I AM ERROR
Publisher: Bytten Studio
Developer: Bytten Studio
Available on: PC (Steam, itch.io)
Played on Steam
Copy provided by developer
Have you ever played two games around the same time and got confused between which one you’re playing at any given moment? I’ve been catching up on some 2019 games lately, and one of those games is the Switch remake of Link’s Awakening. It’s quite good. This perhaps isn’t a surprise. But then I started up Lenna’s Inception at the same time, and on more than one occasion I’ve struggled to tell them apart.
Got a bottle in Link’s Awakening, wondered if I could collect some water from it and deliver it to the guy who said he was thirsty on the far side of the map. Oh wait, that guy wasn’t in Link’s Awakening. He was in Lenna. Back to Lenna, I should probably use my new dash ability to get through this bit…oh wait, the dash was in Link’s Awakening. And so on. For eternity.
A Link to the Past
This isn’t to say Lenna’s Inception is a lazy carbon copy. Indeed, there’s plenty to distinguish between the two. But at the core, they’re the same fundamental game. You’re a legendary hero, you go into dungeons, you find items, those items open more of the world. Simple.
Except in Lenna’s Inception, the hero gets killed in an accident early in the game and a random teacher NPC has to take over for him. And the world is slowly glitching out, represented visually as weird undefined blocks of pixels. And you’re guided by the voice of the elder, who’s also dead, over the legendary hero’s phone, which you stole. Wait.
Lenna’s Inception is a weird reinterpretation of Link’s Awakening, which was already one of the weirder Zelda entries. Deliberate glitches abound. Collectible books make pop culture references that Zelda would never be willing to. And the absurdity of the legendary hero dying during training to a basic enemy, while his teacher panics and takes his sword and phone, is a brilliant opener.
To be honest, much of this is something that could easily have fallen flat. 3D Dot Game Heroes, a similar Zelda-style title from 2009, leaned heavily on the fourth wall and made so many wink-wink-nod-nod references every 30 seconds that it became tiresome very quickly. Lenna’s Inception is smarter, and the pop culture references are kept to optional collectibles. Also helps that they’re actually funny, from an extended joke that plays on the title of a popular boy wizard book to an elaborate gamebook for a Call of Cthulu style system. The writing is consistently great and playful and keeps itself restrained from shoving new jokes in the player’s face every five minutes. This has the effect of meaning the jokes land every time they do show up.
The Adventure of Lenna
Gameplay-wise, it plays exactly like Link’s Awakening, with even the items obtained from the dungeons following almost the same pattern. Keep getting blocked off by potholes? Bet you’ll get an item for jumping soon. Bombs? We have them. Arrows too. Oh, here’s an accessory to help you lift those heavy stones and skulls littering the landscape. You get the drill. Honestly surprised I didn’t have an owl show up periodically and tell me what to do next.
This isn’t inherently a bad thing. Being able to directly compare it to a remake of the game that’s clearly the main inspiration highlights that the two are similar in their approaches and it’s hard to resent the effort to emulate greatness here. Plus I count Alundra and Okami as two of my all-time favourite games and they’re shameless in their Zelda inspiration too.
But there’s one factor to Lenna’s Inception that prevents it from being quite as good as its inspiration – procedural generation. Much of the world is generated at random, as are the dungeon layouts. Theoretically this means the game presents a new experience each time you load a new game. In practice it makes exploration less rewarding and if you’re the kind of person who likes to uncover every bit of a dungeon, it can make that dungeon crawling a little tedious.
Take Any Road You Want
Playing Link’s Awakening simultaneously highlights this further. Playing the meticulously-crafted Zelda dungeons only serves to makes Lenna’s more slapdash, occasional room-to-nowhere dungeons feel more lifeless. Nothing kills the excitement of exploration quite like following a trail of rooms down a side route only to find nothing at the end, but it happens a lot in Lenna’s Inception. The world, too, has its problems. On one occasion I followed an elaborate sequence of world tiles, using every item in my arsenal to follow the route, then fought off a bunch of dolphins in the last screen and ended up with…nothing. Even the journey wasn’t that interesting as it was a series of similar-looking tiles.
This becomes even more evident when some areas switch it up and drop the randomness entirely. A secret cave under a laboratory and the game’s final dungeon don’t feel random at all, and the ingenuity on show in those locations makes me wish for more of it elsewhere in the game. Every element of the former fell into place in a satisfying sequential way, while the latter astounded me with a clever, glitch-based gimmick that made me wonder if any part of it was actually procedurally-generated, because it certainly didn’t feel like it.
The bosses, also lacking that random factor, are consistently clever and fun, from a cat with a TV for a face to a horrifying floating doll that throws its limbs at you. Every single boss is imaginative and each one is a stand-out moment on its own. It’s so apparent that the designers behind Lenna’s Inception have a real knack for fun and imaginative design that it serves to highlight how dull and lifeless it feels when they fall back on an RNG.
Master Using It and You Can Have This
It’s the fundamental problem of procedural generation in general that while it can create infinite variations on a world, none of those worlds ever feel like they have personality. And sitting that right next to bits of hand-crafted genius only makes it worse. Yes, game development is long and difficult, especially for a team of two, and using these kinds of tools can help with that. But I can’t help but wonder how brilliant this would be if those tools were tossed out.
Lenna’s Inception is, on the whole, a great game. The mechanics are fun, the visuals are stunning in both 8-bit and 32-bit inspired forms, and the soundtrack is as catchy as the Nintendo games it’s inspired by. But it could have been excellent if the developers had focused on a precise, developed world rather than falling into the “infinite procedural worlds” trap too many indie games fall into these days.
Should you play Lenna’s Inception? Heck yes. While let down by not showcasing the imaginations of the developers quite as much as it could, it’s still a fun time. If you finished the Link’s Awakening remake and are craving more of that, this will fulfil that need.