Thoughts on DLC Quest

on Wednesday, May 23, 2012

  • Going Loud Studios
  • Action, platformer
  • Release: Nov 2, 2011 (US)
  • Platforms: Xbox 360 (XBLA), PC (version reviewed), Mac

In cinema, short films are a remarkable variation on the medium that allow for themes to be explored concisely and in isolation. The same is true for short stories in literature. In games, however, players far too often criticize titles that fail to consume many hours of the gamers' time. DLC Quest, however, stands an excellent example of a "short game," showing the error in judging games based on play time. It artfully exploits its medium for satire, and it uses every moment that it spends with you to its very fullest.

There is no shortage of motivation in this narrative.
DLC Quest takes the hyper-commercialization of the video game industry as its theme. As a satire on gaming itself, it is fitting that the game takes the form of 2D side-scrolling platformer, perhaps the most prototypical of video game types. The player takes control of a pixelated main character, and motivation for the game is provided, quite literally, by a princess kidnapped by a bad guy. The format immediately evokes comparison to games like the Mario series and the differences in their business models. The game's humor and gameplay really comes to the forefront when the player first tries to move, only to realize that there are no features to this game other than moving to the right. Soon, we stumble upon a shopkeeper who reveals the game's conceit; we must collect coins to buy fictional DLC.

There is no need to discuss the individual DLC. Each is itself a humorous take on real DLC packages that are sold all of the time, and many highlight the importance of aspects of video game design often taken for granted (such as sound design). They are slowly revealed as the player explores the colorful, expansive level. There is no real difficulty here. Rather that creating the frustrated tension that arises from danger and difficulty in other games, DLC Quest creates tension through mild frustration at missing features. The catharsis, of course, is the humorous reveal of the DLC you eventually earn. These events are punctuated by "awardments," little acheivements (like Steam acheivements or PSN trophies) that seem entirely arbitrary. The game pulls no punches in poking fun at the Pavlovian motivation that drive so many games - there is no shortage of coins to collect and awardments to unlock in this world. Ironically, some of these, like the coins, manage to poke fun at meaningless collectibles on another level by actually being essential to the gameplay of this title. It is a clever device indeed.

DLC Quest never overstays its welcome. In less than an hour, the game has been exhausted. But that is when the game reveals its greatest irony of all: the game was great fun despite the paucity of DLC and features. Many recent high-profile indie titles have been held of as examples of art in gaming, but perhaps we should also be looking at DLC Quest when considering such topics. Like the greatest short films, it is perfectly edited to use its entire running time in the service of its themes. Its gameplay and the charming humor of the simple narrative work together seamlessly to fully exploit the gaming medium so as to create the satire. The game is both enjoyable and insightful. In short, DLC Quest works wonderfully.

UPDATE (2013-04-17): DLC Quest now features an additional story campaign. This update is not part of what is discussed above, and, indeed, I feel that the padded length actually reduces the effectiveness of the conceit.


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