Puzzles and platforms hark back to the glory days of gaming, when Mario and Sonic were the order of the day. Or was that just nostalgia? Regardless, they were big, mean worlds bursting with pitfalls, traps, and conundrums, but these realms nevertheless had wonder and personality in spades. They were strangely impossible play spaces, so very different from the grim mimicry of reality that’s so often the case today. Pid is a puzzle-platformer in this same vein: an innocent frolic through the surreal; a light, endearing tale in which a little boy travels through a peculiar land in order to find his way home; a story in which the plucky young protagonist must triumph over a world hell-bent on stopping him.
‘Little boy in a big mean world’ can be seen as a standard motif in indie platformers of today. Memories of Limbo are still fresh in my mind. Limbo took the idea to its logical extreme with a wide-eyed, innocent character contrasted heavily against the punitive monochrome world around him. Similarities between Pid and Limbo might not be overt, but I believe them to be apparent.
Firstly there’s that contrast between character and world. In Pid I play as Kurt, an affable young boy who has fallen asleep on the bus and needs to get home. Kurt explores a world unfamiliar to him, home to giant citizens who resemble inelegantly constructed robots. These citizens are intrinsically apathetic and lazy. They lounge about in the background and few stir to help Kurt on his journey home, or later as he attempts to discover just why the planet’s transport system has come to a halt. They are adults, then, in Kurt’s eyes. Slow where he is quick, boring where he is interesting, and indifferent to the world around them where he is eager to explore and advance. They have been part of this world so long that it’s long ago lost its magic.
The platformer has often been a celebration of that infantile sense of wonder and exploration, reinvigorated by giving the player something new to explore. They throw ice levels and lava levels at us, and take us to deep space and back again. Pid, on the other, hand tours me around impossibly large kitchens, libraries, and ballrooms – mundane locations made fantastical by Kurt’s tiny size. Pid gives us a world, not quite unlike our own, and reignites the wonder. Of course it helps that the world of these lethargic robo-adults is suitably interesting, and it’s the distinctive palette on display here that helps cement Pid as a world worthy of exploration. Beautiful pastel colors are the order of the day, with the constellation of stars that act as currency floating toward Kurt with a beautiful pearly aura. Pid is lustrous and light: a childlike play set in color and tone.
Elsewhere, there’s contrast between Pid’s happy-go-lucky setting and its mechanical difficulty, but it’s a contrast a shade too stark. On his travels, Kurt quickly gets access to a special beam that allows him to drop up to two gravity wells. He can throw them on walls or on the ground, and later he can fire them via a slingshot. He gets bombs to throw and single-use items to hoard. Most of the puzzles in Pid are solved with Kurt’s gravity wells, a satisfying series of conundrums conquered by placing the wells in just the right place, to serenely float a key, or a box, or Kurt himself to the right part of the environment. That the environments, lovely as they are, are often of sadistically difficult design is where Pid’s charm begins to wear thin.
Pid is an acronym for Planet in Distress, a reference to the lazy robo-adults and their predicament, but also to the often distressing layout of the planet itself. Soon enough, tiny robot turrets will be spitting out rockets from the left, right, and above, turning Pid into something more akin to a bullet hell game than a cheery platformer. Spikes begin to line the walls and the player must become a master of Kurt’s movements, within the gravity wells and outside them. However, it doesn’t ever seem that Pid can deliver the dexterity of movement that much of the level design demands. Instead of enjoying the game’s breezy visuals and eclectic jazzy music, I quickly became frustrated. Perhaps I could learn to rationalize this as another metaphor for the tiny child in an adult world – frustrating, uncompromisingly difficult, with a steep learning curve. As a piece of embedded narrative, with a setting and atmosphere to match, Pid would succeed. As a game, with alarming spikes in difficulty among its satisfying puzzling, it doesn’t quite manage it.
At one point in the game I’m trapped inside a maze. It’s pitch black, save for a few sparsely placed light bulbs. They emit a dim glow, allowing me a glimpse into the blackness. Floating from beyond is the sound of a saxophone, playing a slow, mournful melody. This image, frozen and suspended, is utterly beautiful. I’m stumbling through the darkness, over walls and down slopes, using the sparse light from my gravity wells to see what’s around me. All the while that saxophone plays. The man playing that sax is a native who has long ago given up hope of leaving this maze. I stumble on, though, getting frustrated by hidden spikes. This is annoying, but that saxophone keeps playing, and I won’t give up and stay stuck in this maze like that grown-up. Eventually I succeed, and while I shrug off the experience as overly difficult and trying, I don’t begrudge it, because it was, in its own way, quite beautiful.