Frogwares are most commonly known for their critically acclaimed Sherlock Holmes series of adventure games, so when I discovered the developer were planning a Portal inspired first person puzzle game (which was initially crowd funded), I wondered to what degree intellectually strenuous puzzle solving would survive in their new IP, and in a new genre for the developer.
From what I gathered, MagRunner is a first-person puzzle game, with a Lovecraftian aesthetic, set on an off-world facility which, during a tournament, rapidly degrades, as the energy required (and type used) to stream such an event to the people of Earth literally awakes Cthulhu. There is a hint that his awakening is no accident, and behind the prize money and fame of the tournament hides a dark, secret intent by a shady group to bring the world to its knees.
I sat down with Olga Ryzkho, Frogwares, who took me through a few levels of the game and took some of my questions regarding what it has to offer.
“MagRunner is an action-reflexion game developed by 3AM Games (Frogwares) for Playstation Network, Xbox Live, and PC Digital. Magrunner puts the brain and reflexes to the test through challenges based on physics and magnetism.”
Built on Unreal 3, MagRunner is a physics based puzzle game explored through a first person perspective. You play as a competitor in the Magtech competition, created by multi-national company Gruckezber, which aims to promote their magnetism based technologies.
According to Ryzkho, the character has a chance of winning 1 million “credits”, as the entire world watches a live stream of the event from their homes, “however, competitors will soon understand that the sporting event they have entered was hiding a darker secret…”
Gruckezber might not be Aperture Science, but they’ve got their own array of technologies that – equally integral to the success of the title – dictate the mechanics of the game. in MagRunner, we have the Magtech Glove, which is – as you’d expect – a glove that magnetizes. MagRunner is therefore a title about attraction and repulsion, which serves as the core gameplay mechanic.
With physics puzzlers – even more so in the first person perspective – the core mechanic of the game really dictates whether or not the title has the foundations for success. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the levels are, or even if they’re designed well, if your core mechanic (in this case, the Magtech Glove, and concepts of attraction and repulsion) don’t work, your game has little chance for success. It seems however that Frogwares have succeeded at creating a solid and original mechanic for a genre that “Portal 2 proved marketable”.
As Ryzkho explains, your Magtech Glove fires two colours at applicable objects: red, and blue. “Blue is negative, and red is positive – they attract each-other, or they repel each-other.” You can also neutralize an object with grey/silver, which makes that object reactionless. “That is the main mechanic which we will use to explore the 45 levels.”
We started with a very simple example of the mechanics, which has us merely carrying a cube to place on top of a panel, from which we needed to launch the cube vertically. To do this, we merely colourized both the panel and cube until a negative force was applied, which propelled the cube into the air, unlocking the door to enter the next stage. It all sounds very Portal, but things evolve (or devolve) very rapidly, through a “rich story” based experience.
“The entire world is very captivated with this specific tournament, however, some people… politicians… might find these games the perfect opportunity for their bigger games, or their bigger plans. So you have this MagTech technology, which is like a renewable source of energy, and because the whole population across the universe is watching the event – all the energy is focused in one place – which is enough [specifically, MagTech] energy to awake Cthulhu. So your task, as the player, is to save the planet, fight the [Lovecraftian] monsters.”
Ryzkho clarifies on the dynamic, saying that “it will be a survival challenge, not at the very beginning, but at some point,” which was confirmed by showing us around 5 places in the game, which show a rapidly degrading tournament arena, which, through cracks in the walls, revealed a universe – indicating that we were in fact in space, as “other participants are dying.”
Just to clarify whether or not we were in fact in space, I asked “are we in space?” to which Ryzkho replied “yes.” I asked if we were on a space ship, but according to Ryzkho, it was “the same facility that we started in,” indicating that the game takes place off-planet, on a facility run by Gruckezber.
“Once the player is comfortable with the mechanics, we introduce more complicated and sophisticated scenarios.”
Ryzkho also hinted at Cthulhu altering, or damaging, “the fabric of time,” although I see no evidence of time-travelling as such.
Another interesting mechanical point is the robot dog “Newton.” Newton can be spawned by the player by firing the glove at any applicable surface. This allows the player to effectively propel him or herself by magnetizing whatever surface he or she is on, moving Newton in the direction the player wishes to go.
“You can magnetize him, red or blue, and you can use this ability of Newton to be magnetized in order to influence other different objects.” There’s also a “magnetic rifle” although I didn’t get to see it.
The title differs to Portal in that “there are endless opportunities as to how to finish the level” indicating some freedom with regards to how the mechanics are used. For example, I managed to propel myself on top of a cube by repelling the cube I stood on, flinging it into the air. From the air, I could jump onto a platform and reach the door.
Like Portal, however, there are turrets you must circumvent through creative ways, such as shattering the glass it stands on by flinging cubes at it. The turrets in MagRunner unfortunately do not talk to you, and do not care if you are “still there.”
Being an unavoidable subject, Ryzkho explained that “the game is inspired by Portal. Games like Portal introduce the market potential. The game was pretty successful, it really shows the lack of the games of that kind. Playing the game is fun, and sometimes it’s huge fun, but sometimes you want the game to make you think. There is the right balance to find between fun and challenge, and this is what, actually, we decided to do with MagRunner.”
MagRunner has the potential to be more challenging than Portal in that there are multiple ways to complete the levels. You might think this seems easier, but it merely obfuscates the possible directions. For instance, you might follow one path of deduction that, at some point, merges two opposing paths, leading in failure; whereas in Portal, you need to figure out the right path out of a possible one paths, which means you can only get closer to correct. In MagRunner, it seems you can dig yourself into a pit of despair by following the challenge either in the wrong order, or merging two lines of deduction that are actually mutually exclusive.
The core mechanic is a great success, and influencing the environment with the games major “gimmick” is entertaining and logical. Positive and negative attraction is a fairly simple concept to grasp, and there was a risk that the physics simply wouldn’t be finite enough to make it work. For instance, if I have to launch myself from an object – on an object – where must I place my object in order to launch it at the right angle to reach my destination? These problems didn’t really arise, and it was immediately evident when I had either made a mistake or barked up the wrong magnetic tree.
Whilst the similarities between Portal and MagRunner were painstakingly obvious, Frogwares are completely open to the fact that their title is directly inspired by Portal. They’re creating a game in the Portal sub-genre, if you like, and it seems that the marketability of titles of this kind justifies the similarities – no matter how great.
Whilst I’m not completely convinced the story is told as boldly as it sounds, the degeneration of the integrity of the facility is atmospheric and dynamic, and the game slowly changes as you leave the compound for more (literally) alien spaces. This isn’t a game of 45 levels in a test chamber, it is the adventure Frogwares have announced, and there are actually many different enemy types. You use your knowledge of the mechanics to laterally over-come them, and take back your world from the Lovecraftian spawn.
At the proposed 14.99 price tag, MagRunner looks to be a highly polished, mechanically successful first person puzzler with a great aesthetic and great puzzles. This title is created by the same minds that made Sherlock Holmes such a satisfyingly challenging title, and it seems Frogwares have taken the same initiative here.
For now, MagRunner is looking to be a single player experience, but Frogwares have “been looking into multiplayer, but this is still something we are exploring. As soon as the game is out, we will see any plans to have it [multiplayer].”
MagRunner retails around May for possibly 14.99, on 360, PS3, and PC (Steam).