Today I am writing about a somewhat unique take on a common indie gaming design trope: casting the player in the role of a computer program. It worked for A Virus Named Tom and it worked for Thomas Was Alone; but does it work for Vector Arcade’s new platformer prog.1?
I played through all 48 of prog.1‘s levels three times prior to writing this review (my reasons for doing so are available below as well), and I am ready to provide my assessment. The general form of my experience with the game is that I am mostly pleased with it. I enjoyed the gameplay, loved the visual design, and found the story energetic. But I also found the game light on content and had a number of minor nitpicks.
Very Positive Aspects of prog.1:
Before moving on to the details which led me to say I am “mostly pleased” above, I would like to give a fuller account of the details that prog.1 gets right. First and foremost is its visual design. The game takes place inside of a computer (narratively as much as literally), and its pixel art aesthetics are clean, simple, and digital. Each object and platform is functionally as well as visually distinct, and communicate their operations to the player immediately. A particularly nice inclusion, visually and thematically, is the use of display static as a hazard in and below the levels.
Next up is the gameplay. The single smartest choice made in the design of this game was building many of the mechanics around disappearing platforms. The small squares that vanish immediately, the large squares that turn red before being deleted, and the medium-sized rectangles that disappear and reappear when touched are the basic building blocks of the levels, and they all fit the game perfectly. The reason I think this is so brilliant is that you are literally playing as a sentient virus, and just by trying to survive through the levels you are actively damaging your surroundings; it’s thematically perfect while also providing dynamic challenges moment-to-moment.
The levels themselves, while all brief, feature rather strong design in general. In particular, the way that prog.1‘s player-character must sometimes loop back through sections vertically to get all of each level’s keys makes every piece of such levels seem very deliberately constructed. Controlling the character is very mechanically pure, with just one movement speed and just one maximum jump height (ignoring springs that crop up later into the campaign). While I initially found the single movement speed to make precise platforming a bit slippery, its consistency made it easy to adjust and get used to it.
Finally, there is the story of prog.1. I am a bit torn on this one. I like the idea behind it, the unobtrusive brevity of it, and its execution, but the writing does leave something to be desired. The dialogue, while solid performance-wise, is a bit repetitive, given that there are only two major plot events, and is a bit ham-fisted, given that it takes itself darkly serious in a way that does not seem to match up with the bright, clean visuals of the levels. Still, the reasonable quality of most of the voice acting and the images that carry the scenes save the narrative (I was reminded of the similarly corny-yet-well-executed story in the indie rhythm RPG Before the Echo).
Somewhat Negative Aspects of prog.1:
The primary weakness of prog.1 is its paucity of content. I beat prog.1, collected all journal entries I could see (think of Super Meat Boy‘s bandage trinkets), and watched all of the cutscenes—and it took me an hour (specifically, it took me 68 minutes, according to Steam). So then I beat the game again, on timed mode. I still collected the journal entries I could see, for the hell of it, but there were no cutscenes and I already knew the levels. So it took me an additional half hour. So I upped the challenge yet again, and beat the game on 100-life mode, and it took another half hour.
All told, playing through the game three times had taken me two hours in total. While there is a campaign mode that makes the game more mechanically easy (by granting a double-jump), there is no campaign mode that makes the game more mechanically difficult. I suppose I could try to beat the game on one-life mode now, but I’m not sure I have the motivation for that, as it would still leave the content unchanged, and so trying repeatedly to actually accomplish that would likely get tedious (not least of all because of the somewhat unpredictable hitboxes of the larger visual static hazards).
This won’t be everyone’s experience (as a couple of levels toward the middle offer a fair bit of difficulty, and may stretch the playtime for inexperienced players), but if you’ve played your fair share of platformers before, then my estimates are likely to be pretty accurate. Still, before getting off of this topic, I would like to clarify that I am not criticizing the game just for being short. Indeed, I am often the first to defend a game that is being criticized for being too short, and in this very series I have praised the brilliant and inexpensive brevity of games like Wizorb, Super Crate Box, and Portal in the past.
What bothers me here is not the lack of duration, but the lack of content. I enjoy prog.1 very much and I do want more of it, but I also want more to it. Aside from their core gameplay (which these three were also light on), Wizorb had its RPG elements; Super Crate Box had its unlocks; and Portal had its radio transmission achievement—as well as challenge levels and challenge modes. Essentially, those titles are short games with large amounts of content. Conversely, the best way to balance a small amount of content is with a large amount of replay value (e.g. Super Hexagon), which prog.1 unfortunately also lacks.
That aside, there were also a number of mild annoyances I had with prog.1, which I raise now with the full knowledge that this paragraph is just nitpicking. I was annoyed that the journal entries were so brief and pretentious (see below), when that would have been a great place to actually pad out the content for those players who breezed through the levels; I was annoyed that the game, despite encouraging me to use a gamepad, did not have analog movement output to match my use of the analog stick, but instead just stuck with one flat movement speed (well, two: stop or go); and I was annoyed at the fact that, while most of the music is energetic and appropriately electronic, there is one track (or at least a significant portion of a track) which drones gratingly with a noise that can only be described as electric bagpipes.
Ultimately, I definitely recommend playing prog.1. In fact, as stated at length above, my biggest complaint about it is simply that there is less prog.1 than I would ideally want, since I was enjoying the game so much. Whether there is a small enough amount to discourage you from picking it up is a judgment call you’ll have to make for yourself. But in making that decision, please do bear in mind that my overall impression of the game is most assuredly positive. As a traditional indie platformer goes (I’m not sure why the store page lists Vector Arcade’s game as a puzzle platformer, though the game has no noticeable puzzles), I enjoy playing it about as much as I have enjoyed playing the excellent platformer Electronic Super Joy. prog.1 is enjoyable to play, visually strong, moderately challenging, and quite well-polished.