figment: a mind full of incoherent video game design
For a game that’s set inside a human mind, Figment doesn’t make a lot of sense. Released in 2017 by Bedtime Digital Games, Figment is a single-player action-adventure game including platforming, puzzles, and boss battles where the boss sings an elaborately crafted musical number as you duel. As of this writing, it’s a 9/10 (“Mostly Positive”) on Steam and has a score of 77 (“Generally Favourable”) on Metacritic.
I want to like Figment, I really do. Its version of the mind is a delightfully charming world where you walk across bridges made of pencils and balance on floating books. There are clocks whose hands you jump over, and little trumpets that play snippets of a larger score. Additionally, the music is fantastic, with clever lyrics and rhymes, particularly shining during each boss monster’s solo number.
What frustrates me about Figment is that all the parts for a good game are there. But, the pieces are put together in the wrong way, forming something that’s merely a jumble of confused ideas. It’s like different people worked on the story, the music, the mechanics, the art, the character design, etc. in silos and then threw them all together at the last minute.
Like any artistic work, games need unity. In this post, I will discuss how Figment‘s fragmented design elements lead to an incoherent gaming experience.
Figment Starts with a Compelling Story Beat
We’ll start where Figment begins, with the sound effects of a car crash. A mother, father and daughter are chatting, and then there’s a screech and crash. The game opens on Figment‘s whimsical, colourful world, and the player is now Dusty, a curmudgeonly old man-creature who has his scrapbook stolen by a nightmare and has to go on a journey to defeat several nightmares to get it back.
This is a great opening for a game, and at first glance, story should be a strong point of a game like Figment. But there are several inconsistencies that make this story extremely confusing.
Figment‘s Unlikable Player Character Dusty Pushes Players Away
The player character is Dusty, this blue anthropomorphic creature with big ears, almost like a man in some sort of monster onesie, who has a bad attitude. He soon teams up with a bird named Piper and they set out together to retrieve his missing scrapbook.
What’s really annoying is Dusty’s negative outlook on the world and his constant insults towards Piper. Seriously, this character is so abusive to the chipper bird that has agreed to be his companion and who gives him helpful tips as he traverses the world. Before we’re a few minutes in, Dusty calls Piper a “turkey tit” and they have this uncomfortable exchange:
Piper: You used to be stronger, you know?
Dusty: And you used to be able to shut up.
Without even going into the subtleties of a male-voiced character constantly abusing and insulting his female-voiced sidekick while she never retorts or stands up for herself, there’s so much wrong with these sort of interactions. There are of course rogues, antiheroes, and morally ambiguous player characters throughout gaming, but Dusty is unlikable and unrelatable without any redeeming qualities. So, it’s very hard to root for him, much less play as him. The dynamic between Dusty and Piper, where she would give helpful hints and he would insult her or say “shut up” or “whatever”, is cruel and extremely off-putting. As a player, I didn’t want to be Dusty or help him with his mission because he is portrayed as a mean and awful person.
Making Dusty a more likable character would have gone a long way to engage the reader in the story. As gamers, we want to play as sympathetic characters who we can help or even see ourselves in. Designing Dusty as someone who is weakened, upset, frightened or the underdog up against an insurmountable task would have made him a more sympathetic character for the player. Doing so would also better emphasize the underlying themes of Figment‘s story. On the other hand, making Dusty arrogant, abusive and closed-off makes this game way less appealing from the get-go.
In Figment, Who am I, Really? Whose Mind am I in?
There are three nightmares that serve as end-of-level bosses you have to defeat. Each comes with a delightfully written and performed musical sequence. The first boss is the Plague, who sings about disease. The second is the Spider Queen, whose song is about spiders crawling all over you. And the third is the Fear of Loss, who delivers an epic final song about losing family and friends.
All along, I had played the game under the impression that I was in the mind of the little girl as she struggled to deal with the trauma from the car accident. A number of things worked against this premise.
First, the main character is decidedly un-childlike, and rude to the other characters at every opportunity. Then, as I picked up easter eggs of memory fragments known as “remembranes”, they weren’t memories of a little girl. For example, one was about a boy who was bullied at school. And together, all the memories didn’t tell a relevant or cohesive story to what was going on in the aftermath of a car accident.
At the end of the game, you defeat the Fear of Loss, and then you hear the sound effects of the father from the accident waking up from his coma. This seemed to imply that I had been journeying through the mind of the father, but why would Dusty, who is eventually revealed as the “mind’s courage”, be able to wake someone from a coma by just being brave?
Furthermore, neither the father nor daughter lines up with the bosses I had to defeat. Defeating the Plague would make sense for the father overcoming sickness (though this also crosses a line since defeating a physical illness is not entirely in the mind’s repertoire). Conversely, winning against the Fear of Loss would make sense for the daughter coming out of emotional trauma after the car crash and the death of one or both of her parents. So, which is it?
Not to mention, the Spider Queen boss makes zero sense. Why would defeating a fear of spiders tie into this story at all?
Figment Can’t Make Up Its Mind About its Target Audience
The inconsistent story is such a weak point for Figment because it has remarkable potential. Figment could be an effective tool for commentary on trauma, illness or loss. In addition to the confusing narrative, another big weakness is that Figment has no clear target audience.
From the cartoony art and whimsical music, at first glance Figment appears to be geared towards children. The puzzles are easy enough to solve, and the game only sets you back a few paces if you do lose all your health. However, there’s a lot of crude humour, swearing, references to drugs, innuendos and dirty jokes that seem out of place in the fairytale environment. Dusty consistently refers to one of the nightmares as “that bastard” and whole levels are devoted to clearing fart clouds out of the way.
It’s a strange mismatch that makes the charming world of Figment lose its sparkle, and makes the game sit in a no man’s land for being not difficult enough to entertain adult gamers but too rude for kids. I wouldn’t play Figment with my kid sat next to me, and that’s a shame. Alienating a younger audience is a lost opportunity because Figment ‘s ideas on mental struggles and fighting fears, however badly they are communicated, could have been great learning experiences for children.
What was executed so well for the whole family in the Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out (2015), a movie about a journey through the mind of a troubled young girl, is not present here. This is due to an uncertain tone, messaging and delivery that removes Figment from child-like wonder at the fun music and art but doesn’t take it all the way to being an adult cartoon.
Figment Reminds Us that Theme and Mechanics Should be Cohesive in Video Games
Theming is a large part of making a game world feel immersive. Figment has an excellent concept for this, with the mind made up of gears and pencils and musical instruments. There are some truly delightful aspects, such as the little experience orbs called “endorphins”, a clever way of theming experience points. There’s also the concept of discovering memories as easter eggs, which also fits into the mind theme.
But, there are several ways that Figment disappoints its excellent ideas with out-of-place elements and mechanics.
While chasing down the nightmares, the player has to collect, charge and place different coloured batteries in their appropriate holders. But these are just called “batteries” rather than anything interesting or fun (neurons, perhaps?). It’s astounding how the developers skipped over this integral part of gameplay when it came to theming the world.
The puzzles also often seem disconnected with the game world. There’s a lot of clearing the way forward which is blocked by farts which doesn’t make sense with the story or environment. For instance, one solution was to help someone fix their battery so they could play the electric drum, which somehow lifted the fart clouds out of the way. Another incongruous activity was to play certain notes on an organ, without knowing how or why it would help me proceed in my quest of finding the nightmare.
Good Games Have Unity Among Elements, and Figment can’t seem to Put the Pieces Together
It’s easy to take a look at Figment and decide it’s a good game because it looks polished and has some outstanding sound design. It’s also easy to check the box of Figment having a story because there is some semblance of one, even in its scattered state. However, if we truly want games to be respected as an art form, I think we as players and critics need to be more discerning.
Combining art, puzzles, music and story that are great on their own does not automatically make a great game. In a truly well-designed game, all elements support and reinforce one another. True to its name, Figment is a game with figments of great ideas that are put together all wrong. This could be due to an unclear design direction, or too much work on its constituent parts rather than the big picture.
Like an indecisive and overeager mind, Figment is babbling and incoherent. It’s a prime example of how a great game is due to the seamless cohesion of separate elements, and a poor one is likely far worse than the sum of its parts.