Jackie Chan once said that a lot of people could do some of the little flourishes in his films if they wanted to. Not the big dangerous stunts, but the tiny things that make a scene. In one sequence, I think, there’s a huge fight and Jackie keeps grabbing this fan that travels back and forth across the action. He makes this tricky thing – grabbing a fan out of the air – look so simple. Not because he’s unnaturally graceful – although he is – but because he’s willing to film something 200 times until he gets the result he wants. That’s dropping a fan 199 times for that glorious 200th try where it all works. Most of us could look a little cooler if we were willing to Kubrick our way through life like Jackie Chan. Or Jackie Chan our way through life like Kubrick. Now I wish they had made a film together.
Anyway: A Night at the Races. We’re in Celeste territory here – punishing 2D platforming gauntlets that hinge on understanding the simple controls – left, right, jump, dash – and the way these controls interact with the environment. Reader, I have done astonishing things in this game. Precision wall-jumps between spikes, air-dashes with one pixel between me and disaster. This is not because I’m unnaturally graceful – I am definitely not – but because I am willing to do this stuff 200 times to get to the end of one of the game’s short levels.
For a while I wondered why I was so willing to stick with it. I think there are two reasons that go beyond the game itself and the pleasures of movement and connection that it conjures. The first is that restarts aren’t just speedy, they’re instantaneous. You don’t even have to press a button to restart. The second is that unlike Celeste, you’re always moving. Your little character is always rushing back and forth unless you’re actually directing them somewhere. This one simply cannot stand still.
On top of this enviable foundation, a game of tiny delights is built. Tiny delights and tiny horrors. As the screen moves upwards, falling down will kill you. Those twinkly things that look like collectibles are not collectibles but spikes – they will kill you. Run against a wall and you start to bounce up it – be careful because you end up in the wrong place it will kill you. Those collectibles are collectibles, but if you fail to collect them before they drop off the screen, they will kill you.
Favourite thing so far: ice blocks you can chug through by holding down jump. They might take you upwards in a single corrugated drilling movement. I also like the tinkly blocks you have to dash through. I also like how simple everything is: you are kind of a blob with eyes, but you have so much character. The levels are straightforward but incredibly challenging. Everything is built from pieces that do their jobs with great charisma. Another reason I can’t stop dying and repeating until I succeed.
Outside of all this focus is a fascinating sprawl of a storyline. A Night at the Races has a kind of framework of story around it concerning a guy in an apartment accessing a strange game on his computer. I love games with fake operating systems. This one has a fake apartment built around the fake operating system.
This story’s already starting to take some unsettling turns, but the one thing it does so well from the off is conjure the sense of an all-night gaming binge. This is a game you can’t put down, mounted in a frame about a game someone can’t put down. Play this game! It’s on Itch and Steam and it is fabulous.