I once read a crossword puzzler writing about his craft. He said a puzzle shouldn’t take more than an hour to complete, and he decided that because he thought they shouldn’t take more than an hour to solve. I can easily spend an afternoon and more thrashing over a puzzle, but that’s beside the point: I always liked the balance of what it suggests. One hour to settle, one hour to play. Fact.
It rarely works that way with video games, I suppose. And rarely has that been more evident than when I sat down to play Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion this afternoon. Here’s a top-down Zelda, I was told, that I might see in an hour or two. And it was true – two hours and it was done, although there was still a lot to do. I felt a little bad about it, though. I suspect Turnip Boy took a while to get established.
I have to say it now: it’s a wonderful game, witty, fun and scrupulously faithful to the traditions of Zelda. You’re a turnip with a huge tax bill, so you’ve thrown yourself into a compact world to get out of trouble.
I won’t spoil the plot, but the fun of these games is in the familiarity, I think, and there’s a lot of familiarity outside of the plot. Collect quests, adventure-breaking bosses, dungeons, mazes, items that let you access places you could see but couldn’t reach before. All that wonderful jazz.
Because I was going through all of this – because it’s a game that has a reputation for being a game to jump into – I kept thinking about the asymmetry of the relationship though. . It made me appreciate the effort that goes into this stuff again. How long to design and build the section of the cemetery, which I walked through in about fifteen minutes? And before all that, how long to imagine him in the first place, walking around doing the dishes and waiting at the bus stops with this kind of rudimentary idea of an adventure party in your head?
No one ever comes up with a great idea for the middle of a movie – it’s something I was told in college, but I still think about it from time to time. But coming up with ideas for the middle of something is just one of the terrifying skills you need to be able to make a game like Turnip Boy.
That and something more: you have to plan, I know, but you also have to let the idea run away with you in places. There are parts where Turnip Boy clings tightly to the idea of what a Zelda game should be, and times where he rushes off and seems to be imagining things as he goes, laying his own trail even as he goes. he rushes at it, like Gromit at the end of the wrong pants.
These are the kind of moments I look for in games – huge productions, even games like this that you can play in a few hours. Productions that require planning, reflection and precision. All of that, and then hopefully the odd moment of soaring invention too. That’s a lot to ask isn’t it? All of that and gone in a few delicious hours – but then remembered for weeks, months, years.