From the set of The Mix, a PAX West Friday night afterparty and indie games showcase (Paxter party?), I explained to two developers from Skybox Labs why Stela, their cinematic platformer, is my favorite kind of platformer.
“Because I suck at the others.”
It’s true. The Super Meat Boys and Splosion Mans of the world only serve to frustrate me and scare me off. But cinematic platformers? Those are moody, often deliberately paced, atmospheric. Those are right up my alley.
Stela is one such platformer, and after playing an early sequence at PAX West, I can tell it’s not just going on my radar but many other radars, too.
There’s a bit of a curse — and it’s one I admittedly help propagate — surrounding cinematic platformers. They’re almost always compared to Limbo and Inside. The genre existed long before Limbo and has continued since 2016’s Inside, but people have a habit of quickly drawing the comparison.
For what it’s worth, these devs wear Playdead’s influence on their sleeves. They aren’t shy to admit the similarities are obvious, but they’re hopeful people give Stela its own fair shake.
Even amid pulsing music that killed the game’s obviously present atmosphere, I found myself engrossed in its weird setting. All I was told of the story is that you play a woman amid the final days of her world. Lanky, vaguely tree-like but still humanoid monsters roam about freely. It seems to be their world now.
These unsettling monsters are made more memorable thanks to the game’s clever use of space and depth. In games like Stela, the background is often used to depict a world more alive with strange sights, but Stela also employs the foreground a lot, like when a patrolling monster eventually leaves the scene by walking toward the player.
“That was really cool,” I told the devs. “I haven’t seen that before.” And that’s true.
For all their brilliance, neither Limbo nor Inside uses such trickery to expand a scene beyond what one can see on-screen. Internally, it forces you to extrapolate what comes outside the margins, giving the world richness which is made stronger by the puzzles that utilize space in similar ways.
It’s the most 3D a 2D game can really get, and it’s a subtle but interesting evolution of the Playdead formula.
I didn’t know at the time, but Skybox told me a “stela” is, essentially, a gravestone. It seems their game grapples with death, and I’m eager to see that theme play out in its starkly unnerving world.
I was told a release date announcement for Stela is coming soon, and it will definitely be out this year on Xbox.
For more coverage from PAX West 2019, be sure to head over to our PAX West 2019 hub.