Lylian, Episode 1: Paranoid Friends is the first release of one-man outfit PixelPickle Games and has the feel of a shareware thing you’d pick up on floppy disk from a dusty PC shop before the heady and glamorous days of Electronics Boutique. It’s a primitive side-scrolling beat-em-up with simple controls, dubious music and waves of identical baddies; unrefined, often frustrating.
Lylian, the player-character, is a little girl who is mentally ill and her parents decided to commit her to a mental hospital. This is where the game takes place. She has a friend who is a teddy bear, stitched together from bits of other children’s stuffed toys. It is possessed by ghosts and can crawl into vents to open locked doors. One day, a shadow that looks like a child releases Lylian from her cell and she embarks on a journey to find out what weird thing is going on at the hospital. And there is something weird going on; Lylian is mad, but there are other people locked up here who are not, the shadow tells her. So she explores the institution and beats up the grotesque staff and inhabitants trying to stop her with the starched sleeves of her now untied straight jacket. Sometimes, the sheer power of her warped imagination will transform reality allowing her to overcome certain obstacles.
That’s the essence of the game. What I’ve just told you there. Those interesting ideas. Now you know them you needn’t play it. You needn’t bother with its “just hammer the space bar” combat, the frequently dark and dull environments, the awkward platforming bits or the crazy difficulty spike at the end. It’s possible that Paranoid Friends contains ideas that are better than the game you’ll actually play.
But there is something appropriately alienating about the old school style that runs hand-in-hand with the game’s thematics. Lylian is mentally disturbed, can we trust her? The first thing she does when leaving her cell is discover another inmate, a small, scared boy, and whip him with her straight jacket sleeves until he gives her the donuts he’s somehow found. Lylian is capricious and maybe the combat that forms the core of the game is the result of her aggression towards the hospital staff who try to keep her locked away? Because, maybe she needs to be.
One surreal enemy we encounter is the grinning, overtly sexualised nurse – waves of them attack Lylian over the course of the game. Are the crowds of identical enemies a limitation of the indie game budget or do they suggest something innately unreal about the situation in which Lylian finds herself? In fact, there’s little about the game principles, the enemy design or locations that can be described as anything other than surreal.
Is the game world itself a projection, imagined by a disturbed little girl? Is there actually some conspiracy at the hospital? How much of what we experience or are told is the truth?
I may well be reading far more into Paranoid Friends than is intended. Of course, games can be weird without justification but when playing around with the notion of sanity it’s inevitable that we’ll start to question whose reality we are seeing and what actually is going on. I look back at a game like Sanitarium and remember how much I enjoyed its wander through similarly ambiguous territory. Without these questions floating around our heads as we play, there’s the possibility that Paranoid Friends is only an average game held together by some interesting ideas. We’ll have to wait for part two to see if PixelPickle are intending to make Lylian a series of games worthy of their conceptual thoughts.