If you found yourself faced with a noble quest, but knew you would most likely fail, would you try anyway? Isn’t that impulse to do good deeds for strangers despite the overwhelming odds what draws us to embark on so many video game adventures and ultimately prevail? Would you continue if success were not guaranteed?
Aeiowu’s new rolly rougelike, TumbleSeed, will test not only your skill and heroic conviction, but perhaps even your very sanity. You will have fun, but you will also suffer.
The sole objective is to move a little seed to the top of a mountain. This seed simply wakes up one morning and decides to leave the comfort and safety of its village to roll upward and plant itself at the summit. You alter the seed’s speed and direction by balancing it on a vine controlled at either end by your joysticks. The path is beset by numerous obstacles ranging from holes you can simply fall into, to enemies actively trying to kill you.
The seed has a range of powers to aid its journey, like the ability to plant a new checkpoint, or to grow defensive spikes. It is also possible to unlock other fantastic powers, but gaining these abilities will cost you in-game resources and precious real-world time.
You might be thinking, so what? An objective, with challenges in the way, is the basic premise of every game, and indeed, any good story. How hard could this game actually be? So hard!
For one thing, the entire landscape of the mountain changes every time you attempt to climb. The size and location of the holes, the number and severity of the enemies, is different every single time. There’s no way to develop a rhythm for speeding through the beginning and getting better with every following attempt because the terrain is always changing.
For another thing, the enemies do not damage you consistently. You, little seed, start your journey with three hearts, and falling in a hole or tangling with the wrong foe will cost you one. But some enemies will wipe out all of your hit points in one go. And, while you are able to grow spikes that kill some enemies, those spikes won’t kill all of the things chasing after you. To make it more frustrating, those enemies are also faster than you, and will often seek you out deliberately.
And for one more thing, even if you make it from one section of the mountain up to another biome, saving your progress is not guaranteed. If you make it to the jungle after (literally) fifty attempts through the forest, but die ten seconds in, you must start from the very bottom. Again.
To exacerbate your despair, the game records careful statistics of how many times you’ve attempted the climb and displays your current tally after every death. Too bad, little seed. Better luck next time.
Despite the frustrating nature of this game, I did find myself strangely invested in this seed’s world. The different sizes and shapes of seeds elicit sympathy despite only having one tiny eye to express themselves. And even the most deadly enemies are still somewhat cute. The 2D artwork, minimalist but adorably compelling, reminds me of a children’s picture book where the protagonist is victorious as long as they refuse to give up hope… even though my every experience with this game has proven otherwise. The soundtrack, rather than being repetitive with so many failed attempts, is almost soothing.
As my death toll reached the high double digits I found myself wondering if perhaps instead of a quest with a goal, this game is actually a meditation exercise. The little seed is met on all sides with death and failure, but succumbing to anger and frustration only makes the task ahead more difficult. To achieve any progress, you must steady your mind and stay calm, and even then, imminent failure is still baked into the programming. Perhaps after enough attempts to climb this mountain, I could transcend my desire for success and achieve some sort of spiritual enlightenment. Or maybe I’m just very, very bad at this stunning, ridiculously difficult game.