Monday, October 23, 2023

Breathedge: The Good, the Bad, and the Awkward


I enjoyed Breathedge, but it squandered a lot of potential. The early game’s creativity and open environment became more linear and less entertaining as its story unfolded

The early survival sequence is delightful — Breathedge takes place in a massive debris field that is densely packed full of items and destinations. You have to manage hunger, thirst, and oxygen levels while collecting and crafting items that increase the time that you can spend gathering resources. You’re also working with a limited inventory space, and this is not a cozy world of abundance: All of your crafting decisions involve strategic tradeoffs to prioritize survival.

It sets up a well-managed tension in the opening chapters, leaving players to decide whether they want to spend resources customizing their own base or researching additional equipment that could help overcome environmental challenges.

Some of the most immersive, beautiful, and distracting sequences in Breathedge involved pushing to the limits of explorable space and seeing whether I brought adequate food, water, and oxygen to survive the return trip. There are enough requirements for survival, and enough new locations to explore, that it’s easy to overlook an important requirement. Then you're racing back to a previous location to grab something that was vital for survival. 

Frustration and backtracking are an intentional part of the early gameplay experience, and I enjoyed those challenges. 

Later stages are filled with pointless, mandatory backtracking — everything happens in enclosed spaces full of oxygen and additional supplies. In these sequences, you interact with a designated object that sends you to a similarly arbitrary destination in the opposite direction.

These environments felt like they were padded full of unnecessary space and deliberate switchbacks to extend the amount of time required to finish the game.

It was also disappointing to explore a universe with almost no diversity. Women only appear in Breathedge as pinup art and murals depicting idealized femininity. There’s an overall lack of variety: the humans that get rendered with faces are all men, and the majority of characters have a single, generic body type. (Granted, there are a small number of exceptions used to make fat jokes.) 

The only female voice actor in the game recites lines from a diagnostic computer with BDSM programming — she makes sexualized statements about torture and punishment in response to the player’s choices. 
Some of the poor design choices in Breathedge felt like an attempt to compensate for even worse narrative choices. The game begins with an interrogation where the player recounts their story of surviving the spaceship crash. It's a framing device where the “game over” message is replaced by an interrogator insisting that things must have gone differently. 

That kind of artifice works well in a game like Spider and Web, when the designer wants to call attention to differences between the events that happened and the story that the player sees, but it felt like a needless extra step here. The player ends up loading a saved game to continue, with or without the extra prompting from interrogators. 

Overall, it felt like the developers were reluctant to use the intrinsic motivation of survival in outer space. Instead of trusting that people would want to rescue themselves, the game imposes a confusing plot involving eco terrorists, secret research projects, and corrupt government bureaucracies. When these jumbled story pieces don’t fit together, Breathedge just breaks the fourth wall and says “do this because the designers have made it a requirement.”  

I would have been happier exploring outer space without the extra gamification.

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