasy land. Where it falls short in length – and while at times the challenge of figuring out what problem the puzzle was asking you to solve before you could even begin to solve anything proved frustrating – the issues were minimally detrimental to the overall experience of playing. Amphora truly is a unique and successful experiment in game development, and I hope to see more out of Moondrop in the future.
Now out of Early Access, you can pick up Amphora on Steam for $13.99 and I highly recommend doing so. I would be hard pressed to find a game in all of 2014 that has resonated so powerfully, and done so without uttering a single word.