Toki Tori 2+!

Hi everyone. I know it has been quite a long time since Dust or I have posted anything. He started a company and I got really busy at work and this hobby of ours just fell a little by the wayside. I would like to get back to writing, but won’t make many promises.

That being said, I just finished Toki Tori 2+ and felt compelled to write something on how absolutely amazing I thought it was. There is so much I want to talk about in the game itself that I do not want to limit this to my usual format of picking a specific life lesson learned, but instead focus on the great aspects of the game and see where lessons fall out.

For those of you that do not know the game, Toki Tori 2 is a puzzle platformer… a devilishly hard one masked by an adorable art style. It blends two simple mechanics (singing and stomping) with a diverse environment that reacts to your actions in a multitude of ways. It requires clever thinking, keen coordination, and a lot of patience.

It reminds me a little of Fez and Braid, though there may be better comparisons out there.

It’s comparable to Fez in that the game plops you in a wide open world with very little sense of what you are doing, where you are going, and why you are going there. You are just discovering meaning as you discover the world.

It’s comparable to Braid in more of a gameplay sense. Both games find this beautifully unique balance of unlocking and understanding puzzles vs. having the skill to follow through with plans. Both games heavily lean on the prior, yet give the illusion of the latter. In either game, more often than not, if I found myself trying to bruteforce a puzzle with manual dexterity or perfect timing, I was doing it wrong. I had to go back to the drawing board and rethink the plan.

Alright, so, the stage is set, but I have one last note. One of my favorite parts of the game is pretty much one of the only things that can be spoiled. Also,  the game has an element of being a small wanderer in a vast world, so to the extent that anecdotes break the first time reaction to that, consider yourself warned. If the description above makes you want to run off and buy this game right now, then I would suggest going and doing so before reading on.

What Can I Do?

Oh man. Where do I start. I guess I will start where the game starts. Toki Tori (assuming that is the name of the bird?) flaps his wings vigorously as he gently descends to the planet. I quickly realized that the slowish falling is really all the use I was going to get out of my stubby wings. But singing and stomping… those I could do like a pro.

The first area is the usual “learn the mechanics” kind of setup. However, since Toki Tori’s lack of ability to do much of anything becomes quickly apparent, the “learn the mechanics” piece was much less about learning what I could do and much more about learning what I could get the environment to do.

In a world where I am used to jumping, slicing, shooting, switching gravity and upgrading in the games I play, this simple singing, stomping bird was pretty refreshing. It reminded me of how the spectacular things I do in life are not necessarily through spectacular actions.

Sure there are one-off instances of breaking down people’s image of mental or physical thresholds. However, every day I affect the world around me with the smiles or frowns and the volume and tone of my voice. That is what makes the most spectacular changes on a day-to-day basis.

Split in the Road to an Open World

I made it through the first little intro area, and what do I find? Sitting on the first real screen of the game is a fork in the road. It’s not the most obvious fork in the road. It is a subtle bypass to the normal path that I would imagine most experienced gamers pick up on and most first timers blissfully walk by.

This sends the message right off the bat to relinquish expectations of linearity, while also allowing an experienced bird to skip some “learn the game” paths and take on a more rocky trail.

For those that do not see the path, it becomes a beautiful realization down the road. Something that would have been so obvious with a little more understanding of our environment can at first seem so cryptic.

For those that see the path, this parallels easy road vs. hard road divergences we may face every day. The thing that is so beautiful about it, is that just like life, it’s not necessarily obvious (or true) that it IS an easy path vs. hard path decision.

I may think that this path will be harder because its doorway was a little more obscured, but there could be no merit to that thought. I have not even seen the first puzzle of the game yet. Maybe this is just par for the course (and the game’s difficulty ramps up pretty fast, so it kind of is par for the course).

Additionally, paths just keep branching from there, with little linearity related to difficulty. It depends a lot on the player and how much the player grasps different aspects of manipulating the environment or gets stuck in functional fixedness.

So after that fork, I quickly realized that I was a lost little bird wondering a vast world. The overworld map was helpful to an extent. It gave some context but shares little beyond what Toki Tori might be mapping out himself and is purposeful in the way it does not simply navigate intuitively.

The map found this little niche between being my omniscient savior, and being useless, much like my own little mental maps in the world. I go places, building connections of people and places and objects, but there is rarely the instant clarity that some maps in games provide. Rather I am left with a scattered image of only the things I saw and the pieces that impressed me.

I expand that map deeper as I build connections with more of the world I surround myself with, and only then can some of those original images gain clarity in the context of the more complete map.

Expectations: Difficulty and Tone

Expectations are everything. Well, maybe not everything, but I honestly believe so much of human emotion comes from matched and mismatched expectations.

When I pick up a game with vibrant colors, a cute little bird and amusingly adorable animations, opinions are forming. Perhaps this is geared more towards children. This brings along with it implications of difficulty and tone, both of which are broken in wonderful ways.

Anyone who goes into this game thinking it will be a chill, puzzler leaning on the easy side of the fence, will quickly see otherwise (especially if they take the fork in the path above).

But it is not hard the way Battletoads is. It builds such wonderful and complex environments that forced me to constantly rethink the way I interacted with the surroundings. Each puzzle is so unique that while some newly learned techniques may translate to help in other puzzles, I found myself always having to forget what I thought I understood and look at each puzzle from a new perspective.

It layers this complexity with the illusion of required speed and coordination. Generally, the game plays such that I could set up all of the pieces with beautiful precision and then watch it fall into place.

However, there is a lot of room to try to bring in layers of speed, timing and controller skills. Nearly every time I found myself trying to set up complex, perfect timing maneuvers, I would look back at the end of the puzzle and think, “Pretty sure I could have just put that piece there and that would have been a lot easier”.

The game’s flexibility to allow someone who wants try to do things in this flurried way is a wonderful component in and of itself though (I had so much fun with a couple of random puzzles where my methods were  complete concoctions and clearly not what I was supposed to be doing).

So many puzzles made me pause and question if I was missing some skill or something, and the answer was always no! It was just me having to break my expectations of the game and my expectations of the abilities and the environment around me.

Additionally, the game shines through with some dark elements that break the tone in a neat way. They add both moments of unexpected hilarity (if you are a klepto bird, don’t put your nest on the wrong side of a wall of electricity) and help the player accept the gravity of what is at stake on the adventure. It is both a journey to fill the disco/dubstep hall with your lost companions and also to free your land from the dark pillars terrorizing the world.

Expectations are so funny in games, because the intuitive (and often best) route to success is to make a game that is great for reasons X, Y and Z, and communicate reasons X, Y, and Z to those that would want to buy the game. Sequels are so popular because X, Y and Z is already communicated. Games that mix up the formula can get mixed reviews because X, Y, and Z are implied and people get A, B and C.

So it is a tricky space to play with. Rarely do you see games communicate X, Y and Z and deliver A, B and C and get praised for it. I think the genius of Toki Tori 2 lies within two points. 1) I knew very little about the game thus the communications were really only implied within the game, not external marketing and 2) nothing veers so off course as to feel wrong given my expectations… it’s more like I expected Xa, Ya, and Za and got Xb, Yb, and Zb.

If anyone can figure out how to positively twist expectations consistently in life, they would be a happy camper. I don’t mean trying to think you got a 40 on that test so you can pretend like you are happy with a 60. I mean truly positively altering one’s own expectations and the expectations of those around them in unique and innovative ways.

Anyways, I have probably completely altered your expectations of this game with this article so far, soooooo yeah. Hopefully you believe in the vibe the game gives you more than my words! Also, I’m curious if any younger players disapproved of the darker elements or if the difficulty was off-putting. Every person has their own set of expectations and maybe this just worked perfectly for me. However, I do think Two Tribes did a wonderful job at making a game that could appeal to anyone looking for an engaging puzzler.

Narrative With no Words

If you are playing Toki Tori 2 for the storyline, that is… unexpected. This is not the most expansive or fleshed out of stories. However, the story that is there finds meaning by hinging on the discovery aspect of the game. The game relies on leaving the player in the dark to stumble upon the story through its few surprise revelation moments.

For a game that has no words, I was surprised at how much I found myself caring for this little bird’s adventure, friends and world. More so than I ever care about saving Princess Peach. I think it comes from the emphasis on exploration and uncovering the world and with it the world’s narrative.

This reminds me of the differences between goal oriented vs. path oriented life choices and how these ideas intertwine and blend in everyone’s life. The omnipresent quote “Life is a journey, not a destination” is popping into my mind right away.

I think Toki Tori 2 does a great job highlighting how embracing the journey can be fulfilling, but at the same time emphasizes the value of stringing that journey together with goals to elevate the meaning of the journey. The lack of actual words or narration allows the player to latch on to the wanderlust, but the surprise moments that present Toki Tori with a purpose help bring direction to the sandbox we are playing in.

Even though the game ultimately plays a little like “save these creatures, save the world” it felt more meaningful than say, a classic Megaman which plays like “beat these bosses, save the world”.

Patience, Patience, Patience

This game demands patience. It is easy to get frustrated with the elements of the game. Birds snatching you out of nowhere, frogs jumping down steps that they can never get back up, legions of frogs blowing bubbles in ways completely different than intended… there will be a lot of restarting from the beginning of puzzles.

So many times I would combat failure by increasing my pace and intensity, trying to do something faster or more often until it worked. More times than not, this failed. The game was a constant reminder to pause and think. The solution was always right in front of me.

Anyways, I do not have too much to say about this, but it is definitely an important element of the game and a trait to be admired in life. So many good characteristics develop at least partially from patience. Tolerance, from the ability to have patience with and accept the ideas of those around us; perseverance, from the ability to have patience with failure; healthiness, from the ability to have patience with marginal results.

The Obstacle Course Becomes a Zen Garden

By the way, here comes the biggish **spoiler**. My favorite part of this game… *drum roll*… learning to fly! If you collect all of the puzzle pieces in the game, you unlock wings. That’s right, you can fly… ish.

Obviously, I got wings and was like, “Flying to the moon!” Well that was quickly halted when I realized that my wings could only let me hover slightly off the ground. There was a minor moment of disappointment, which quickly dissipated, as it occurred to me that 90% of the puzzles in the game can be bypassed with the smallest amount of flight.

This was the moment that I knew I had to write an article on this game. Toki Tori 2 goes from a fiendishly hard labyrinth to a peaceful zen garden with the ability to hover a couple feet off of the floor. The environment that I needed to manipulate and maneuver now just treated me like a friendly visitor as I hop around fluttering my puzzle piece wings.

The best part is that Toki Tori 2 was on the verge of being a zen garden the entire game. It found this weird balance between being frustratingly hard and being a peaceful ambling through a vast land. So when I collected all of the puzzle pieces it was like the pieces of the game were coming together to create an experience I was striving for the entire playthrough.

Pulling it back to what I said earlier, this is actually the perfect example of the journey bringing true meaning to the end goal, but the end goal also solidifying the value of the journey.

More so than the journey/goal discussion, this new found ability left me in a place reminiscing how tasks that at one point felt so challenging may one day be second hand nature. This happens so often. I talked in a previous article about how I distinctly remember financial accounting being rigorous memory. Then when I looked back on the material, it was all intuitive and just fell out from a more comprehensive understanding of accounting.

As we grow and build on who we are, who we know and what we want to become and accomplish, treacherous leaps become trivial hops. This game captures that adaptation beautifully.

Games struggle all the time to find a meaningful reward for doing everything. A simple achievement only goes so far, and what good is the strongest sword in the game if you have to beat the strongest enemy in the game to get it? Rarely does a game so successfully bring new meaning to the world that the player is ready to say goodbye to.

An Isolated World – The Wii U Experience

Harkening back to my pluses/minuses of the internet and globalization on gaming article, I would be remorse if I did not mention one more piece that made this game shine for me. I played the game on the Wii U which means 1) No achievements, 2) Distance from the community of solutions and 3) I can play the game with the lights off under my covers! All three of these things helped create the wonderful experience I had with this game.

Having no achievements was a refreshing realignment of purpose compared to many games. I was exploring because I wanted to explore, not to get recognition. Finding the hidden rose was beautiful and unsullied by an achievement to tell me I found something secret.

I was distanced from FAQs and forums providing easy solutions. There are a lot of very hard puzzle pieces to get… it could be very tempting to look things up, but that extra distance from forums helped me stay steadfast and patiently work through complex, multi-part puzzles. I was glad I stayed the course.

Finally, the handheld experience made the game more engaging and helped me become a part of the world I was exploring. Taking the gamepad under the blankets with the lights off helped me ignore my physical space and embrace the space I was exploring in the game.

Closing Thoughts

Toki Tori 2+ was a wonderful experience for me from start to end. The game reminded me of growing up. Starting in a world where reaching a couple feet off the ground could mean the most complex manipulation of local frogs, birds and insects. Then, looking back on the world and finding the same tasks are not quite as scary as they once were. Finally, finding a peaceful serenity with the world that combines all that I had seen and learned with my new found abilities.

That’s what makes the game truly shine. But be warned, getting those wings is no easy feat. You must be prepared to break out of the mold and think in new and exciting ways, have the patience to stare failure in the eyes and embrace the lovable world of Toki Tori 2!

Now excuse me while I go hover around the disco hall with my bird brethren!

Until next time, Game on and Learn on!!

~Dyl

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