Foam has been persistently loitering in my conscious memory for the past couple of weeks or so. In my first sitting, I played about half-way through and got stuck. I put Foam down with the intention of returning, but I’ve been putting it off to make time for other things.
I never stopped brooding about it, though, and I couldn’t figure out why. Yeah, it looks weird. In fact, no other game looks like it. That’s an impressive feat in its own right. But I’ve played weird-looking games before–games like Space Funeral and Yume Nikki–and moved on quickly. Something made Foam stick.
Lately, I’ve felt conflicted about this scrutiny I’ve started placing on games. Foam, especially, is so unassuming about how interesting it is that picking it apart feels wrong. Sometimes, “What makes this interesting?” feels like the wrong question to ask, like I’m missing the point or something. Art defies explanation. It just is what it is. Words stumble and stutter to communicate the appeal of something like Foam.
Here’s what the author, Stwelin, said about his game:
“I am so lazy about making games, there was a thread made about it. This is my first game. Dear god, what have I done?”
He knows that he can’t explain what Foam is, so he doesn’t even try, opting to let the game speak for itself. Smart guy.
Foam makes a quiet, but confident introduction. Its empty soundscape and Microsoft Painterly aesthetic calmly ushers you into a dark dream. Trees, birds and door-frames have a sloppy sense of geometry.
Really, you just walk from place to place, but the game system strikes the perfect balance between aimlessness and purpose, between wandering and searching for something. Restricted areas are sometimes guarded by locked doors, more often by weird, squeaky creatures that could be mushrooms or aliens or teacups. Foam operates like a minimalist, walk-about, Zelda game. Areas shut you out then welcome you in interesting ways.
Foam makes prominent use of negative space in its audio and aesthetic. The game opens with some sparse effects, and the soundscape gradually fills in as you explore further. Visually, the amount of black, open space on screen enforces a tone of retro anti-realism, but not in a typical, cutesy, pixelated way. The empty space reminds me of old-school JRPGs. In interior rooms, like inns or weapon shops, the tiles would only take up a small portion of the entire screen, leaving the surrounding space black. Usually, modern games like Bastion fill this kind of space with distant, foggy landscapes.
The black space and the tilted, top-down camera view work together to make Foam’s world feel constricted yet open-ended, like a labyrinth. The space lends melancholy accents to otherwise mundane dressings. Sometimes, the surrounding darkness cements the path forward. Others, it makes you feel like you’re walking around in nothing. Foam feels unfinished, but in such a way that you would never want it to be finished because it feels so undeniably whole in its unfinished state.
Foam’s sounds sing of structured aimlessness. A music track for an area usually consists of a few short phrases, looping endlessly without much space in between. The phrases avoid becoming repetitive by blurring the line between music and noise.
Each area is structured sort of like an interior room, so you never really know if you’re indoors or outside. Things that look like windows hover over stuff that looks like grass. To complete objectives and reach new areas, you discover alternate physical forms, scattered throughout the environment. You become fire and mushrooms and eggs. You learn your environment completely without the cramped sensation of forcing your brain to memorize a test.
In your short time with Foam, you will come to know certain landmarks so well, simply entering unfamiliar territory invokes powerful tension. Transitioning from focused, meditative stupor to the jarring experience of the uncharted and alien defines the game’s pacing. Though the player shifts forms frequently, most of the environment remains consistent throughout the experience, so any subtle changes have great and lasting impact. In addition, Foam sometimes unabashedly breaks its own rules and contradicts established perspectives.
Robert Yang recently wrote about a browser game called March, a “first person art-platformer,” by Mindful XP. Yang argues that March lacks confidence, since the game resorts to text to communicate themes already made apparent by its “fog, color, and spatial distance.” Despite the game’s shortcomings, he recommends March because of its “strong sense of ‘voice.‘”
Yang’s description of March implies we can forgive shortcomings if we get a “strong sense of voice” in return. “Voice” is difficult to pin down, but I know Foam’s got it in spades. It’s a game I don’t feel like I’ll ever forget. A lot of folks in the comments over at Free Indie Games advise taking notes or drawing maps, but I enjoyed wandering, waiting for the environment to petrify as muscle memory.