For your consideration, the common housefly (Musca Domestica). For as long as mankind began to build houses, these tiny winged insects somehow always manage to find the tiniest openings to invade the peace of our homes. The genesis of Membrane is a story about such a home invasion. With an aforementioned flying tiny pest now sitting on his arm, will you be able to help this dude bro chilling in the sofa, making him flap his arm to insect freedom in the definitive Man versus housefly victory?
Our sofa hero spies said fly landing on his arm and, as you do, summons a pixelated tiny avatar with a pyramid-shaped head. We're fairly certain that this is not how the human nervous system works (we double-checked, indeed it is not), but it certainly is a rather original video game premise. Membrane comes from Perfect Hat, a two-person studio that's been producing art, music and video games for the past decade. The game started as a thesis project for one of the developer's graduation but it now evolved into a full product.
The game consists of several single screen platforming/physics puzzle rooms that simulate the path your pixel avatar must take from the dudebro's brain to his hand. As good video game design etiquette demands, the first few rooms are made to introduce your character’s abilities. That pyramid-shaped head is actually a pointer, you can use L and R to rotate 360-degrees around your avatar with a guiding line showing the expect trajectory of your 'building blocks'. By holding the Y button you send a burst of tiny cubes (with some elasticity properties to them) that stick to surfaces and each other, quickly creating makeshift pathways, bridges, trampolines, even catapults when the need arises.
A clever technique used to reach the top of the screen is simply to aim straight down and let loose with the fire button, quickly elevating your avatar to new heights. With the power to build also comes the power to destroy; hit X and you will fire a bullet of sorts that, when in contact with your building blocks, will turn them back to yellow, effectively making them lose their sticky and elastic properties. This then enables you to recollect them for reuse (because yes, they are limited). 'B' enables you to perform the most classic of platformers actions: the jump.
Each room in the game contains two orbs; one is usually straightforward to collect while the second one will require a little more to grasp. You should always strive to collect them both before reaching the room exit because the game will reward with three bonus unlocks for the avid collector. The game difficulty arch increases the further you travel away from the brain towards the hand, with rooms introducing enemies that hold the orbs, great big green spheres you can use to smash impenetrable walls of green goo and even buttons that activate bumpers or rotating squares that can be used in combination to your blocks for all sort of antics.
While these are certainly very odd innards to a human being, they certainly are very cleverly designed playgrounds for experimentation. And just as the developer likes to emphasise, there is no single solution for each room. The player is free to explore alternatives within the game rules to reach the orbs and the exit successfully and even in utter failure (a quick press of ZL and ZR will thankfully reset the room with no penalty) it was very infrequent not to have a smile in our faces while we tackled this strange epic journey.
Still, pictures sadly do not do justice to just how incredible and trippy the visuals of the game are in motion. The use of primary, 8-bit colours and pixelated, purposely rudimentary 2D graphics out of MS Paint would fool anyone into believing this game was made in 1988 instead of 2018. But the smooth animations, precise control and physics engine would quickly snap you back to the current generation. As we mentioned early in this review both members of Perfect Hat are also music producers and the fantastic minimalist chiptune soundtrack is just as clever as the game graphics; you hardly notice it is there but it very much a part of the whole aesthetics.
Membrane is a polished, tight and smartly designed single-room physics puzzle platformer wrapped around a unique audio/visual retro bubble. We haven’t been so pleasantly surprised with a game of the genre since the initial Wii release of World Of Goo. Despite failing hard to educate anyone on the human nervous system, in either portable mode or sitting in the sofa like the plot’s protagonist playing in on the big screen TV, this game is a surreal trip very much worth embarking. Just remember to humbly thank the next housefly that invades your home for this whole experience… at least before reaching for the daily newspaper or fly swatter.