Multiplayer online games

Phantom Abyss | Saturday newspaper


If 2020 was the year that online multiplayer games permeated our social lives, 2021 is the year of innovations in the genre. In the tradition of Indiana Jones, Unexplored and Grave robber comes the online multiplayer game made in Brisbane Phantom Abyss.

The game takes the popular battle royale format of titles such as Scapegoats, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite and removes the element of social pressure in real time. Developed by Team WIBY and published by indie giant Devolver Digital, it’s an asynchronous online multiplayer game that riffs on popular genres to create something new.

Rather than facing a mass of enemies, a Phantom Abyss The player is challenged to navigate the trap-filled chambers of a temple in order to retrieve sacred artifacts from the depths. Phantom Abyss offers an endless number of procedurally generated temples, endlessly recreating the thrill of the “daily challenge” offered by many online games. This dynamic structures the entire game with the thrill of a new challenge built from familiar elements, allowing the player to hone their skills without the boredom of repeating levels.

The team behind the title is made up of alumni of Halfbrick Studio in Brisbane, who was responsible for the successful mobile title Fruit Ninja. Before Phantom Abyss they worked together on Mr. Shifty, a top-down beat-’em-up with a short playtime that allowed the player to teleport through fast-paced action scenes, taking out enemies in melee combat brutal.

The team’s interest in fast-paced, kinetic play is also clear in this title. The player navigates these deadly environments with just a whip, allowing them to swing from ledge to ledge, and their own physical skills: strafing around the swinging blades, rushing over panels of rising spikes, or doing timely jumps on decaying platforms.

It’s a familiar and exhilarating set of platforming challenges, the thrill of which is amplified by the lack of save points, the finitude of each death, and the fact that each temple can only be attempted once. Also, once a person reaches the end and collects the relic, that temple is gone forever.

That doesn’t mean the experience is lonely, though: as you enter a new temple, the ghosts of adventurers who have fallen into the temple traps continue to retread the paths that led to their demise. They set traps as they go, and their failures guide you on your journey to survive. Rather than being invited to compete directly against friends, a player can challenge their friends in particular temples after failing. Without the pressure of real-time multiplayer, the social dimension of the game creates a tension that sits somewhere between collaboration and competition.

While a more headstrong player might be tempted to cause ghosts to run deep within the temple, a cautious player will be rewarded by learning from their mistakes or allowing them to set off traps to open safe passageways.

Currently in Early Access, the game already rewards a wide range of playstyles: for those without the dexterity of a seasoned first-person shooter, more strategic and vigilant approaches can pay off. Phantom Abyss is already an exciting addition to the massively multiplayer online gaming (MMO) landscape, without the social stress.

The game isn’t just an iteration of the battle royale genre. Unlike the wacky cartoon beans of fall guys or the ever-changing social world of Fortnite, this game revolves around an explicitly violent trope: you play as a looter tasked with stealing sacred relics. The environment itself explicitly only exists for the player, with no consideration for spaces as they could exist without the presence of the intruder.

Temples in Phantom Abyss wear the skin of sacred places of worship; they are not conceived as culturally meaningful spaces with stories, as spaces that could be understood or even distressed. They are designed to trap and challenge: there is no logic in their interior decoration apart from the logic of the game, to keep the intruder interested. The temple spaces could just as easily be medieval dungeons or a series of bank vaults – but they aren’t. The game has nothing to say about repeated forays by players on ostensibly sacred ground. After a while, the experience doesn’t even seem transgressive anymore; he feels hollow.

The colonial base of Phantom Abyss is only made worse by the game’s dependence on procedural generation. Each temple is created in response to the player’s request and responds only to the player. Their sum does not exceed the sum of their constituent parts – a series of traps, blocks and enemies recycled into new configurations with the aim of entertaining the intruder in an infinite number of different configurations. They appear to offer a new challenge and disappear when “resolved”. You can easily substitute the word “subjugated” here.

There are many indications that Phantom Abyss will experience commercial success. It’s backed by a renowned independent publisher and there is no doubt room in the market for a battle royale style asynchronous MMO as the audience for social games continues to grow through 2021.

Yes Phantom Abyss continues to fine-tune the balance between a challenge’s dopamine dose and maintaining a sense of community while alleviating the time and programming pressure of a real-time multiplayer game, it will find an eager new raptor audience adventure at its own pace.

The game has an innovative social design, and the world it presents is not entirely lacking in signs of life: within each temple is a cohesive language of symbols that avid fans of the game have already begun to decode. A logic governs which temple guard will appear where and what they will do.

But there is little indication that Phantom Abyss will take a more cautious approach to its colonial genre than its predecessors. Even the name itself is a parrot of the most insidious myth of any invaded place, especially the so-called Australia: that it can be both empty and haunted.

Phantom Abyss is available for Early Access on Steam.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 7, 2021 under the title “Chasing ghosts”.

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