I’ve always considered myself to be a particular sort of gamer: the kind who loves the stories they weave above all else, and the characters who carry them. But I discovered something about myself recently—I can just as easily love gameplay too. Thanks for opening my eyes, Nova-111.
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed my fair share of games that prioritize gameplay, such as many of Mario’s difficult platforming adventures. And I’ll be damned if I’m not currently loving the light narrative structure, and countless battles of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.
Gameplay is important to me, sure. Without some element of it, there’s not much fun to be had. There are exceptions of course, as games—and a definition of fun—can mean different things, especially as the medium continues to shake expectations and blur lines. But for the most part, narratives are primarily the experiences that stay with me, which is why I was so surprised with the time I spent playing Nova-111—in part a turn-based and real-time sci-fi space action puzzle adventure.
That’s quite the mouthful of a descriptor but despite how the concept reads on paper, Nova-111 is quite easy to understand. What I love most about it is that it mixes all of these interesting concepts to challenge my ideals on what I believe games are supposed to be and my consumption of them, and channels it all into a seamless gameplay experience.
Here’s this seemingly simple puzzle game that begins with your character in crisis, in which your avatar is a blocky spaceship on the brink of destruction. There’s a very sci-fi adventure to be found, one in which space and time are out of whack but in the beginning, there’s only danger. Almost immediately, the game removed my would-be connection to a human-like character. Presumably, there’s a captain on deck of this ship which you act as but for all intents and purposes, the ship is the thing to control and become attached to.
By the end of the journey, that’s exactly what happened. I cared so much about its fate—my fate—even though no real human elements were projected unto it. Occasionally, there would be visual danger cues like exclamation points surrounding it. Cleverly, these gave the ship some personality—enemies do it too!—even if those cues were likely those emitted from crew members.
Once the ship is repaired, there’s a comforting atmospheric stillness in Nova-111’s exploration marked by a short, distinct sound byte as your ship navigates grid by grid through the colourful alien world, with every stilted movement counted as a turn-based decision. There are no real pressures and penalties for discovering parts of Nova-111’s universe at your own pace, despite the tracked statistics those auditory and visually calculated ship movements infer.
Thinking on it now, there’s a conflict here: the sharp sounds representing your decision making shouldn’t be the relaxing tones of exploration. Yet they’re calming sounds in your otherwise desolate journeys, while making you acutely aware of your lonely surroundings.
And although lonely most times, Nova-111’s accompanying soundtrack makes for some excitement. At times, deftly attributing to that feeling of being lost, and at others, crafted into a space-age, science fiction and technical wonder with adventure and danger layered in with synth and beats.
Nova-111 makes stunning use of colour palettes, but the worlds become alive thanks to its creative aesthetics. As your ship explores, the world gives way by revealing parts to its very cube like design, where the shadows that envelop it cut away in blocks, giving it a very digitized look. In later levels, there are sharply contrasted colour schemes, black and white tones with shades of greys that are dreary, sterile yet distinctly pulsing with a strange vibrancy.
Everything about this game looks and feels as though it should be mechanical—from its concept to gameplay designs—but it also subtly uses swirl and line patterns for texture, along with bold lines and curves in the environment. Adorable alien designs also help to make the worlds unique under its blocky visage. Then there’s the usage of some real-time elements which allows gameplay to flow and breaks up the game in surprising ways.
I was happy enough peeling away layers of the worlds by merely moving around, but then I encountered my first enemy. There are parts to Nova-111 where the environment reacts to your presence in real time such as stalagmites falling from cavern ceilings. Some enemies’ attacks and movements will occur in real-time as well. But then there are those that match your turn-based movements with turn-based actions of their own.
It’s refreshing planning your next attack based on enemies’ shadowing your actions. This mixed gameplay creates an interesting experience that’s an exercise in delightful puzzle solving, and at other times an intensely action-packed affair, particularly when there are a plethora of enemies or hazards surrounding your ship, forcing critical strategic thinking.
It’s inaccurate to say that Nova-111 gets by on the charm built solely on its gameplay. This mini-space adventure may not have the kind of story that’s overblown, or even new; but how Nova-111 delivers it, adds to its appeal. There are few characters that give any real depth to its story, after all they’re just lost scientists with funny-one liners there for you to rescue. Did I mention that part of your objective is to rescue scientists and find your way out of whatever strange happenings have occurred? I didn’t but that’s entirely the point of the game’s presentation. It drops you in with very limited knowledge but it doesn’t matter too much until it creeps up on you. It’s by no means a bad story but initially, it was one that was secondary to my interests as I played.
I didn’t feel pangs to find out what was going on but Nova-111 smartly dangles snippets of story-based information through the welcomed quick witted quips of the one character who did matter: Dr. Science.
Dr. Science is both a tutorial and one of Nova-111’s best assets. He is a bizarre man who hints of experiments gone wrong in deep space, but his observations merely voice many of the visual cues Nova-111 teases for a nuanced story. Even though the game gives this illusion of being light on story, it never suffers for having poor writing. The writing’s deceptively sharp, and that’s abundantly clear through Dr. Science’s lines of wonderful dialog, whether through his many obsessions and musings about his mother and sandwiches or reactions to all you encounter.
There are times he will state obvious solutions to puzzles on the space adventure which may be a tad annoying, but ultimately, Dr. Science’s companionship helped shape Nova-111’s quirky identity.
Despite my appreciation of Nova-111’s gameplay, the game’s end plot twist somewhat overturned my feelings. I know, the game went ahead and partially disproved that I couldn’t just love a game for its gameplay wholly and solely. That’s not entirely true though, as the end was so sweet a revelation—even though a tried and true twist I’ve seen before—that it didn’t completely detract from my hours of wonderful strategic plotting and enjoyment discovering uncharted territory—no, it only made my love of the game even stronger.
It’s a game that absolutely could have gotten by just on the strength of its gameplay mechanics, design, and the lighthearted commentary by Dr. Science. But, Nova-111 didn’t do that. The ‘less is more’ story telling approach gave the game another surprise to its already intriguing world. It was enough to impress me further, even though I was completely sold on enjoying the game just for its willingness to handle gameplay a bit differently from what I am accustomed to—something I greatly admire about it. Something I needed, having been bogged down lately with too many games with mediocre, or over-reaching stories to tell which have become routinely expected. It’s nice to take that break from these gaming habits I’ve formed sometimes, and that’s what Nova-111 gave me.
Maybe Nova-111 didn’t really change my mind, and I’m still that person who will prize narratives first and foremost. But I’ll always think on it fondly as being that game that even for a moment, compelled me into putting aside that mindset when I wasn’t at all expecting it.
All images, music & video credit: www.nova111.com
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