Let me preface this review by saying that I like Michael Hicks as a developer. He does not settle for predictable ideas, nor does he compromise on his original vision. He’s one of the guys behind XBLIG’s last Uprising, even taking part with his interesting (yet ultimately unsatisfying) Sententia. He cites Jonathan Blow as an influence (easy enough to tell in his own projects, really), which is certainly okay in my book. Video Games as a medium need more people willing to take a chance and tell a story that not everyone will get at first glance. That said, his latest, Pillar1 ($4.99) is yet another interesting project that’s lacking… well, much enjoyment.
Not that ‘enjoyment’ has to be everything in a game, but it plays a large part. There’s more to Pillar than what’s on the surface, but Pillar is a puzzle game, first and foremost. Well, a collection of minigames, I suppose. Its puzzles and its gameplay revolve around the idea of human personalities, its six characters built on traits like Giving, Enduring, Distant, Capable, etc.. There’s no dialog in the game, no written story of any kind, but there are connections and conclusions to be made. There’s plenty more to be said (and, more specifically, seen) about introverts, extroverts, and everything in between. Also the titular ‘Pillar’ itself, a supposed source of great knowledge that these characters are after.
The game takes that task and its cast seriously, letting you pick and choose freely between said personalities, even going so far as to ask you who you are, and where you are, in the game world when you continue. Each character is given an initial setup, letting you read into their personality type. One character spends all her time praying in Church, say, while another takes part in the rat race of Capitalism. One might avoid human interaction, while another seeks it out. Eventually, the game draws two of these personalities together, in order to solve a series of increasingly-difficult puzzle sequences.
Those puzzles vary in form and style. Distant / Focused uses a stealth mechanic of sorts, avoiding detection and using ‘voice’ as a distraction to lure guards (just normal people) and / or to unlock doors. Enduring / Renewing has you collecting orbs and opening life-depleting gates, while avoiding personal contact. Giving / Capable presents the most involving puzzles of the bunch, which sees you constructing and lighting various numbered lamps, using pressure plates in specific order. Regardless of character pairing, you can bypass most of the puzzles completely by ‘losing’ (which isn’t a bad idea2), but you’ll only be cheating yourself, not to mention missing out on the puzzle pieces that comprise the characters’ ‘notes’3.
The ‘lamps’ puzzles are easily the best part about the game.
Unfortunately, Pillar falls in love with its puzzles whether you do or not, throwing room after room at you in succession. Some ideas work better than others in longform, but the game would have been better-served to hand them out in moderation, rather than stretching its mechanics out to pad the puzzle count or drive the point home. Of course, you can always take a break or switch personalities, and then come back to a previous part, but the puzzles can play and feel like an extended slog anyway, in sharp contrast to the game’s quieter, contemplative moments. It seems bizarre to say this, but Pillar is a puzzle game that might be better off without its puzzles.
Much like Sententia, Pillar is a lovely idea that suffers some in its transition to videogame form. It tries to say important things about Life and about Us— and does, to an extent— but it ultimately feels flat-footed and outright dull in certain spots. No doubt the developer poured his heart into it, and he’s to be commended for it, but despite that care and lofty ambition, the end result is just not very fun or balanced. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t play Pillar. Just consider it more as a piece of self-explorative art, rather than a videogame you’d play for entertainment.