PEGBRJE: On Rusty Trails and Newfound Courage

Both on the hunt for a new home.

Aw it’s a cute little dystopia.

On Rusty Trails is a platforming adventure title by Black Pants Studio, a small team out of Germany. Players are a small triangle robot individual named Elvis, living contently in a polarizing world when suddenly their house is destroyed. Knowing that they still have a warranty on it, Elvis sets off for the insurance office in the big city, hoping to reclaim their house and live at peace once again. Well, as peaceful as a world torn apart by racism can be.

On Rusty Trails is a platformer with a few twists and tricks up its sleeve, the most important being that platforms are not just platforms to stand upwards on; Elvis can run on walls. By simply reaching a corner and inputting the wall’s direction, players will begin running up the wall as if it was the floor itself. This opens up the map completely, allowing for avoiding hazards by simply utilizing the platform’s underbelly instead of attempting complicated maneuvers, and gives multiple paths inherently to the player to attempt. It also changes the jumping orientation, as Elvis will jump ‘upwards’ relative to their robot body, so being sideways will jump sideways. Make no mistake however; gravity is still downwards, so jumping off will kill poor Elvis if there is nothing to latch to.

Now, one may be thinking; ‘Hang on, he said racism, where’d that come from?’. Interestingly enough, racism is the second mechanic within On Rusty Trails, as right as Elvis is about to be murdered by a robot’s greatest nemesis — water — they uncover a ‘Shifty Suit’ that changes their appearance into that of the ‘other people’. Protected from the rain, Elvis is excited to keep moving, but finds that the world is much different now.

See, when I said the world was torn apart by racism, I meant that quite literally; platforms despawn at the sight of certain races. Assuming the robotic form, Elvis is granted access to the red metallic platforms but the organics are destroy themselves when approached. Switching to the suit, all mechanical services are closed off, while the organics remain. Save points are also race-specific, and the chips one must acquire to save can only be handed in when one assumes the correct form meaning that players can go an entire map without saving if they don’t alter their appearance for those checkpoints. This leads to the difficulty ramping up as players may need to change their appearance mid jump in order to ensure their intended platforms do not disappear before they can latch on.

This is all foreshadowed within the backdrops as the player runs through the worlds, with massive metropolis advertisements spreading propaganda against these organics. Many of them have happy triangular robots with checkmarks besides them and the organics having ‘x’s besides them to signify that they are not allowed. Elvis lives in this world of complete segregation, with even background NPCs changing their attitude to Elvis depending on what their wearing. Numerous times I’ve been met with hearts, only to return a few moments later in a different appearance to be met with skulls.

It’s by far the most ‘cutesy’ way of representing race relations that I’ve seen, and turning this topic into a mechanic to hammer home the point is a move I can’t say I’ve seen before. The amount of difficulty I was having thanks to the constant platform switching is certainly an allegory for the amount of hoops that are present for anyone attempting to bridge the gap between the two, but it must be done. The set pieces are also gorgeous in a depressing kind of way, as they represent the massive megacities that eventually populate a dim and dark world, to keep the juxtaposition of a cute robot in a gritty world alive.

If you are looking for a fun platformer that utilizes wall running and has some serious race relation overtones, this may be the title you’ve been looking for.

Newfound Courage is a narrative adventure made by Cafe Empty, an indie studio comprised of director and founder Curtis Campion, editor Lee Arthur, pixel artist Kurt Prieto and features composer Jessica Kelly. The game is broken into 3 chapters, with an intro setting the scene for our protagonist Alexander and his arrival to the town of Silverpine. After familiarizing himself with his new home with Nora, Alex meets Jake and gets to work helping out with the Vault by sorting and returning books to their shelves. If only that were all that this title were about, Alex may be blissfully able to live his new life — alas, ‘twas not meant to be.

It’s hard to explain somewhat, but Newfound Courage is more closely akin to a narrative experience than a ‘video game adventure’ as it were. Players control Alex to fulfill different tasks that he places in his journal after they’ve been received. These tasks involve fetching or returning books to and from certain people or locations while learning of the world that is Silverpine. The puzzles remind me of many Legend of Zelda inspired titles, finding the correct sequence of items at certain times or acquiring the correct item to give to an individual. They aren’t the main focus of the game, they flesh the title out and give it some variance; a supporting mechanic, as it were. Yet there is no combat in this title, so what exactly is the main mechanic?

The plot. Which comes with spoilers. Obviously.

While calling it a mechanic may be a stretch, Newfound Courage’s big drawing point is in just how honest and grounded the plot is while within a narrative setting of the fantastical. In the prologue, players are given the context to our protagonist and how he ended up in a new environment. He left home not of his own free will, but because his parents drove him away for being ‘wrong’, making it sound as if he were defective, or if some fantasy disease had gotten him. In reality, Alex fell in love with another boy his age, and was wrestling with his homosexuality. His sister helped him as much as she could, but eventually she left to hopefully protect him leaving Alex alone. This is where the game’s first chapter begins, with Alex being found by Nora and taken in, beginning his new life in Silverpines and meeting Jake.

From there, each interaction made with the townsfolk through these errands accompanies dialogue to give each one of these smalltown individuals a heart, a backstory that they do not readily share yet hint at. Nora herself lost her son some years ago, while the lovely sugar selling lady Marge seemingly pretends to be another lady some times. Many come off as a little quirky or odd, but it’s clear that they each try to deal with their hurt and backstory as best they can in either the hopes of moving on or accepting it. And this all occurs while Alex is dealing with a bizarre supernatural vault with small hooded individuals called ‘Sendings’ running around.

What ties everyone together is the constant theming of memories; either in their hopes to forget them or dwell within them, it is the memories of what the people of Silverpine lost that makes them so compelling to the player. Alex too suffers under the constant threat of feeling different, the memories of his family and his past never truly letting him move on even when he believes that he has. It’s memories that drives much of the plot forward, even if one doesn’t realize it, and it’s only through reconciliation and understanding that they may each move on from them.

Mild side note, but the ending of this game was beautifully done. I don’t have the experiences of dealing with the alienation of those around me due to my sexual orientation, but playing as a protagonist that did was the closest I came to having an understanding. The way that the narrative handles itself was so heartwarming, yet full of emotional weight as it took into account not just Alex but also Jake as well. It never left anyone behind, nor did it feel as if anyone was at fault; it was just how life worked.

I never thought Newfound Courage would stick with me as much as it did for something that was so simple; an adventure story of a boy saving a town from possible destruction. Yet within this adventure, it dealt with topics of understanding and acceptance while helping our protagonist gain exactly what the title infers. It’s not long, but if anyone is looking for representation that they wished they had in a main character, Alex is a fantastic individual to follow in his journey.

Links

Game Dev who decided to take on the monumental task of giving an overview of all 59 pages in the bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. We keep going.