REVIEW: Pillar

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.

Pillar - Screen2

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.

  1. Pillar marks the first XBLIG I’m reviewing that I didn’t actually buy on my Xbox 360. The game is also available on the PS4 (at a higher price), which is the platform I played it on. Sacrilegious? Perhaps. Supporting indie games on all platforms? Probably. 
  2. You totally should ‘lose’ on occasion, as some of the sequences that occur after you fail are worth a look, and give you even more insight into a character / personality. 
  3. Nothing groundbreaking, but completed puzzles (a la Braid) do offer some enlightenment (and trophies in the PS4 version). 

10 thoughts on “REVIEW: Pillar”

  1. Shoot, after reading the blog post, now I feel mean…

    I have mixed feelings about the whole pricing thing on XBLIG.
    On the one hand, I empathize with the developers and believe that, considering the sheer amount of work that goes into their games, they should be able to price their games to reflect that. After all, $5 is still a very small amount of money, and I like to support the indies as much as I can.
    However, on the other hand, “perception of value” is a very strong force. It’s something that, as humans, we use constantly when participating in any commercial transaction. As a way of assessing the monetary value of something, comparing prices is an incredible useful shorthand. So it’s natural that when looking at an XBLIG, we compare it to other XBLIGs.
    I’m with both you and ImTheMetalLord in that it’s a real shame that the $1 price tag became the benchmark for XBLIGs. Yet, at the same time, it’s been very much part of the initial appeal. Knowing that you’re risking so little to explore such a grand experiment (which is in a lot of ways what XBLIG has been), has made “diving-in” so much easier.

    1. Nah, don’t feel bad about it. I just included that to kind of remind myself of how much work some Devs put in (Hell, even a Team Shuriken game takes some doing). I’m guilty of sticker shock as well, but I’ve moved past the $5 point. That is to say, I have no qualms about the price, but I’ve still got to point out that it has very little chance of making a dent in the XBLIG market.

      You guy are perfectly reasonable in your actions, and again, I put the blame both on MS and the sketchy Devs for the so-called ‘race to the bottom’ of pricing. It ultimately hurts the developers that do care about their games and their legacy, even if it helps out our wallets.

  2. I was with you till I read “ala braid”.

    I do understand the price point better now but don’t expect it to sell well on the Xbox 360.

    Just not my thing however at any price point honesty. At least not from what I read here.

    1. Yep, not on the 360, at least. That price point is pure poison to sales, no matter how great a game might be.

      The Braid comparison might be more pronounced than that single mention, too. There’s a heavy ‘Jonathan Blow vibe’ throughout, from the art to the idea itself. No doubt he’s been a heavy influence on Michael Hicks’ design. I’ll just stick to saying that it’s more of a personality test / art project. The game’s not going to be for everyone, that’s for sure.

  3. Hrm… sounds intriguing.
    I’m going to have to give the trial a go first though, to see how I get along with the puzzles. Having recently tried to play Catherine, which had an interesting concept, but in which I ended up hating the puzzles, I’m a little wary about these kinds of things at the moment.

    1. Actually, Catherine is a very good example. I didn’t like the puzzle-climb in that one either (especially towards the end), but the story / cutscenes made up for that. Plus, you know, because Atlus. 🙂

      Pillar has a nice idea and style, just like Catherine, but it went overboard with the six, seven, eight rooms of puzzles in a row. And with no story or much explanation to help soak up that frustration, except for the story / explanation you create on your own, there’s no real motivation to see it through. Even then, I kinda wanted to explore its nooks anyway, but not everyone is going to feel that way.

    2. Well, after playing through the trial I still wasn’t too sure whether to pick it up or not. Then I saw the price… any XBLIG at that price is going to have to convince me it’s a “must have”, and this one hasn’t.
      Shame really, since I generally like to explore games that are a little more “out there”, but I just can’t justify this one to myself.

    3. Completely understandable. After seeing it on the PS4, I knew it’d be the max cost on XBLIG (actually wasn’t too sure if it would even show up on the service, but I was pleasantly surprised). After reading the blog post accompanying the release, I had no problems with the price. It’s easy for us to forget the work that goes into game design, and I really, really wanted to like this one, but the bottom line is the bottom line; is it worth a player’s time? Here, it’s a coin toss, and that’s assuming you like these types of games in the first place.

    4. It’s sad that they even allowed developers to sell games so cheap for indie games. It’s created a precedents that is very hard for developers to overcome on that console. They are doing things much differently on the Xbox One and not saying this game is “X” type of game. (Indie, Arcade, Game on Demand) so the developers can charge what they deem is fair. And even hold sales at lower prices. It was a good experiment that taught a lot of people a lot of things including programming but that precedents drop the expectations to get a lot for your buck.

    5. @ImTheMetalLord: Yep. That, and it didn’t help that plenty of developers viewed XBLIG as a dumping ground for half-finished, quick one-off games. You play one too many Team Shuriken / Silver Dollar games about tits, and anyone would lose hope / abandon the service. Who’s going to take indie games serious when you’ve got to try and dig through all that crap to find the good games, let alone pay more to take that chance? It’s too late to change course now, but MS and the Devs are both to blame for the pricing issue. They are doing better on the XbOne, though.

The Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s