Sean Hogan and Jon Kittaka
Can top-down dungeon crawlers be scary? Anodyne is a creepy Zelda-like trip through the subconscious
You approach a hooded figure standing outside of a massive temple. “Soon your skills will be put to the test,” he tells you. “In order to make it through this temple alive, you will need both strength and intellect. And I assume that by this point you’ve found a weapon?” You swing your weapon dramatically; you’ve used it to dispatch a fair number of foes already.
“...Yes, of course…a broom! Er… Just as was foretold in The Legend…”
A clean sweep
Anodyne is a top-down dungeon crawler for PC which follows the adventures of a white-haired human named Young. It’s a Zelda clone at its core, commanding you to explore a tiled map and labyrinthine dungeons and temples, all of which are inhabited by various fantastical enemies. You use the arrow keys to move, C to interact and attack.
Were that all Anodyne had to offer it wouldn’t be noteworthy, but Anodyne makes the experience a creepy and downright scary one that makes it stand out. When big-budget sequels fail to terrify, it’s a pleasant surprise to discover just how scared you can be of tiny sprites.
Young is told at the start of the game that he is about to wake up, but considering the surreal and often haunting nature of his surroundings, it’s not clear that he actually has, or ever will. The first time you meet the aforementioned hooded figure, he introduces himself as the Village Elder before he warns you that an Evil Darkness threatens the Legendary Briar, and will use its power for evil unless you can reach the Briar first.
Interact with the nearby statue however, and it will read – or state, it’s not clear – “The Village Elder in name only, for he is neither.” A girl who comes across Young shortly after he sets out on his quest doesn’t seem to know anything about a Darkness or Briar. And then there’s that broom. What sort of hero uses a broom?
Other unsettling moments pop up from time to time as well. A man sitting alone in the wilderness will babble on about things that don’t make sense. As you cross under a bridge, a human figure will creep up on you, only to fade and disappear just as you can turn to look at it. The game’s sound design is the strongest facilitator of Anodyne‘s sense of dread and unease; the ambience and music give off an air of suspicion and danger, with ugly chords and disquieting, unnatural-sounding synthetic pings.
It all adds up to a game where you’re not sure who to trust, and you can’t be sure of what’s real. It’s also finely-tuned in the game play department, with tight, accurate controls and a lengthy seven hour story that can be extended into the teens if you want to grab and collect everything.
Anodyne was created by two students, Jon Kittaka and Sean Hogan, both in their final year at their respective colleges. Hogan started work on Anodyne last summer, before he met Kittaka and the project became a duo effort. I asked the two men what it was like to create a unifying piece of work, and how they explored its themes.
“Before I was involved with the process, Sean had already come up with the skeleton of Anodyne‘s world. He had a sense of the themes of the different areas and how they fit together,” Kittaka explained. “The game is structured around different kinds of fears and insecurities, and I worked around these themes and tried to bring my own thoughts and experience to bear when creating the dialogue.”
Kittaka explained that some of the game’s quirks were also inherent in creating a retro-style game, which could add to the dark and mysterious tone of Anodyne. “We tried to imbue the world with the sense of strangeness and mystery that a lot of old games did really well by not over-explaining the world and the plot,” Kittaka said.
I asked the duo what other lessons had been taken from older games and manipulated to fit within Anodyne. The Zelda influences are obvious, but why pick that series of games? They’re not known for being as creepy and unsettling as Anodyne is.
“Part of it was definitely that I was just curious as to what could be done with Zelda elements, and that the design challenge would be something tractable for me at this point in my game development experience,” Hogan told me. “I think in the end, and as we fleshed out world design and game design more concretely, the Zelda formula played well to the contrast inherent to areas in Anodyne. That is, it feels very natural to be met with a large, hostile dungeon, having to be on guard and keep your mind active, and then later contrast that with a more passive walk through a friendly area.”
And the title of the game? An anodyne is a painkiller, a numbing drug. I asked what significance, if any, there was behind the naming choice. “[Anodyne] could describe a literal painkilling drug, something merely soothing, or something so innocuous as to be bland. To me this speaks to the difficulties of making a game that is thoughtful and that speaks to the human experience but that is also an entertainment product, which doles out rewards that may not correlate to anything that the player as a human being really gets from the game,” Kittaka said.
“Are entertainment experiences a necessary drug to deal with the darkness and monotony of reality or are they bland experiences that don’t challenge us enough to matter? And how do we unlock the potential for games to be more than either of those things?”
Anodyne‘s plot touches on these elements by making you question. You’ll question Young, his choice in weaponry, his seeming allies, his environment, all of it. We’ve already seen the Zelda formula help someone tell a story about Tourette’s Syndrome; would it be so strange to have it make us unsettled and cause us to question the game itself?
If nothing else, Anodyne is fun, well-crafted game that deserves exploration. You can check out a demo on Newgrounds or buy it direct. The game is $8 during its release sale, after which it will cost $10.