A peaceful village surrounded by the mist of a mountain housed strange creatures. They resembled humans, but their bodies were devoid of color. Amidst their dark silhouettes, only two features stood out — their white eyes, contrasting with the darkness of their bodies, and two ears sticking out of their skulls and pointing upwards, towards the sky. Despite their uncanny look, they were creatures of peace. It all changed, however, when a kidnapper invaded and took hostage most of the citizens who dwell there. It is up to Toby, a little boy, to track down the kidnapper and discover the truth behind his reasons and origins.
This is the premise behind Toby: The Secret Mine, a 2D side-scrolling puzzle game developed by Lukáš Navrátil and published by Head Up Games. It was released on July 6th for the PlayStation 4. According to the developer, this title took inspiration from Limbo, which critics regard as one of the best productions this genre has to offer, as evidenced by its score of 88/100 on Metacritic (PC version). Trying to work with the formula of Limbo, Mr. Navrátil faced the challenge of creating an experience that would inevitably be compared to one of the most successful independent games of all time. The developer had the courage to work on Toby: The Secret Mine, but it is time to see whether their project succeeded in delivering a compelling experience that stands on its own.
You can purchase Toby: The Secret Mine on the PlayStation Store for $14.99. The game is also available for Xbox One, Wii U, Microsoft Windows, Android, and iOS.
Toby: The Secret Mine aims to tell a simple, yet compelling story. The narrative of this game shows the plight of a young boy, Toby, as he chases the kidnapper of his village. The plot begins with you walking through a simple path, until you spot the kidnapper (above), a figure that looks like Toby, but with red eyes and greater height. He holds an inhabitant of the village hostage inside a cage and flees. This brief scene provides you with the dramatic questions that should keep you engaged in the story — who is this creature? Where is he taking its hostages? Why is he doing this?
These are all questions that the game raises in the first two minutes and they quickly grab your interest as you make your own theories concerning the fate of the people from the village. Allowing you to create your own theories is one of the most important principles for effective storytelling, as stated by the author Francis Glebas in his book Directing the Story: Professional Storytelling and Storyboarding Techniques for Live Action and Animation, wherein he claims:
"Make your audience wish for things to happen and let them imagine how events might have occurred. This makes them guilty participants of their own pleasures."
With this said, the initial moments do a good job in grabbing your attention and making you wonder how the narrative will unfold. The only aspect of the introduction of this title that developer could have improved is that too much happens in a short time, without a buildup. If this scene had been longer, in order to space a little the events it displays, it could have been more effective in grasping your attention. Now that the intro has ended, it is time to analyze how the rest of the story evolves.
Score for the introduction: 8
This game does not use words to tell its story. Instead, it relies on visual storytelling (above). Through the actions of the kidnapper and the world this production features, you are meant to puzzle its story together. Considering the dramatic questions raised during the introduction and the mystery over the plot of this game, it may seem as a promising experience awaits throughout the upcoming hours.
The high expectations, however, quickly shrivel as the game fails to develop its narrative effectively through visual storytelling. The reason for this is the variation of the maps. The story begins with you in a blue and calm setting in the mountains. Then, it changes to a green environment in a forest. After you travel through the dense flora, suddenly, you face rainy weather and shortly thereafter, you are in a desert, fighting against a sand storm.
The developer did this for a comprehensible reason. Diversity in the environments of the game help to maintain its sense of novelty, thus giving you an incentive to continue playing. However, this technique does not work well in this specific case. The abrupt changes in the maps of Toby: The Secret Mine work against the overall experience, because most maps feel disconnected from the previous and without a sense of continuity in the story, you also lose your sense of progression. With this said, the game could have had a more compelling narrative, if the developer added transitions between environments, in order to allow the plot to progress seamlessly.
Inside is a game that mastered this concept, as it provided its players with seamless transitions between environments and each different part of the maps felt connected to the overarching narrative. According to the website How Long to Beat, Toby: The Secret Mine takes approximately two hours to complete, whereas Inside requires three and a half. This discrepancy in the length of both titles show that the 90 minutes that are lacking in Toby's adventure could have been employed to add more maps, providing transitions between two distinct types of environments.
In terms of visual storytelling, the world of the game is only one part of the experience. It is time to analyze the creature that started the story — the kidnapper.
Score for the narrative design: 6
This creature is the character responsible for the inciting incident of the narrative, as he holds captive the inhabitants of the village. He is also the "hook" that is supposed to keep you playing, as the game requires you to chase him down. As you make your way through the maps, you constantly see him, but the flees before you have a chance to approach. Early in the game, this helps to keep you engaged in the story, as you try to catch the mysterious figure, but this tactic loses its effect quickly, as you realize there is no way of reaching him.
The event occurs in the same way every time. You try to walk towards him and he flees, leaving you behind. Once you identify this pattern, it feels as the case of the dollar bill attached to the fishing hook. Once you get near it, someone pulls it away from you. You try to grab it again and get the same result. The consequence is that this character quickly becomes monotonous, because the way the developer used him goes against one of the principles of storytelling. As the screenwriter William Goldman claimed:
"Give the audience what they want, but not how they expect it!"
The predictable behavior of the kidnapper goes against this rule, as you repeatedly do not get what you want, while the outcome becomes expected. With this flaw, the plot of Toby: The Secret Mine quickly loses the tension it raised in the first two minutes of the experience. Therefore, the developer could have added a larger set of means for the kidnappers to appear on screen and more actions for he to perform therein, in order to make each encounter feel unique and add novelty to the experience, avoiding repetition.
Score for the kidnapper: 6
Despite being a linear 2D game, it has exploration, as you can walk through some walls that lead you to small rooms, in which you may find keys and even hostages to set free. This adds depth to the level design, as it provides you with opportunities to explore the area and, considering that many of these hidden parts are not mandatory for you to progress through the game, it gives you agency on whether you wish to explore them. These small rooms are what the author Scott Rogers call fingers in his book Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design:
"Fingers are another way of making a world feel deeper and fuller without having to build lots of complex geometry and multiple paths the player may never take… These fingers expand the life of your level and you can promote the players exploring them."
Score for the puzzles: 9
In Toby: The Secret Mine, you will constantly face new challenges, as creatures may spring from underneath the soil to try to catch you or enemies might shoot several arrows at you, among other possible events. The aim of adding these sections to the experience is to increase the diversity of the activities you perform in the game. When done correctly, this technique can add depth to the gameplay mechanics, as you need to continue learning how to master them. However, in the case of Toby: The Secret Mine this works against the experience. This occurs, because, in many instances, you have no means to tell that danger awaits. The video above exemplifies this statement. On the mark of one minute and 32 seconds, the player is walking with no threat in sight, until a sudden wave of arrows appears and give him no chance of survival, ultimately killing him.
These parts of the game turn the experience into a sequence of trail and error, in which you will most likely die repeatedly prior to discovering what the game wants from you. Attacking players without warning and without giving them a chance to survive is perhaps the biggest flaw of this game. In the puzzles, you can visually "read" the area and have an understanding of what to do. Therefore, this is what you expect to happen, but when the game breaks its own rules to surprise and kill you, it feels as if the game is cheating. This is a technique mostly associated with the genre of rage inducing games and ultimately, it causes exactly that — rage. This is an enormous problem for a puzzle game for one reason.
The puzzle genre requires you to think more than other types of games do, meaning that you exhaust your mind quickly. It takes mental resources to keep your emotions under control and our brain has finite energy, therefore, if you consume your mental "fuel" solving puzzles, that means you have less energy to dedicate to keeping your emotions in check. As a consequence, you are likely to rage in Toby: The Secret Mine after an unfair death, because the puzzles have depleted your mental resources.This is the theory discussed by Jamie Madigan, in his book Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on the People Who Play Them, as he states:
"The more worked up we get, the more our emotions have a monopoly on our mental resources. This means there's less mental energy available for things like monitoring our own intentions and controlling rash impulses."
Score for the reaction tests: 4
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO
These two elements are the ones that truly shine in Toby: The Secret Mine. Concerning the visual experience provided by this title, it cleverly utilizes the placement of the "camera" to emphasize the mood of mystery and uncertainty the game aims to develop. In certain moments, objects appear between Toby and the camera (above). This serves two purposes. It gives a sense of depth, thus making the map look larger than it actually is, while also giving to you the illusion that you are stalking the main character, which adds to the aforementioned mood this production aims to convey.
The result is that despite being a 2D side-scrolling game, Toby: The Secret Mine is an immersive experience. There is, however, another simple yet effective element that composes the visuals of Toby: The Secret Mine. This game moves away from the shadow of Limbo due to a small detail — Toby. The protagonist of the game has two ears that point upwards, resembling horns. This is a subtle element, but creates a visual identity for this title, because every time you see a dark silhouette with elevated ears, you will remember of this little boy whose name gives the title of the game.
Concerning the audio of Toby: The Secret Mine, this is another department in which this production thrives, as it works together perfectly with the visual portion of the experience. The developer put enormous effort in creating the details for the sounds of the environment. This works in tandem with the art style of the game, because most of the objects, including the protagonist, are mere silhouettes, meaning you cannot see their details. The quality of the audio, therefore, allows you to imagine these details, thus adding a part of your personality to the game, making of it a more compelling experience. This is the technique described by Katherine Isbister in her book How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design, as she states:
"A more abstract and stylized rendition of a character allows viewers to project more of themselves onto the characters, without getting distracted by specific personal qualities and mannerisms."
Score for the graphics and audio: 9
Toby: The Secret Mine is a game that grabs your attention quickly due to the intriguing introduction and the quality of its art style and audio design. While the elements that constitute the puzzles in this game are not unique, the developer excelled in presenting them in a manner that rewards you for your logical reasoning, as opposed to other games of this genre, in which you interact with every possible object hopping to obtain a result. These were the strongest elements of this title, but there were also aspects of this production that hindered its potential.
With maps that often fail to create seamless transitions between environments, the game does not give a sense of progression, while also creating a disjointed story. The predictability of the encounters with the kidnapper worsen these problems. These factors make the excitement from the introduction wither, replacing it with slight monotony.
Overall, Toby: The Secret Mine is a game that features interesting ideas in terms of visual identity, story and gameplay, but some unfortunate decisions from the developer hurt the final product. It is an enjoyable title for fans of the genre, but it does not provide a masterful journey. However, considering the quality of most of the ideas presented therein, it is reasonable to conclude that the developer, Mr. Navrátil, has talent and if they ever work on a sequel that fixes the issues of Toby: The Secret Mine, it will have potential to craft a grand experience for the gaming community to adore.
Disclaimer: the score below is the average of all the scores provided in the sections of this review, which analyzed the most relevant aspects that compose the experience of Toby: The Secret Mine.
|+ Intuitive puzzles||– Environments change abruptly|
|+ Strong visual identity||– Inclusion of "trial and error" segments|
|+ Good immersion||– Repetitive story|