I may be showing my geeky roots (although given that I run a gaming blog that should be apparent), but I really enjoy linguistics — basically the study of language. Language is such a fluid thing, always evolving. Sometimes this is a curse, however. It kills my soul a little every time I hear someone use text-speak in face-to-face conversations. Abbreviations existed because we used to be limited to the number of characters in texts. Last time I checked, we weren’t limited with our words, and spelling out the abbreviation is no faster than just saying it.
Anyway… I bring this up because if you understand language, it can sometimes give you insight into a thing. For example, Teslagrad. Teslagrad is an indie game that’s been in my Steam library for a while now & I’m finally getting around to playing it. Most games try to have a catchy title that gives you a hint as to what it’s about. But Teslagrad literally spells it out for you. Many of you are probably familiar with the name Tesla, as Nikola Telsa crops up fairly frequently in gaming, & is most well-known for his inventions into electricity. But even more literally, “telsa” is a unit of measure for the strength of a magnetic field. And “grad,” as I learned by looking it up, is a Slavic term for town, castle or fortified city, & was frequently added to the end of city’s names. Therefore, in a sense Teslagrad means “magnetic fortress”.
I find this so inordinately interesting to the point of spelling it out because in Teslagrad, the developers seemed have put a great deal of attention on telling a story without actually telling a story. Aside from the title on the opening scene, I don’t think I’ve seen a single written word. Everything in the game is portrayed through action, scenery & icons.
Quite literally, Teslagrad is about a magnetic castle. The story, as told by the actions of the characters, are as such:
A baby is dropped off in the dark of night by a man who is possibly his father, given how similar they look. Years later, a man arrives with his troops to lay siege to the city. The boy is hounded by the soldiers, forced to flee his home. He seeks shelter in the strange, giant tower at the center of the town. Upon entering, he discovers strange devices that allow him to affect the magnetism of various objects to help him overcome the obstacles and guardians he faces. Interestingly, the statues & images in the tower all wear similar clothing to the man we see dropping the baby off. While exploring, the boy learns about a king who once allied himself with the “electrical wizards” who built the tower. But when the king wanted the wizards to help him go to war, a schism emerged. And while he went to war, suffering heavy loses without the wizards’ aid, they fortified the tower, built defenses, & hid their secrets. What’s more, the boy may be connected, perhaps even destined to reach the top & find what’s hidden away.
That is as much as I’ve uncovered after exploring just past the second boss. There are still questions to be answered. Who is the man chasing us, as he clearly doesn’t look like the king? Why was the boy chosen? What was he chosen to do?
Mechanically, Teslagrad is a mix of exploration & puzzle-platforming. Think Metroidvania mixed with Limbo. As you explore, you find items that help you progress through the more complicated puzzles, affecting the magnetism of various objects to move forward. Technically, all areas are open to you from the beginning, but you won’t be able to get through until you’ve acquired the right tool. As of writing this I’ve found three “abilities”: the glove (allows me to change the magnetism of objects by punching them), the boots (allows me to dash a short distance through things), & the cloak (allows me to effect my own magnetism). The puzzles get progressively… maybe not harder, but more complicated, requiring the player to learn to use all their skills in tandem to proceed. I’ve also died a lot, but not quite as often as I did in Limbo. But the game is forgiving in that each screen in a savepoint.
So far, my impressions are highly positive. The art & music is phenomenal, & the puzzles are challenging but not frustratingly so. I particularly enjoy the “show don’t tell” philosophy of the game. It gives you the tools & expects you to work out yourself how to use them. But the clues are there, if you look for them. For example, it actually shows you how to defeat the first boss in the corridor leading up to the fight. But you might mistake the drawings for decorative patterns if you aren’t paying attention. It comes across as treating the player like they have some intelligence, which can be rare in games these days.
I’m not sure how long Teslagrad will take to complete, but as I said I’ve passed the second boss, & there are two more plus the final boss. I suppose it all depends on my skills at getting through the challenges. I’m hopeful it won’t make me want to throw my controller through the TV like Limbo did.