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Analysis: On  Tower Of Heaven  - It's Hard To Be A God

Analysis: On Tower Of Heaven - It's Hard To Be A God Exclusive

September 24, 2009 | By Fraser McMillan

September 24, 2009 | By Fraser McMillan
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[Retro-styled PC freeware game Tower of Heaven uses play conditions uniquely to control the player, and despite its crudeness, UK writer Fraser McMillan discovers the surprising liberty in lack of agency.]

Tower of Heaven is an unabashedly old-school title, and it’ll take no more than a cursory glance at a screenshot to come to this conclusion. Two dimensions, three colours, four buttons – it wouldn’t look or sound out of place on the chunky, yellowed Game Boy sitting in that mangled cardboard box in your garage.

Or so you’d be compelled to think. Though ostensibly gratifyingly crude and backwards in its overall design, this is arguably a sly, deliberately deceptive tactic on the part of two-man development team Askiisoft.

Tower of Heaven’s look and general feel are familiar to the point of comfort, and just as you’re sucked in by its post- retro-revival majesty it delivers the sucker punch. It’s not that this little title is tough, no; it’s absolutely brutal.

Degrees of difficulty are obviously an element of design perceived in the eye of the beholder, but Tower of Heaven is knowingly rock solid from the off. That someone can actually finish it in as little as two minutes and seventeen seconds is nigh on inconceivable to me, myself a less dextrous player who took and hour and approximately one hundred and sixty deaths to see the experience to its wonderful conclusion. Like a diamond in the rough it’s small, but makes up for that in sheer force of resistance.

Chipping away is the only option, painfully and gradually tackling stages that only once or twice commit the heinous crime of unexpected killing. Askiisoft have hardly taken the lazy route themselves in this respect – their balancing act is a dazzling one.

Spontaneous death is a hallmark of poor design, and as indicated above, Tower of Heaven is as close to watertight as it’s possible to be. To craft something so demanding is one thing, but to do so without eventual failure as an inevitability is another entirely.

This controlled equilibrium is achieved in large part by the way stages are constructed as the player character ascends the titular Tower. Each individual obstacle is candidly surmountable, but connect three or four to be conquered in a single fluid string of jumps and the test is multiplied tenfold in a manner that naturally eludes the notion of injustice.

Control is tighter than even Mario’s best 2D outings, ensuring each misstep is just that – an error in timing, a lapse in judgement or a momentary oversight. Death is an omnipresent and crushingly overbearing threat, but it’s perfectly possible to give it the slip.

All right, what have we learned so far? It’s hard. So what? True, countless old games were like that, but few to so finely pitched a measure as Tower of Heaven. Another of its myriad strengths and a similar differentiator from its apparent influences is the lack of a lives system.

What we have in its place is a time limit on each floor of the Tower, encouraging quick reactions and preparation, both in muscle memory and psychologically, for a smooth run. Most players will jump in with the knowledge that though it’s possible to reach the next stairwell unscathed, it’s by no means probable. They’ll have to take multiple attempts before each level’s intricacies can be reasonably anticipated and dispatched in a timely fashion, but these attempts are unlimited.

The absence of consequences could debatably foster complacency in the player - just guess and check, leap and perish time and again - but the roadblock of punishing difficulty gets neatly in the way.

By placing the onus on a healthy mixture of quick fingers and meticulous precision rather than one extreme or the other, there’s ample leeway for the lesser skilled player to explore the workings of each set of hurdles in an almost puzzle-like manner before taking that run-up whilst simultaneously eliminating the now redundant but weirdly pervasive Game Over screen and alleviating an irritating peripheral factor from the shoulders of speed-runners. All in all, it’s a small change, but one that powers something of a sensible catch-all policy.

By far the most striking and intriguing aspect of Tower of Heaven – and one that is hardwired to its ferocious difficulty – is the “Book of Laws” that the player is handed by the so-called god above. These dictate the conditions of play and progressively ratchet up the challenge factor.

The Book surfaces as a simple enough “Thou shalt not touch yellow blocks” rule, but the further “Thou shalt not walk left” requires a bit of lateral thinking to solve. Situations that engage the brain are more frequent than one would expect in such an outwardly twitch based game, and by the penultimate level the Laws number several, each more taxing than the last. Akin to the considered level layout, it’s the combination of these that sets Tower of Heaven apart.

The Book is unique in another aspect. We’re usually clamped firmly to this path or that by the designer, and even in self-proclaimed “non-linear” experiences we’re accustomed to having no more than dual narrative tracks, which are themselves normally restricted to non-essential aspects of the plot and can have little or no bearing on the overall story arc.

In Tower of Heaven, the presence of an in-game authority serves as more than just an excuse for excessive dictation and scripting. It’s an integral part of what little narrative there is – a god that’s watching your every move and altering the very fundamentals of the physical world around you on the fly.

It’s reminiscent of Portal’s inspiring scenario, but to an even more authoritative degree and in the context of a side-scrolling platform game. It’s a rule defined experience, but one whose rules are perpetually shifting further in favour of the powers that be.

For this, Tower of Heaven is almost more liberating than Infamous, BioShock or Grand Theft Auto can ever be. Quitting and allowing the Tower to stand forever more is a perfectly valid option should the game become too challenging. Niko will always be ready to attempt Four Leaf Clover, but this is an experience about you and your reaction to extreme adversity.

It never yields or scales down, and by walking away you know you’re allowing a potentially malevolent force to continue its doings from the top of the Tower and depriving yourself of a satisfying (not to mention very pretty) conclusion to the tale.

The player has no agency, no ability to approach it the way they wish besides either persevering or closing the window forever. This could be based on their reaction to the lack of freedom, and this is Tower of Heaven’s greatest achievement.

For once, a loss of the will to continue is just as acceptable as starting over and over, and this reveals the two ironies that define it. Firstly, attempts at each level are infinite, but refusal to accept the next shot is alright. Secondly, a complete lack of choice in the context of how to approach the game results in more freedom than any sandbox playground or half-baked moral choice ever could.

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