Played on: PC
Release Date: July 26, 2016
Time Played (Steam): 1.5 hours
Paid: $0 (Free to play)
Dreams are weird. Well, they can be. They can also be exciting, frightening, sad, or all of the above. But they almost invariably tell us something about ourselves. Except for that one I had about Donald Trump eating a plate of pancakes. That one was just weird. Maybe I’m getting sidetracked, though…
Awkward Dimensions Redux is a short free-to-play game that takes the player through a series of short levels, each of which is meant to be a manifestation of a dream the game’s developer had. Some of the levels have small sets of objectives built into them, such as navigating a platforming challenge or taking an object from point A to point B. Overall, though, it is a linear “walking simulator”-type experience that gives you a glimpse into the psyche of a young artist. It really reminded me of The Beginner’s Guide, both in the ways in which it took me through a series of minimalistic, often abstract environments to the ways in which it used said environments to tell a story.While it’s difficult to discuss the aforementioned story without disclosing important plot points, I will say that the game feels very abstract. It’s definitely one that does not hold your hand when it comes to interpreting many of the levels, though there is an optional developer’s commentary that can give some insights if necessary. However, there were times where I found it to be too obtuse. Some of the levels really resonated with me, while others were just…odd. Maybe that was the goal. I mean, not every dream ends up making sense to us, even after we’ve had time to dwell on it. However, given the minimal amount of interesting gameplay, I feel like it would have been to the game’s benefit to cut out some of the levels that just seemed to have less to say. The ones that really stuck were the ones that I could actually interpret and thus find something within that resonated with me.
The gameplay in a game like this is difficult to analyze. I mean, in all honesty, I think that it does a good job of fitting with the style of the game. I can’t really imagine the game having significantly more complicated mechanics and working very well. However, there are still some definite problems that I can’t ignore. The main issue is the movement. The character’s movement is set up in a way that mimics that of a real person; namely, you are not able to stop mid-step. Because of this, if you, say, tap a key to go forward, instead of nudging forward, your character will take a full step forward. If you walk for a while and then want to suddenly stop, you may continue forward for a moment as your character finishes their step. In a way, it gives the game a loose, slippery feeling, almost like you’re walking on ice. I guess it could be a way of mimicking a dreamlike sense of movement, but it often just became frustrating. This is compounded by the fact that the game has a few sections that require relatively precise movements. Whether it’s navigating a short jumping puzzle or attempting to climb a rope up the side of a building, there were occasions where I felt like the lack of tightness in the controls was the only thing that was holding me back from clearing a section. In a game that focuses more on telling a story, it was aggravating to have to deal with finicky movement just to get to the next scene.To the game’s credit, it does have some interesting bits of gameplay in some of the levels. For instance, a level in an art gallery has you holding up a picture frame to reveal hidden elements of the environment. It’s an interesting twist that I could see being used in some capacity for a full game; maybe it already has been.
Unfortunately, there are also mechanics that don’t work so well. A different level rewinds time every couple of seconds, limiting the progress of the player until the game allows you to advance. However, despite the fact that it’s played out for narrative purposes, it just ends becoming infuriating. Seeing the exit to the level in sight and having to wait as the game rewinds over and over is awful, and really drags things down.
There are also some levels where the method of progressing is just unclear. Even having played through the game twice, there are stages where I can’t figure out if I’m supposed to be moving to some point for the game to progress or if I just need to stand around until it decides that I can move on. There is an option in the pause menu to skip over the current level, which is a nice feature to be sure. However, it can kind of defeat the purpose of the game, particularly if by skipping the level you end up missing some important piece of the narrative.The game uses a minimalistic presentation that can be pretty hit-or-miss. Some areas look quite nice, with the level designed in such a way that the lack of detail either isn’t very noticeable or suits the atmosphere. At other times, it can end up looking like something that someone quickly threw together with a handful of assets they made in an afternoon. Same goes for the music, where some levels have interesting compositions that add to the tone of the level, while others feature messy cacophonies of sound that were often annoying more than anything. To the credit of the latter, the confusing audio did fit with the idea of the level being a dream, since (at least for myself) a lot of dreams tend to have a muddled mess of audio running in the background. However, there’s also a fine balance between what is “realistic” and “immersive”, and what is actually enjoyable to play; unfortunately, some of the music tended to fall into the latter category.
To round out the presentation, some live-action video is mixed in; short clips bookend the game, and a few scenes play out to punctuate certain levels throughout. They work pretty well, though they are very low-quality. I’m not sure if the original recording device is to blame or if the files were compressed for the sake of the game. Either way, the videos end up being quite pixelated, and the audio can be distorted and difficult to understand.I don’t really like reviewing games like Awkward Dimensions Redux. It’s very clear that the game was a labour of love for the developer, with a number of levels featuring an outpouring of personal thoughts and feelings. As with The Beginner’s Guide, it gives the sense of having a one-way dialogue with the game’s creator, or at least getting a peek inside their head. Many levels in the game bring up themes of insecurity regarding one’s work and its reception, something that is all too familiar to me. It makes me hesitant to critique the game too heavily, because I know how much it can suck to put countless hours into a production, only to have someone outside of your creative process walk all over it.
I will say that as a short student project, Awkward Dimensions is quite well-made; there’s certainly a hell of a lot worse on the Steam storefront these days. It has some good ideas and explores some interesting concepts and mechanics. However, it’s just not really engaging enough. Playing through the game for a second time with the developer commentary on felt like a slog, and there were a few levels (such as the aforementioned rewinding one), where I literally just held down the ‘W’ key and checked my phone until the level was over. It’s a game that feels at odds with itself, encouraging the player to play through multiple times to come up with their own interpretation of things, while also being very linear and having nothing new to show on those subsequent playthroughs.While it features levels that can be considered dreams and nightmares, Awkward Dimensions Redux is neither. Instead, it’s a fleeting experience that is short enough to be unobtrusive and relatively inconsequential while having enough frustrating and obtuse elements that it ends up feeling like little more than an experimental curiosity.