In Extremis Review - It's All In The Aesthetics
Aesthetics is defined as a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of art, beauty, and taste with the creation and appreciation of beauty.
The concept of aesthetics is what came to mind as I played In Extremis for the PC. Developed and published by LNDFRR, In Extremis is a shoot em up--commonly referred to as a shmup. The game is designed as a top down vertical scrolling shooter. Now, referring to this title by that description alone would do the experience no justice.
Going back to the theme of aesthetics, I believe that the game was built with aesthetics in mind for the gaming audience. In that vein, I'll be reviewing how In Extremis covers the six universal elements of aesthetics.
Expertise or virtuosity
Humans cultivate, recognize, and admire technical artistic skills. As a shmup, true admiration comes from a high score. The game features a hit counter based on the number of enemies you shoot. The longer you shoot them, the more hits you get. If you don't, your counter drops.
Add in the fact that the game progressively gets more challenging, and your high score becomes a true matter of skill. The driving force of a high score never gets old or not fun. The game also ranks your stage performance based on number of deaths, time, enemies shoot, and etc. Who doesn't want get a better score?
"People enjoy art for art's sake, and don't demand that it keep them warm or put food on the table." In Extremis has a driving narrative that backs the game. It may not win awards, but it's quite artful to say the least. You are a young woman who has left Earth. She has grown tired of everything and wishes to fly to the end of the Universe. That's certainly different from stopping a space invasion. This is an intergalactic road trip of growth. The story is wholly up to player interpretation and considering the subject matter, that's for the best.
"Artistic objects and performances satisfy rules of composition that place them in a recognizable style." The game is 2D and the art strewn throughout the game is hand drawn, at times 3D-esque, and even generated. The game has multiple stages and substages, and each stage feels as if they take inspiration from different art styles. For example, Stage 3 under water, is an expression of life underwater. Enemies explode in bubbles and it appears as if you're navigating your way through the deep blue sea.
"People make a point of judging, appreciating, and interpreting works of art." There are some criticisms to make against the game. However these aren't necessarily negative. The game is rather different compared to most shmups; I mean it disregards the norm for the sake of expression. For example, Stage 2 0100111 (it's a series of zeroes and ones) is an ode to computers of decades past.
The stage begins as if you were booting an older PC. You fly in a PC across circuits and boards as electrons attack you. Things get weirder when the stage fools you into thinking it crashed. It then turns into an older PC where corrupted data attacks you. The crescendo of the stage is with its boss; it's a massive face in a PC because why not? I was never at a loss for applause.
By now, you should know the art influences built into the DNA of In Extremis are deliberate. The developer is as much an active appreciator of art as they are game designers as stated on their blog:
"Videogames are a space of interaction, after all, and are at their most interesting when broken, misunderstood and taken out of their desired contexts. By being essentially an open art, they can have multiple meanings and approaches, and multiplicity is their id."
"With a few important exceptions like abstract painting, works of art simulate experiences of the world." As you play through the stages and their subsequent themes, they trigger parts of our lives that are hard to ignore. An example would be Stage 2 Primordia. It has a black backdrop, the enemies are more colorful, and they explode in confetti.
The stage begins with a thumping jazz song by the US Army Blues. The stage appears to be normal and scrolls vertically. Then things change as your environment moves back and forth horizontally. At first I thought this was random, but then I realized it's supposed to simulate dancing at a club. The point is further punctuated because the boss is a man who loves to dance. Can you name an arcade shooter that has done this?
"Art is set aside from ordinary life and made a dramatic focus of experience." This is rather self explanatory. In Extermis is different and revels in that fact. As you fly through stages, songs tend to fade away. The only sound at times is your bullet shooting down an enemy. It's rather lonely, but again, that's the point.
The pilot's journey is a lonely one. LNDFRR's design choices were clearly to keep their artistic vision in the rear view mirror. The title offers many opportunities for players to enjoy all that it is. Even when all hell breaks loose on the screen and bullets are everywhere, it's still beautiful.
Closing the artshow
Now, I know I spent a large amount of time reviewing In Extremis as art. The actual game itself, when separated from the art, isn't the best shmup. However, this isn't a knock against the game at all. In Extremis is something special because of the sum of its parts.
The game features multiple difficulties and stages. You can choose your own route throughout your journey. The better you perform, the more experience you gain, and thus the more continues you gain. Not to mention, the game features different genres of music such as jazz, electronica, and rock. Some songs can be found on the free music archive. To the developer's credit, each track compliments each stage perfectly.
I've played my fair share of titles this year and none have come close as to how aesthetically aware and trippy In Extremis is. You can play the game for hours worrying about your score. You may ignore all the art and messages dripping across the screen. If you're at all like me, you spend those same hours trying to make sense of the imagery.
If you want a weird (in a great way), artful, challenging, and message heavy game, I have to recommend (emphatically) In Extremis.
In Extremis is available now via Steam.
Review for Steam was provided by the game's publisher.