How can a game with a brilliant visual language be a failure?
Eufloria (formerly Dyson; $20 on Steam) is much more than pretty -- more than beautiful, even. It's gorgeous to look at the swarms of pastel spaceships ("seedlings") flying by the thin "trees" (factories) among the simple circular "asteroids" (territories). It's utterly charming when you're zoomed in and watching clouds of wings riffle past each other, like a ballet of moths. And it's charming in a totally different way when you're zoomed out and looking at bright dots pouring kinetically from asteroid to asteroid, splashing as they land and regroup for battle. Each unit is like a tiny droplet of water, poured through space from one asteroid to another. At their destination, they splash out from impact and leave a crater, a temporary shallowness, and then rush in to fill it. It's a majesty of fluid dynamics. The screenshots do not capture the power of the game in motion. It is certainly pretty.
But it's more than pretty because those great visuals are full of game-play meaning -- they are a visual language. Eufloria is a simple real-time strategy game, and almost every part of the simple game design gets a straightforward, sensible, text-free cue in the visual design. Seedlings sport bigger wings if they are faster, bigger bodies if tougher, and bigger probosces if stronger than normal (lasers are always in the nose; it is our ancient way). Older trees are taller and fuller, and produce more seedlings than younger ones. The beautiful swarmings of your seedlings are not just decoration. They determine the battles. Opposing seedlings start shooting each other just when the tides of their chaotic seas bring them together. Strike where the enemy is shallow.
What I'm saying is that to play this game is to be in a rare harmony of external representation and game logic. What you see is what you get: the game is governed by a few simple mechanisms, like an elegant watch, and the visual representation opens up the clockwork for you. In the usual RTS, you build many kinds of units and come to understand the differences over the course of many plays, absorbing them into muscle memory if you're serious. Eufloria makes this usually-hard-won understanding immediately accessible to you.
I believe this is what makes Eufloria simultaneously so serene and so absorbing. The soft colors and ambient soundtrack set a tone, but the meditative flow state I feel in the game comes from the elegant melding of presentation and mechanics -- when it works.
After all this, it is either a disappointment or a full-on tragedy that Eufloria is not a very good game. When I could just relax to Eufloria, it was enjoyable, and it felt like a mere disappointment that there wasn't more to it. But other times it felt like I had to really push on a level, and the right strategy always turned out to be to hole up in a small area and stockpile units, because the AI is too stupid to build up and too docile. Eufloria feels too much like a game of Risk that you can always win by holing up in Australia and waiting. And when you're waiting, and waiting, -- you can't speed up time in Eufloria -- and waiting to produce units to run the one strategy that always works, Eufloria's failings start to feel fully tragic. (These flaws are reinforced by Eufloria's puzzling lack of multiplayer support -- the AI opponent is the only opponent you can play against.)
Eufloria is too easy, and too slow, and many basic tasks require tons of repetition. The interface has clever tools for many tasks, like separating the seedlings on one asteroid into several populations. But there are many equally important things you have to do by hand. For example, when you control a field of 8 asteroids, all producing seedlings, you will often want to harvest those seedlings together into a common location. To do that you have to click each asteroid every time you want to move its complement of seedlings. Those clicks add up. Why isn't this automated? The pessimistic interpretation is that Eufloria is doomed by the same simplicity that makes it beguiling, that deeper strategy games are cumbersome because they must be cumbersome. But this seems wrong; Eufloria seems to show that elegance is possible. The optimistic interpretation is that Eufloria is not really finished. To finish Eufloria would be to add beautiful, simple tools for collecting units, advancing along multiple paths, and all the other things you have to waste hundreds of clicks on in the imperfect, unfinished Eufloria that actually exists.
What are the possibilities for a perfectly simple game with a perfectly transparent interface? They are unrealized.