As a writer, I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to have an editor. They are that impartial person looking at your work and telling you their honest thoughts. They help you cut back on areas that are too long, refocus on a topic that needs more attention and generally help you produce your best work. Luckily for us ours is fantastic. Unfortunately for Inked, the game was in desperate need of an editor.
This same criticism is often thrown at Hideo Kojima games. While his games tend towards the self-indulgent with an excess of exposition, it has become one of his defining characteristics. In Inked, it feels like every section is too long and arbitrarily so. Which is a shame because this is one of the most beautiful games you will likely play and the story is surprisingly touching. It just needed a good editor.
Inked is an isometric puzzle platformer where players control a hand-drawn samurai as he searches for his lost beloved. The game quickly gets to work sending you through its gorgeous locations and never ceases to amaze. The game is entirely hand-drawn with a notepad aesthetic that is entrancing. As you progress through the game the world changes in colour and design in a way that melds perfectly with the location.
Throughout each area, you solve puzzles. Each puzzle revolves around creating and placing geometric shapes into the environment. You might need to create a box to push a button so you can cross a bridge or roll a sphere down a hill to open a door. They are never complicated to the extent that you feel overwhelmed, but they are taxing enough to satisfy. It doesn’t take long for you to have a full set of shapes at your disposal and from that point onwards, the game only gets more complex by letting you place more of them. So far so good.
Would it be counter-intuitive to say that a puzzle game has too many puzzles? That’s like saying a book has too many pages? And that brings us right back to the editor thing, doesn’t it? Too many of the puzzles in Inked are either uninspired or too long. The game ramps up far too slowly and the plodding speed of our nameless hero doesn’t help matters.
It is understandable that the developers want you to enjoy the world, but forcing the player to undertake mediocre puzzles at a snail’s pace is not a method any game should use. It makes it harder to become invested in the story going on behind all of this square placing and sphere rolling.
Inked tells two stories that run in parallel. There is the story of the unnamed samurai and his journey to find his beloved Aiko in a geometric world, and then there is the story of Adam, the comic book artist that drew him. The samurai has thrown away his sword and finally found peace only to have it ripped from under him. Adam’s journey deals with real life and his own fractured past as he occasionally moves his hands around the world to create new objects, write something, or cause havoc for our hero.
Adam has created this world to help him deal with his own issues, and this creates the narrative of the unnamed hero. It is a brilliant way to tell a story and think about the relationship between creation and the creator in any form of expression. One does not exist without the other. It is just a shame that the game manages to undermine itself in so many ways.
Right, don’t leave but we need to quickly talk about PowerPoint Presentations. Seriously, please, this is important. There is a simple rule when doing a presentation; you don’t say what is on the slides, you talk about the points. People can read what you wrote, you need to add value on top of those statements. In Inked, the text is part of the world and the narrator just says those things. The voice acting isn’t strong enough that it feels justified. Instead, it feels like the game is just repeating itself. The effect would have been much stronger if it confined talking to Adam’s world. The silence with text appearing on the floor and sky without narration is a more forbodding effect. If they felt the need to add a voice over the samurai’s world the content should have been different from the environmental text.
Some segments of the game are so unbelievably frustrating, it begs the question as to why the game is set in an isometric landscape. If you own a controller, then this will be less of an issue. However, for those that are stuck with a mouse and keyboard, you have to try and move with only WASD. This means that should you want to walk diagonally, you need to press two keys together or quickly swap between them to make sure you are going in the right direction. This makes walking across platforms a nightmare.
Judging where you are is already a pain unless you are some kind of isometric wizard. When the game then throws compulsory elements where you need to dodge falling objects it becomes a complete joke. There is a segment where spheres roll down a hill as you climb up. If you take a single hit you need to restart. This would be fine if it was clear where the sphere is in relation to our hero but alas it is not. This section very nearly made me walk away from the game forever after trying and failing for ages. There are other sections that are similarly frustrating and each is far longer than they have any right to be.
This brings us back to the core issue of Inked – it needed a good editor. There is a fascinating story under the surface. The samurai is fighting for free will as he defies his creator and punished by Adam taking his beloved. Throughout this story, we explore the relationship between creation and creator and see that it is not always a healthy one. To the samurai, Adam is a god, but to Adam, this is just fiction. It is his way of dealing with the things that happened in his life.
It is a shame, that the hero’s primary goal is to rescue Aiko. The game sets up a classic “find the princess” game within a game that could have been about anything. Perhaps this speaks to the limited imagination of Adam and his own failings as a comic book artist. However, it’s the definition of objectifying of women, treating them as objects to be found.
Adam (a man) with limitless power in this world he has created, kidnaps a woman with essentially no power. And then, the samurai (a man) whose power is shown by the fact that he can defy Adam goes to find his beloved. In this, the two men have positions of power whereas, the woman has none and is simply a goal for the samurai. This entire element of the story is shallow and lacks creativity. Which in a game about creating, is terribly ironic.
Without spoiling the story of Inked, Adam is going through a trauma and gradually recovering. The unnamed samurai and his adventures are a part of his dealing with what has happened. Adam will often lash out at his creation, undermine him, and generally disrespect him. However, the only real way that the samurai suffers is through the loss of Aiko. As the story goes on, we are meant to sympathise with Adam and understand why he is doing this. However, his coping mechanism is essentially violence directed at Aiko like it is acceptable. Well, it isn’t.
If the roles were reversed would it be better, though? If it was a female samurai searching for a male Aiko, would it be more palatable? In society, men hold more power than women. That is a plain, true fact. All this game does is perpetuate that idea and tells you that it is acceptable. I can’t think of many games with a female protagonist saving a powerless man, can you? No matter the gender of the characters, the story about Adam is one of coping and life after trauma. However, the framing and method of Adam’s coping is portrayed as routine and it simply isn’t.
Would violence against anyone be an accepted way of coping? Adam might be creating a comic book with a fictional world, but you live those characters when you play as the samurai. Is that reality? Is pain any less real when it is fictional? Any less grotesque, gruesome and horrific? Loss is a terrible thing, but to deal with loss by hurting other people, even fictional people, doesn’t sound like a healthy person. Perhaps it isn’t and that makes for an interesting story.
Inked was a surprise. The artwork is fantastic, nobody could say otherwise. However, the story is something else. It will make you think about how to cope with difficult situations, about the ways that you have coped in the past or how you might in the future. Does violence simply beget more violence? I don’t have any answers for you here and neither does Inked, only an idea of how to consider these topics yourself. While you might fundamentally disagree with the way Inked handles its female character and how it sets up the unnamed hero’s part in the story, the rest is interesting. However, the puzzles are too long, the story beats too far apart. This makes Inked suffer serious pacing issues. If you stick with it though, you might find it an interesting exercise in self-reflection.
Available from: Steam