Some games are easy to quantify. Call of Duty, for example – what era is this one set in? How many guns does it have? Which out-of-work Hollywood actors did they get for the zombie mode?
Other games are more difficult to describe and even harder to critique. Take Bokida, a first-person puzzle/exploration game built from a concept originally made as a student project (Portal, anyone?). Judging by first glance, you could describe Bokida as a sparse, minimalist and basic game set in a mostly empty open environment with little direction – and you wouldn’t be wrong. But the act of actually playing Bokida tells a completely different story. Once the game gives you the four basic tools with which to progress – build, cut, push and clean – the vast and plain vistas suddenly become playgrounds for experimentation and freedom of movement. The simple-looking puzzles reveal themselves to be genuine opportunities for creative problem solving. Even the uneven pacing, which would threaten to undermine similar games, inevitably proves to be an exercise in player agency – although some might appreciate the lack of direction less than others.
Found the DYEGB office on Google Maps!
Bokida opens with a lovely-looking cutscene to set up a story that I’m sure means something, but for me ultimately fell flat, but thankfully it takes a back seat to the pure act of playing in the world. After this, you’re quickly given all of the abilities that make up core gameplay. The most important of these is your ability to freely build cubes, Minecraft-style, on almost any surface. Your other abilities then allow you to manipulate these blocks, perhaps by changing the shape of a cube by slicing it in two at an angle, or by smashing it into little pieces. Most puzzles simply involve you building these blocks to fill in gaps, slicing them to redirect beams or just making platforms with them to reach higher areas. Without giving away any surprises though, the game will soon start throwing concepts at you that are at times pure genius. These are the highlight of the game and in a design choice that I usually attribute to the best internal work from Nintendo, the best ideas are discarded as quickly as they arrive, keeping the puzzles feeling fresh throughout.
These puzzles exist largely in small pockets of Bokida’s open environment, and so the bulk of the game is spent searching for them. The game world is decently sized, and from the outset the player is given no direction or order in which to progress. Coupled with initially slow-feeling movement, this can drag the pacing down in the beginning. However, it doesn’t take long for the game to throw a few new movement options at you that radically transform the basic act of getting around. Again out of desire to not spoil too much, these new abilities feel wholly unique to Bokida and the game deserves high praise for so confidently letting players forge their own paths through otherwise very static environments.
Take that, Donald!
But what lovely environments those are. Forgoing technical wizardry in favour of a minimalist presentation allows Bokida to shine through, with expert use of imagery and colour that not only looks beautiful but improves gameplay by subtly leading players to their various goals. Being able to see the ominous, black monoliths that are central to progression from clear across the world is a far more exciting prospect than being funnelled towards or hoping to stumble across them. The basic visuals also mean Bokida runs wonderfully on almost any hardware – my mid-range gaming notebook managed to pump the game out at full 4K resolution with no issues. Disappointingly though, the options for visual tweaks are virtually non-existent and the game suffers from some serious screen tearing with no in-game option for V-sync. Even more frustrating in my playthrough were the rare but nonetheless distracting visual bugs and the common and frustrating crashes that I experienced. Your mileage may vary in this regard but I was engaged in Bokida enough that having the game force-close on me multiple times was very jarring.
And so, here I find myself still trying to put into words the way that Bokida makes me feel, and how to best describe it to anyone interested in dropping money on it. Which brings me to an important point – as of writing this, Bokida goes for $17.99 USD on Steam (about $25 AUD). Despite how much the game deserves to be recognised for its thoroughly intelligent and self-assured design, it’s ultimately quite basic and brief (a few hours for most), and definitely still feels more like an experiment than a fully-fledged game. This makes it easy to praise but harder to recommend to most gamers as a purchase. If you have a keen interest in visual or game design, or desperately want something very un-AAA, go for it. However, for everyone else – there are more fully-featured, but traditional, experiences to be had in the genre.
Bokida is a unique and mesmerising slice of experimental entertainment. The relaxed pacing and freedom of movement make it a refreshing palette cleanser between this year’s bigger, more focused releases – but the price of admission for what is ultimately a very niche offering, and the distracting technical issues, make it harder to recommend than it could be.