Once a 4-level mod made as a puzzle platformer, Qbeh-1: The Atlas Cube has gained a dash, a colon, and even a tagline. The remarkable thing about this mod-to-game is how polished and professional the entire package looks. Inspired by games like Portal and Minecraft, this game has carves itself a niche that makes it both familiar enough for players to try out, yet unique enough to keep players intrigued and interested.
One of the strongest things Qbeh-1 has going for it is the simplistic gameplay. It's very obviously inspired by early games, and eschews many of the trappings of modern gaming's superfluous complexities. Because of this streamlined gameplay loop - find block, place block, move on - it allows the puzzle design to shine. Rather than throw a substantial number of complicated puzzle mechanics at you, this game instead chooses to give you four basic concepts - building, powering, jumping, and traveling - and by combining them in various ways, can deliver challenges as simple as building a basic set of stairs to a complicated maze with no floor that must be travelled using synchronized floating paths, complete with a white-knuckled jump at the end after placing a power block near the end of the path. Puzzles start as being simple - its a tutorial that doesn't feel like a tutorial at all, which is commendable - but build and combine in ways where you end up scaling a tower with only a handful of blocks and a deep sense of satisfaction when you reach the top.
The art design is commendable. One of the most interesting art projects I ever had was to draw a still life using a single color - brown, and two shades, one light brown, and one dark brown. The point of the exercise was to force you to make your choices more meaningful, rather than rely on an explosion of various colors. In a way, Qbeh-1 replicates this exercise. Rather than rely on flashy explosions, the latest and greatest shader effects, models with tens of thousands of polygons, and other graphical gimmicks, it focuses on a narrow band of artistic effects, and then pulls it off with great success. The colors - stark whites and greys accented with bursts of vibrant colors - not only are visually appeasing next to each other, but also contrast nicely with the amazing skies; some of the best I've yet seen in games. I got distinct feelings of Mirror's Edge and how they used color to guide the player through the levels. The color palette here is similar, and I think Qbeh-1 pulls it off better due to how uncluttered the worlds appear compared to Mirror's Edge.
The sound and music design for Qbeh-1 is amazing, as it's simplicity not only fits the thematic elements perfectly, but because of the simplicity, it manages to achieve depth. Rather than attempt to wow you with orchestral suites or generic dub-step wub-wubs, the music is airy, dreamy, and light. It fits in perfectly not only with the levels - large buildings floating high in the atmosphere - but it also hits a sweet spot that so much of game music misses; it's unique enough to be noticed, but not catchy enough to become so immediately recognizable (much of World of Warcraft's music suffers from this) that it becomes quickly tedious. It serves its purpose precisely - as ambient background sound to draw you in, but never to distract you. It's almost childlike sound and instrument choices help to draw you into the exploration motif, and even still, some tracks have almost a dark feel to them, suggesting there may be more under the surface than what first seems to be the case.
As someone who does level design, the design of the levels was something that impressed me immensely. Visually, the levels were stunning - floating monolithic structures that combined the comforting feeling of symmetry along with enough asymmetry to still remain visually interesting. Each world has its own theme, and the themes blend perfectly into the levels - icicles hang overhead in the winter levels, empty calcareous shells of molluscs lay in pools in the water levels, dead leaves lay in corners in the wind levels. Because everything was uniformly scaled (and the borders on the cubes helped reinforce this), there was never a feeling of having to make ridiculous trick-jumps. You immediately got the sense of what was possible and what was not, based on distance and the world's physics. Rather than try to cheat the puzzles using tricky jumps or falls, the solutions felt fair, and ultimately felt rewarding by using your brain rather than trying to exploit the physics, jumping, or collision.
The story and theme is something that I specifically wanted to touch on, as I had seen some posts about there not being a story or anything resembling it. I'm not entirely sure that's the case, as there definitely feels like there's something going on below the surface. I think it might be safer to say that rather than a storyline, I felt like there was some overarching theme to the game.
Qbeh-1 feels like a dead world, in a lot of ways. There is beauty here, but also sadness. Presumably it was inhabited once - something or someone had to create those owl and elephant statues - but whoever it was is now gone. The player feels like, as he is exploring, he is inadvertently bringing this world back to life through his actions, either by literally building with red cubes, or by powering up devices with blue cubes. The notion of power - or the importance of it at least - is reinforced with the windmills and fans in Chapter 4.
Something else that is striking is the feeling and sense of an entropic world. An extremely basic (flawed, but works here) definition for entropy is the lack of order or structure - that in a closed system, energy flows out of organized and structured systems to leave them in a disordered and chaotic state. Qbeh-1 really has an entropic feeling to it - the idea that the world is gradually falling into an entropic state of disarray. Rooms are missing walls, floors, and ceilings, where blocks literally fall into the atmosphere. Even in areas where walls and floors are straight, the occasional cube will be out of place - sticking out a few cm, or perhaps tilted just a few degrees; clearly done on purpose by the designer for effect. Floors crumble beneath you as you walk on them. Perhaps the fans and windmills were an effort to make sure energy remaining in the system, holding it together as best as it could. And perhaps by our actions, and how we (in a way) organized the system, there is hope for this world after all.
Qbeh-1, overall, is an amazing example of a non-typical game that easily surpasses much of what would be considered more mainstream games, by virtue of the fact that everything is does, it does really, really well. Rather than be a jack-of-all-trades to attempt to appeal to everything while exceeding at nothing, Qbeh-1 excels at the simplistic gameplay that leads to complicated puzzles, stunning artistic theme, amazing music and sounds, and incredible level design that pulls all these elements together into a cohesive unit. It's a peaceful game that alternates some degree of timing puzzles with the slow and methodical exploration that allows you to play at your own pace. For those who enjoy exploration, each level also contains a golden pyramid pickup which are usually hidden in fiendishly clever places.
Developed using the Unity game engine, this is a game which is highly recommended, but I fear that it will slide under the radar for most gamers which I think is a tragedy. It's a great example of the ability to marry the puzzle genre with a more traditional first person genre, and still be successful without resorting to violence, being spoon fed a storyline, or the overly scripted gameplay which creates the illusion of cerebral choice, but actually offers none at all. Rather this game celebrates choice, exploration, and emergent problem solving in an environment which nutures it.