Back in the infancy of the Internet, there was a content website called New Grounds, which was the place to go to both see and experiment with a new type of online animation system called Flash. New Grounds is still around, as a site, but I’m not quite sure they maintain the same cultural relevancy they had in the late 1990s. Flash is no longer the easiest and most efficient form of Internet animation, and even if it was, Youtube serves much of the same purpose that New Grounds served (even using Flash to stream video at the beginning), but only requiring us to give Google all of our information in exchange for unlimited space for our videos about pasta.
I bring this all up because while I was playing Ballistick, a stick figure action game, I felt like I was a teenager logging onto New Grounds to see whatever new, overly gory Flash video someone had made.
Ballistick is a short, but fun side-scroller exclusively featuring stick figures which die in overly graphic ways as you kill them. The game is broken up into about ten missions, which require you to infiltrate a multi-level office complex or warehouse and achieve some objective, such as planting explosives on computer terminals or killing everyone in the building. Some levels require you to maintain stealth throughout the entire mission, while others give you the option between stealth and going in guns a-blazing. There’s a surprising amount of depth within this simple-looking game, and I was pleasantly surprised. Though the game only took about 3 hours to beat, I felt like the entire experience was extremely satisfying, and really, that’s all I ask for out of these things.
That said, I actually want to talk a little bit about rules, because the rules of Ballistick confused me at first. While it uses a lot of action-game tropes, it doesn’t stick to any of the rules long established by those tropes, and there’s part of that I find pretty charming. Let me give you an example. We all know what “stealth” means in a video game. We hide behind walls and stalk our enemy. We get ready to sneak up behind them, but before we do, we scan the room real quick to make sure no one will see us as we grab our target and choke them out. I probably described a million different stealth games, because for the past few decades, those have been the rules of video game stealth. Ballistick, however, chooses to play by its own rules.
While you still sneak up on opponents, you essentially have two states: hidden and not-hidden. If you are “hidden,” it doesn’t matter where the enemy is, they will not see you. Additionally, if you step out from “hidden” to slit someone’s throat, as long as you both start and end the process hidden, no one will see you. I literally hid behind a vending machine and three enemies walked toward me. I simply stepped out and knifed each one, with no issue. I even stepped into the hit box of one of the guys and I knifed the guy in front of him, and he still didn’t notice.
I mention this because about half of my playthrough of Ballistick was miserable, as I kept trying to adhere to the stealth rules as I knew them, which usually led to my death. While the traditional rules of stealth in Ballistick are more forgiving in some ways, they are much more severe in others. Enemies rarely leave each other alone long enough for a stealthy kill. Other times, enemies will sporadically turn around, so if you come out of cover to try and sneak up on an enemy, chances are they will spot you and kill you. Again, once I knew the rules of Ballistick stealth as outlined above, none of this was an issue. But, until I figured all of that out, I found most of the levels kind of impossible.
It got me thinking, at least briefly, about rules in video games in general, and how often we just kind of accept them for what they are without really thinking about them. All video games are just a series of rules, executing one after the other. And a true masterpiece is a game that manages to make all of those rules work together in such a seamless way, that the player is unaware that they are following a set of rules. I don’t know if Ballistick would fall into that category, but I found it fun enough. And any game that pushes me into an observational thought, no matter how simple or underdeveloped it is, is one I have no problem praising.