On The Ball

The Ball is a first-person puzzle game. I like to think ‘The Ball’ has an integral article (much in the same way The Cheat does). It doesn’t have much of a personality, but it’s The Ball. You roll it around and let it activate switches. Pretty much all of the puzzles so far have involved pressing switches. You carry around a simple gun-like tool which can push the ball away with the left mouse button, and attracts the ball towards you with the right mouse button.

Here is what I’ve discovered after playing it for 0.8 hours, according to Steam.

I think this is my favourite loading screen ever.
After the introductory stages, I came across the first enemies in the game. Monkeys sit in the rooms ahead and become hostile when they notice me. Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t cutesy monkeys. If I’m lucky, I won’t really see these guys close up, but I can hear their horrible screech. I rely on this audible cue because most of the time The Ball is blocking my view, even in its see-through mode. When monkeys attack, all I can make out is the hideous movement of a figure bounding towards me.

I am scared.

I am scared?

I wasn’t scared when I was faced with aliens in Crysis 2. In fact, it was almost a bore. I know that if I die, I’ll just respawn at the last checkpoint. I’ve faced enemies before.

But I haven’t felt this scared since when I was first playing video games. This a feeling from back when I wasn’t fluent in controlling an avatar in a dangerous space. Back in Super Mario 64 when I loved playing around in the “safe” areas of the castle, but as soon as I entered a level through a painting, I would have to throw the controller to my more competent older brothers and sisters in case a bob-omb came to kill me. And don’t get me started on the horrors of diving underwater.

Something about this monkey-infested, Aztec-decorated place is bringing out some primordial arousal in me.

I was enjoying myself for the opening of the game. I was even expecting to be annoyed at enemies, thinking of how it is needlessly interrupting the fun of solving the puzzles. The enemies in Mirror’s Edge were a nuisance. So in The Ball, why am I a little on edge?

It’s because I don’t have a gun.

I can’t fend off these monkeys on my own. I can’t just point at them and click to remove them from my path. I am playing in first-person, and heck, I’m even holding a thing that looks like a gun, modelled closely off the Impact Hammer from Unreal Tournament. I don’t have a gun.

But I do have The Ball.

It’s the only way I can kill the monkeys. It’s not hard. Rolling the ball into them with just a bit of force will gib them just fine. The way you bowl them down like pins is satisfying. Even more so is when the monkeys are between me and The Ball and I hold down right click to crush them with The Ball from behind so they don’t see it coming. As long as I have The Ball, I can survive.

I understand this, but I’ve never had to kill people with a The Ball before. I’m not familiar with the tactile sensation. I simply don’t know that the input my hands are making through the mouse and keyboard will kill that monkey. This tension I am feeling is from playing something new. It’s the same feeling as playing a first-person shooter for the first time. Today, I am familiar with the sensation of moving around and clicking on people in a 3-dimensional space to survive. But I’ve never killed anyone with a The Ball before and I’m not comfortable with it yet.

The Ball becomes my security blanket. The Ball is safety. The Ball is invincible, in fact. Occasionally a puzzle requires me to leave it behind as I go places that The Ball cannot access. And I get anxious. There’s a counter in the bottom left of the screen which tells me how far away the ball is in metres. Actually, they’re not metres, but some nondescript unit of measurement of which 20 is very close and 200 is very far away. As the puzzle drags me further and further away from The Ball, the counter gradually rises, and I am ready to turn and make a run back to it at any sign of that horrible screeching.

Whenever I can’t see The Ball, I am looking at the proximity counter. I’m thinking “If any monkeys show up, this number displays the magnitude of how fucked I am.”

Amnesia: The Dark Descent uses this technique to be the scariest game ever. But in Amnesia, they play it up damn well. The fear of being alone and helpless to the monsters is hyperbolic. You don’t have a The Ball, so when you see a monster, you hide in the corner, petrified, knowing you can do nothing at all to kill it and praying it just leaves you alone. In The Ball, it’s much more subtle. The monkeys aren’t the be all and end all, but they feel always imminent.

The Ball is foremost a puzzle game and it makes you comfortable with its formula of sequential rooms with puzzles you have to solve to move on. It’s possible to draw similarities to Portal in the way it’s set out. For instance, after you’ve become familiar with the portal gun, you get turrets thrown at you. However, the turrets never scared me in Portal. They are different from the monkeys. While turrets would track and actively attack me, they are still stationary and manipulative. They are part of the puzzles. The monkeys aren’t puzzles, but cannon fodder. They’re not manipulated in a part of any puzzle, but are there to break up the puzzles and to create some minor tension.

The Ball itself is not quite as charming as the Weighted Companion Cube, but the game has trained me to be incredibly attached to it. It’s the only way I can interact with the world. Without it, I’ll die.

As an aside, my favourite part of the game so far is what happens when you walk into spider webs. You get a web “splatter” on the screen in the same way you get trickles of water or blood on your screen in a first person game. In reality, walking into spider webs creates an uncomfortable sensation that lasts a few seconds until you frantically wipe it off. It makes perfect sense to recreate this in the same way you represent getting water or blood on you. It’s such a nice touch.

The awesome people at the late Resolution Magazine gave me a copy of the game for free as part of a competition giveaway. Thanks, guys!


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