Sub-15 is our regular look into smaller games (that go for $15 or less) with great ideas. Think of it as Free Play , on a little bit of a budget.
We live in the age of the silly physics game. Gang Beasts, Human: Fall Flat, Goat Simulator, and a whole host of other games have been created, and risen to popularity, based on the fact that watching things flop around on-screen is incredibly funny. We might chalk that humor up to the fact that these are things that are acting in a way that we don’t expect; the novelty comes from the physics simulation. Another reason might be that the difference between a player’s expectation of control and what actually happens generates some kind of comedy of errors.
The Balcony, a physics-y game from developers Holotna, exists right in the sweet spot of humor and challenge. Much like those other physics games, it is a game where you can know exactly what you want to do and how to do it, yet you can never quite make it happen. Following the tradition of QWOP, it is easy to conceptually understand and infinitely difficult to actually operate. I failed (and continue to fail) at The Balcony over and over and over again, with a smile on my face.
The Balcony puts you in the shoes of a faceless person on a mission: The local police have run out of money. Organized crime is running rampant, and the Red Shirt Group, Shirtless Gang, and the Mafia have all sliced up the city to terrorize the citizens. It is up to the player to go to specific apartments around the city and mete out justice. Your method? You fling items from an apartment down on the criminals below. It’s an incredibly goofy in a way that matches the physics simulation that powers The Balcony.
As you might imagine, it’s very easy to drop a bag of trash or a frying pan from a balcony onto an unwitting criminal below. It clonks them on the head, they’re taken out of the organized crime game, and you go on to your next mission. The game becomes much more complicated when you are tasked with throwing an item to hit a target across a street. It becomes even more difficult when that target is moving.
You see, there is no “throw” button. You can’t just huck things. Instead, much like picking up items in an Elder Scrolls game, objects only move when they’re being accelerated with your mouse. The Balcony requires you to pick things up, heave them, and then click at exactly the right moment so that they are released at the angle and speed that you want them to have. This, I promise you, is very hard.
Imagine me sitting and cursing quietly as I tried to heave everything in an apartment across the street to hit a Red Shirt Group member who was changing a tire. Boots by the door? Thrown one by one across the street. Table? There it goes. Bed? Heaved in anger. It was a final, near perfect, tire throw that finally cleared the level for me.
That tire, in case you’re curious, heavily bounced off the head of my target and immediately smashed into a person who was patiently waiting for their tire to be changed, resulting in a “morality” hit to my final score for the level. The Balcony has a little simulated world, you see, full of people driving cars and pedestrians wandering around. Just like the real world, you can’t simply heave items off a balcony willy-nilly. You need to be surgical and tactical while hucking flower pots.
For all of the comedy involved, The Balcony has an interesting game design at its heart. Throwing things is hard. It’s difficult to measure distance and to match that distance to your ability. So while I laughed a lot while playing the game, I also want to stress that The Balcony is a game with serious design ideals. I think that someone could become very serious about this game in a way that I doubt is really possible with a “zany” game like Goat Simulator.
The Balcony, then, is in the wonderful place of being a game in a silly genre that is nonetheless pushing that genre forward into new and interesting territory. It conveys the pleasure of both destruction and progress, which few games can manage to do. If we’re in the age of the silly physics game, then The Balcony signals that designers are now learning and developing new ideas with those basic bones. It’s a brave new world of throwing refrigerators off balconies.
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