Feeling a bit Toren about it? You're not alone.
Poor old video games. What a long and tortured identity crisis they've been going through as of late, eh? If only somebody could have persuaded Sir Henry Video-Games to choose a less narcissistic name for his new invention, think of all the trouble we could've been saved. The bizarre cottage industry of the old days expanded, became sleeker, and in the pursuit of fun began to normalise ideas on what games should and shouldn't be. On presented with a blank canvas, we stopped thinking “what can I do with this?” and started thinking “how can we extract entertainment out of this?” Only now, as subversive and traitorous thoughts begin to filter their way up from indie gaming's more eccentric circles, do we slowly start to turn the wheels backwards, and realise that games simply don't need to involve play. Still, what a massive pain for those caught in the middle. Toren feels like an unfortunate product of that crisis, filled with gameplay so half-heartedly conciliatory that you could remove it bodily from the game and suffer no ill consequences whatsoever. Except, I suppose, that you'd have a lot more people yelling “walking simulator” and pelting rocks at it in the street.
Let's not dwell on that just yet, though. Toren concerns a girl, known only as the Moonchild, in the titular tower of Toren, and unfortunately Mark Seibert is nowhere in sight to provide an insight on that kind of situation. In a Babel-esque scenario, the tower in question has offended the powers that be, presumably because it was built straight through whatever comprises their front lawn, and in retaliation they have cursed the land to experience eternal sunshine. There's a dragon that petrifies people and a knight wearing a very silly helmet, both of which are somehow intangibly connected to your overall objective, which is of course to ascend the tower to bring some relief to the land. If you were looking for a premise to slap on your aggregator site then that's where things more or less end, but that's only what Toren is about in the same way that Silent Hill 2 is about a man looking for his wife in a town full of badly-assembled mannequins: there's more going on beneath the surface, and it's all more interesting than the overarching narrative.
What Toren is about is a matter that deserves some debate, as it certainly provides no shortage of material to unpack. Throughout the game you grow from a baby into an adult – intriguing, I know, but it happens at somewhat jarring intervals – and the parallels between this, the cycle of life and death, the tree that slowly grows up through the tower and the whole concept of restarting the flow of day and night are by no means difficult to draw out. Of course, the thing about working with such wishy-washy universal concepts is that it's all too easy to slap some vague symbolism together and have your English-major critics do all the hard work for you, but let's give Toren the benefit of the doubt here. Only by entering the Moonchild's dreams can you progress the game, and only through completing vaguely ritualistic tasks can you complete the dreams. Commentary on the tiny, meaningless conventions we must nevertheless satisfy to achieve our larger goals? Not just an obstacle throughout the game, the dragon's varied encounters are a metaphor for adversity throughout life as a whole; recurring, ever-present, imposing even in our own fantasies, sometimes seemingly impossible to overcome and sometimes most definitely impossible to overcome, with the only option being to accept failure and try another approach.
Or alternatively, maybe I'm talking out of my bum. The problem with all this is that Toren is about as straightforward as an earbud cable that's been sitting at the bottom of your pockets for about a week, and it's frankly a little bit tiresome how obtuse it gets at times. Sure, a bit of cryptic phrasing and ambiguous continuity can do wonders for sprinkling some mystery here and there, but when your obsession with it means that I haven't the foggiest idea what context I have for moving forward besides “this will somehow stop everybody in the world from being fried alive”, I'm likely to just switch off my brain and go play Nuclear Throne or something. Why does the Moonchild have amnesia? Why does she have to visit her dreams in the first place? Do the supposed-to-lose encounters have some significance or are they just arbitrary setbacks? What's the purpose of the giant tree symbol etched into the ground floor, and what logical connection does it actually have to what's going on? The game has a primitive journal of sorts that tracks all the written and spoken dialogue – not that there's an awful lot of that going around anyway – but even when laid out all nice and neat before you, the verses' vague ramblings of time and destiny bring to mind the intro sequence of a bad Zelda romhack more than something cohesive.
Ordinarily I'd suggest multiple playthroughs to get your head around it, especially since the whole game is only about two hours long at the most, but that rather implies that there are reasons to play it more than once other than unravelling the confusing mess of scenes it throws at you. Oh, there are puzzles, and there's platforming, and there's even combat, but none of them are really developed to the point where there are any mechanics or systems associated with them; they're just kind of there, meaningless sideshows to fool you into believing you're not just walking down some very heavily decorated corridors. Alright, I'm not expecting a little girl hauling around a mossy old sword to be capable of somersaulting over cyborgs and pulling out their spines, but when encounters with enemies are less like actual fights and more like competitions to see who can flail around the most ineffectually, one can't help but feel that this is all here just to provide some measure, however pathetic, of token adversity. The most intellectually demanding thing you're ever expected to do is cling to a lump of granite whenever things get a bit breezy, and the game is so bloody proud of that challenge that it forces you to do it numerous times. Even the platforming, ever-present in the toolbox of every game that has ever desperately rummaged around for things to distract the player, is about as creative as a cheese sandwich and demanding as lazily punting party balloons around a trashed living room. Fortunate, mind you, 'cause if the Moonchild leaped any more sluggishly they'd have to rename her to the Jupiter-child.
Now let's be fair here: a lot of story-focussed games have had gameplay as deep as an angsty teenager's poetry folder, and they've still more or less gotten away with it, albeit usually with some venomous words from people of my ilk. So why is it so much more of a sticking point with Toren? Frankly, I think it's just unrewarding. Unless you recently had the tips of your fingers shorn off in a horrific paper shredder accident, you're not going to find any mechanical challenge within the tower of Toren's walls, and the only time you're ever going to be scratching your head is when it's unclear what you're supposed to be doing at all. Nothing that you do has any weight or significance; it's just a long string of tasks that you complete as they come, the insignificant possibility of failure barely crossing your mind. I'm not asking to reach the top floor and find Ornstein and Smough just looking at me expectantly, but you could at least not treat me like a pile of jelly-like flesh that has somehow gained sentience.
But then again, what Toren excels at is well beyond that. What it lacks in depth and engagement it compensates for – well, partially at least – with creative variety. It really does feel like an adventure. Not an adventure game, wherein you ricochet back and forth between dialogue trees, inane inventory puzzles and the meticulously organised save-game screen, but an adventure: a grand journey of growth and discovery, taking on challenges not as parts of some fixed, videogame-y system, but as individual obstacles. It's the kind of game that keeps you playing not by being 'fun', but by giving you virtually no way of knowing what happens next, constantly dangling the question of “what happens now?” over your head like a spiteful cat owner with a ball of string. It knows that if you have even the slightest investment in what's going on, then you'll want to move just a little bit further forward. Yet it does all this without feeling disjointed, its dreamlike atmosphere smoothing the bumps and making everything feel intangibly connected.
It's difficult to fully articulate the kind of charm that Toren possesses, in spite of its obvious shortcomings. It feels retro. Not the kind of retro you usually understand, full of sweet chiptunes, controller-snapping difficulty and pixels large enough to swallow a man whole, but the kind of retro that describes a relatively obscure PS2-era game that was published under the philosophy of “screw it, anything's worth a try.” Blessed with an occasionally awkward camera that can't decide if it's fixed or over-the-shoulder, restlessly offbeat under the trappings of traditional gameplay, too genre-agnostic to be classified as anything other than an 'adventure', it feels like a product of the same environment that once produced games like Ico before being swallowed by the growing, yawning chasm between indie and AAA. Frankly, seeing a game channel that spirit again is awfully endearing; a reminder that sometimes the only reason games stopped being made a certain way is not because they were inherently bad, but because we'd arrogantly believed we'd moved on to something better.
A pity, then, that Toren seems to have taken some of the technology from that era along for the ride as well. You can tell at a glance that it has a wonderful sense of colour, liberally weaving flora among the ruins of the tower and throwing you into all kinds of beautiful dreamscapes that feel like the offspring of ancient murals and lurid mid-nineties 3D rendering projects, but oof, some of those textures are an eyesore and a half. The game is pretty clearly going for a vaguely cinematic sort of approach, but cutscenes and scripted sequences often eerily unfold with about half as many sound effects as they actually need, and animations have all the weight and momentum of a discarded napkin blowing down a promenade. I wouldn't normally wring out a game like this for such trivial visual gaffs, but when exploring the strange, serene environments constitutes eighty or so percent of what you do, you'd think their presentation deserves a bit more polish.
Toren is an awkward game, and not just because it's difficult to neatly pigeonhole. It's a walking simulator in heavy denial; it's an Ico-like on a shoestring; it's a confusing stew of undercooked mechanics upended over an obtuse fairy tale. It's not even remotely fun to play, but then again, it's not actively un-fun either; it's just giving your fingers something to do in between experiencing the environments and the story. If you just want to stumble your way through some pretty locales and get all intrigued at what the story is on about, then Toren can certainly offer that – even better than many games that profess to, I'd wager – but when it comes to making itself playable, I'd rather it just packed the whole thing in.
I don't think you should play Toren. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't experience it.