Experimental from start to finish, Toren is a breathtaking, insightful, and incisive experience. A sincere attempt to recapture the rhythm and form of poetry within the bounds of an interactive game, I am confident in saying it's unlike anything you have ever played before, but once you move past its alien narrative structure and subtle sense of beauty, it also becomes one of the most heartfelt and evocative games you'll ever play.
As a coming of age story, Toren is an extended metaphor covering the physical development, emotional growth and intellectual maturity of a child. It's a story of learning, of wonder in the world, but also of the sadness of innocence lost, death, and responsibility. Because it's a poem this narrative is told partly through stanzas of dialogue, but the developers had the confidence to also let the environment and simple existence of the characters be an active part of the storytelling process. The girl that is central to the narrative is on a quest to journey to the top of a tower (with a giant tree growing inside it as she scales) and defeat a dragon. But to do so she also needs to visit alternate realms that represent power, pride, the abyss, and others, and pay homage to her ancestors and the understanding of the world that she will need to succeed as an adult. Steeped deeply in metaphor and symbolism as the finest poems are, there's very little literal content in Toren; for example, rather than representing some kind of great evil that is threatening the world, this dragon, the very pinnacle goal, is more akin to a rite of passage; a personal challenge to overcome in order to move into adulthood.
The writers behind Toren had the confidence to allow their work to be obscure and take some interpretation from the player in order to pass on its messages. Games that are based on poetic storytelling techniques are rare enough, and even when they happen, they generally turn out like Child of Light. Which, fine game as it was, was more interested in using poetry for its lyrical value than for narrative depth. Toren is more akin to games like Tengami, where the player is tasked with finding meaning for themselves through their play, and being an active participant in the storytelling process. It's the better for it, in the same way that aspiring writers are constantly told to "show, not tell" - a lesson most game story writers seem to have sadly forgotten.
For example; in one of the alternate realms, the girl needs to take an innocent life; a deer, as a lesson in the fragility of life and the need to have respect for it. With barely a line of "story," and not a word from the mute girl, this scene is deeply, truly affecting, as the deer cowers in fear, and no way to progress further through the game without performing the act. Toren doesn't tell us what the girl feels about her act, but we're led to conclusions on the crushing experience that must be nonetheless. Or are we? Just like a good poem, a lot of the meaning that we draw from this game will be determined by who we, the audience, are. Barthes' Death of the Author is no more appropriate than to the genre of poetry, and just as Nintendo invites players to impart their own vision of Link into that mute character, so too are we invited to place our own personal sense of empathy and emotion onto the little girl of Toren.
This rich - albeit obscured - narrative is supported by one of the most aesthetically beautiful games that has ever been created. It's a technical mess at times, with everything from screen tearing to a shuttering frame rate, clipping, and blocky character models, but the gentle colours of the hub world, contrasted with violently clashing visions within some alternate realms to represent anger, or the pitch black of the abyss, weave a story in itself. Dreamlike from start to finish, the visionary tapestry supports the narrative and ethereal soundtrack in building a pervading sense of melancholia, both gorgeous and deeply saddening to behold. I never thought I would be comparing games to T.S Eliot, but both Toren and Rain on the PlayStation 3 remind me so much of The Love Song Of J. Alfred that it's eerie, and I'm truly glad that there are even two of them out there.
And I say everything above without even understanding everything that Toren is offering. As a game from Brazil, it is clearly drawing on a wide range of Latin American cultural philosophies, a mindset I don't have a great deal of exposure to sitting here in Australia. Far from being a criticism (the base narrative remains completely coherent), I found this to be inspiring in the way it gently prods me into learning more about its deeper nuances. I want to understand more about South American culture and storytelling having played this, and that is surely a sign of a meaningful game.
The game itself is a fairly standard puzzle adventure game, in which players are given a range of simple puzzles that they need to overcome in order to progress. In one instance the girl needs to rish from pylon to pylon to shield herself from the dragon's deadly breath weapon. This one is actually quite creative, because each time the girl fails, her body is turned to stone from the deadly breath, but on her next attempt, she can use the statue corpse as an additional shield from the breath (each time the girl dies her next form is a reincarnation of her). Another puzzle sees the dragon calling up gusts of wind at regular intervals, and the girl needs to grab on to a statue to prevent her being blown back some distance. This one is... not as good. It's not terrible, and works, it just lacks the same sense of original creativity that the narrative worked so hard on.
The one disappointment I have with Toren is that the developers didn't seem to take the confidence that let them to break with storytelling convention and do the same with most of the gameplay elements, rather opting to go for safe, proven puzzles and the like we've already seen dozens of times before. These make sense in the context of the narrative - the aforementioned puzzle where the statues of failed girls provide cover to the new incarnation is an easy metaphor for the process in which children learn from their mistakes - but when everything else about Toren is so incredibly original and, yes, innovative, to allow itself to be constrained by risk-adverse gameplay concepts is a downer.
Despite that, Toren really is about its narrative, and that is arthouse gold. Like the finest of foreign cinema, this game challenges how the wisdom behind blockbuster design would dictate a game should be put together. It's constrained by budget and, perhaps, a lack in confidence to go all the way and risk complete innovation, but it's a beautiful, emotive, and powerful experience, and it's going to be one of my games of the year. If not one of my favourite games ever.
- Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
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