Is Trials Evolution the Perfect Game?

You're reading Reaction Time, a weekly column that claims to examine recent events, games and trends in the industry, but is really just looking for an excuse to use the word "zeitgeist." It debuts on Fridays in Engadget's digital magazine, Distro.
Trials Evolution might just be the perfect video game. The subject matter doesn't seem worthy of the adjective, as it mostly involves a subject colliding with matter face-first after being catapulted from a motorcycle into an unimpressed log. It's just a simple, repeatable exercise in balancing a bike, which you steer through an insane obstacle course for no reason other than to succeed and see some flashy fireworks at the end.

So, perhaps it's not the greatest or most important creation to emerge from an industry packed with intelligent designers and bold artists. It is, however, a perfect encapsulation of what drives any good game. Trials is like a transparent cube – a simple shape to house and display the same gears that turn within more elaborate machines. (It also costs $15, so a comparison to one of those gaudy, see-through Swatches from the '90s might be more apt.)

Simplicity is often mistaken for stupidity in modern games, branded as the enemy of depth. But here simplicity is the partner of depth, obscuring it but never excising it. What you're doing -- which is constantly adjusting your motorcycle's speed, angle, driver posture and center of gravity -- is complex in the millisecond minutiae, but the marvel of Trials is that your interaction feels utterly primal and almost thoughtless. You're plugged in by the fingertips, steering through intuition alone, somehow predicting and controlling the physical behavior of an object that doesn't even exist. It's the kind of connection that makes you lean, lurch and laugh in your chair as you play.

That Trials can tap into your sense of speed and balance, even when you're stationary, shows an impressive collusion of technology and visual communication. And having conveyed the behavior of your vehicle (your in-game avatar, in this case) so well, the game is free to fill the road with devious, unnecessary obstacles. And what is a game if not a string of unnecessary obstacles?

What sets Trials Evolution apart from its predecessor (beyond the absurd track editor) are the wild, imaginative race locales. The venues are all built on the same, gigantic piece of land, but that's about the only context they share. By the time you're halfway through the single-player challenges, you've jumped and teetered through a tumbling dreamscape, a sequence of bridges suspended in the clouds and a beach in World War 2. The core challenge and the satisfaction of mastering it is the same throughout, and it can be transplanted to just about anywhere.

Extrapolate that illustration to other games, and you almost see why shooters are lambasted for doing the same thing over and over in different places (and to different enemies). If the combat and encounters are well designed -- the people in that department kinda know what they're doing by now -- then the important part's done. Unfortunately, when games struggle with the non-essential it can detract from the entire vision, and we can't always be satisfied with just the raw, mechanical ingredients.

If Trials isn't perfect, then it might suffice to call it "pure." The effortless control, implicit communication, repeatable challenge (and, of course, the inherent joy in seeing a human falling his ass off) form a quintessential, gamey game, and everything else is ... enough. More games could learn from that clarity of purpose, but then most have to explain more complex ideas than "a resilient dude jumps a bike over some gnarly stuff." Sometimes the dude has a gun.

My biggest hesitation in picking Trials Evolution as a candidate for the perfect video game is that it implies an endorsement of deconstruction. It's a great game in many regards, but truly valuable as a reminder of how we can connect with video games, outside of embellishments borrowed from other mediums. Recognizing that pure, mechanical brilliance is to celebrate what games bring to the table. You can see that as a suggestion to strip things down going forward (keep it simple, Stupid), or to build them up and accommodate players in even more ways (MAKE ME CRY, VIDEO GAMES). I'm going with the latter, but I'm keeping my Swatch.


Ludwig Kietzmann is the Editor-in-Chief of Joystiq.com. He's been writing about video games for over 10 years, and has been working on this self-referential blurb for about twice as long. He thinks it turned out pretty well. Follow him on Twitter @LudwigK.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.