Osmos Review: Mo’ Money, Mote Problems


I wrote this pansy review for Osmos a few months back for a class and I thought I’d just share it here.  Osmos is a good, relaxing time (most of the time) and people should jump on Steam or Direct2Drive or whatever and give it a shot.  Please ignore the sloppy generic intro paragraph!  Enjoy:

The increasing popularity of digital distribution platforms for games such as Steam helps smaller teams with smaller budgets to release their games alongside the bigger players in the market.  While the big companies tend towards playing it safe in their game design, independent developers take game genres in very different and unique directions.  Osmos is an excellent example of such a game.

Osmos is a distinct physics-driven puzzle game for the PC and Mac that is developed by the two man crew at Hemisphere Games.  The game was also a 2009 Independent Games Festival finalist in three categories: Excellence in Design, Technical Excellence, and the Seumas McNally Grand Prize.  In Osmos, the player takes control of a mote, a nondescript particle floating through two-dimensional space.  The usual objective is to grow bigger by absorbing other smaller motes floating about while not running into the larger motes and getting absorbed yourself.

Before the first level appears, Newton’s Third Law is quoted on the screen: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  This law is what powers how you move around the area.  To move in one direction, you eject matter in the opposite direction.  That means for every little change in speed or direction you need, your mote is getting smaller.  This adds a simple but deep layer of strategy to every little situation you might encounter, weighing how much of yourself you’ll lose just to turn towards a juicy target.  It’s not uncommon to find yourself trying to speed up to run down another mote but find yourself too small to absorb it when you do catch it, ending in your demise.  Physics drive everything in Osmos, with every little collision experienced by any object in the game affecting its direction or speed somehow.  Its adherence to the laws of physics makes the game world feel very natural to control and manipulate.

The in-game interface is refreshingly minimal.  After the game displays your objective for the level, aside from some tips here and there you’ll only see your mouse cursor and the playing field.  Players use the mouse to aim where around the mote they want to eject matter: clicking above the mote ejects matter up, sending the mote down.  The mouse pointer is an easy-to-read cross that rotates towards the direction of your mote.  Holding down the mouse button ejects more matter at once, while clicking a lot gives you more fine control over turning.  Players can also speed up or slow down time with the arrow keys.  Time control is useful for fine tuning a collision or just wanting to speed up your mote as it drifts somewhere.

The levels consist of three main ‘zones’.  Levels in the Ambient zone just consist of placing you in a basic field with other various sized motes.  The motes usually have random starting velocities to make things a little hairy.  Sentient zone levels feature unique motes with varying AI that can move for the player to hunt down and absorb.  These motes have unique features like magnetically repulsing everything around them or intelligently moving around by ejecting matter just like the player can.  The Force zone features levels with giant Attractor motes with an element of gravity that commit all the motes, including the player, into orbits around the Attractor.  No score is kept (although there are achievements to earn); the goal of the game is to simply progress through the levels.

All the zones provide good twists against the basic game play and the levels get progressively challenging very quickly.  Dying is something players will be doing a lot, but it’s easy to restart the level at any time and there are no lives to keep track of.  There’s an element of randomization in how motes are placed in the levels, and while that leads to some replay value in the levels, it also lends a slight sense of unfairness.  Some configurations might make a particular level a breeze, but then other configurations, especially towards the harder levels, seem to be downright unfair.  It is just as fast to have the game re-randomize the level for you as it is to restart the level.  However, a strategy sometimes emerges where it’s faster and easier to just randomize a level over and over until you find a configuration that suits you.  Moving the strategy away from how to play the game better to “press a key combination over and over until it gets easier” isn’t ideal.

The art in Osmos is simple yet elegant.  A black background pervades the entire game.  The motes are colored circles with space-like designs inside.  The player’s mote leaves a particle trail behind it as it moves, much like a comet in the sky.  Smaller motes that can be absorbed glow a bright blue, but as they approach the size of your mote, they become purpler.  Motes glow red when they become too large to collide with.  All these visual elements give Osmos a wonderful dream-like quality.  Zooming out in a Force zone level and seeing all the different particles orbiting around is especially breathtaking.  An ambient electronic soundtrack by various artists combines with the visuals to make the game a relaxing experience, with the earlier levels seem to encourage players to sit back, relax, and enjoy the game at their own pace.  The game play in the harder levels clash a bit harder with the game’s them, when a player could be constantly jamming the “restart level” keys while drowning out Osmos’ soothing sounds with their own obscenities.  The game seems to be more in its element when providing a soothing experience to players instead of offering a teeth-grinding challenge.

As a puzzle game it is highly entertaining.  Its core premise of physics-driven situations in an ambient environment is bold, unique, and interesting; Osmos is an experience you won’t find in many other games.  The game appeals to a wide audience from the casual to the hardcore, combining an easy-to-grasp concept with either a calming environment or patience-demanding situations.  An inherit problem lies in that the game is focused on advancing through levels.  While players would expect an increase in challenge as they go long, Osmos doesn’t necessarily become a better game as it gets harder, outside from a few clever isolated levels.  In fact, Osmos simply becomes a worse game as it gets harder as it betrays the sort of atmosphere the game seems to exude.

The quality and uniqueness of Osmos, however, overcomes most of the flaws it has in how the game progresses.  It fails in fighting the urge to give the game a standard level progression structure that doesn’t fit, but it doesn’t fail in being a one-of-a-kind puzzler.


3 Responses to “Osmos Review: Mo’ Money, Mote Problems”

  1. April 1, 2010 at 12:06 am

    Hey Anthony,

    Eddy from Hemisphere Games here. (Ah, pingbacks. 🙂 Thanks for your thoughtful write-up and analysis. It was a pleasurable and interesting read.

    I agree with you that the game gets difficult in the later levels. I’m curious though, do you remember which levels you first found frustrating? I ask because we’re doing the iPhone/iPad port now, and plan to tweak the difficulty curve to smooth things out a bit. As you point out, this will allow people to better focus on and enjoy the atmosphere.

    That said, the game has more than one “purpose”. It is meant to be an enjoyable ambient game, but in its later stages it really does push the player to learn and understand new concepts. A wise man once said: “A good game, like a good book or a good movie, isn’t afraid to keep shoving you towards its own intentions, no matter how uncomfortable you might get, until you start to learn, grow, and better yourself through its obstacles (or stories or messages or whatever).”

    If you’re interested in the full story behing the difficulty in Osmos, check out our series of “Osmos Rage” blog posts. (eg. http://www.hemispheregames.com/2010/02/02/osmos-rage-part-3-the-perversity-of-inanimate-objects/)

    Thanks again! 🙂

    • April 1, 2010 at 8:10 pm

      Thanks for stopping by my little corner, Eddy! It’s great to hear from you.

      The iPhone/iPad port is a great move on your team’s part and I hope it comes out great for you! If I hadn’t dumped my iPhone for a Nexus One recently, you’d have my money (so Android port next, please!)

      On encountering “frustrating” difficulty, it is definitely in the last half of the Force zone levels (as people mentioned in your “Rage” blog posts claimed as well).

      As far as difficulty in the other zones go, when I first encountered them, it took me back but it never seemed to frustrate me as much as Force zone levels would. With Ambient, the difficulty came from not allowing the “brute force” methods and requiring more patience and finesse, which seemed to ring well with the aesthetics of the game so I minded that zone the least. On Sentient, situations got rowdier the farther along I got and that characteristic didn’t mess with the aesthetics as well EXCEPT when I decided to just adjust time down at the beginning and take a little time to assess the environment and decide on the first move of an attack plan. This sort of planning was very rewarding to me when it finally worked out.

      I think I became so frustrated at the Force zone levels more than the others because of the comparatively fast-paced kinetic environment versus the other zones. It lent to an initial feeling of an uncontrollable chaos which caused me to panic a lot, even with time control (the orbit line turns red and I can’t seem to do anything about this!). Perhaps due to just the fact that everything is moving all over the place in Force, it’s harder for players to integrate lessons like how to better control orbits while they have some of their brain dedicated to the immediate situation of “where’s my mote?” and “where is it headed?” and “is it about to hit something bad?”. That obstacle would seem to be hard to work with or tweak since it is the inherent nature of the Force zone to have objects moving everywhere. The zone definitely pushed me to grow, so as far as your multiple “purposes” for Osmos go, the game is on-target :). I’m not sure how you would be able to smooth that curve out without adding more intermediary levels (something you’ve mentioned that you’re not inclined to do) or more explicitly showing orbit control methods in the tutorial stages, but that’s why I’m the amateur designer here.

      Once again, thank you for reading my write-up and thanks for a great game!

  2. April 1, 2010 at 4:04 am

    Do you think Osmos would’ve been a better game if it eschewed the traditional level progression structure for a simple screen that let you select the desired mode with a difficulty slider?

    Personally, I do, but, as seen with Nobi Nobi Boy, games that don’t feature overt progression often seem derided as non-games.

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My name is Anthony Munar, a computer programmer in Utah. I also play a bunch of video games every now and then. I talk and think a lot about them, but I never really solidify those thoughts anywhere, and writing is something I like doing, so I thought I'd do it right here. I don't intend to be high-and-mighty authoritative about what I say and I don't really have any sort of standing in the games industry. This is just for me to muse about games when I want to.

Naming a blog these days was harder than I thought. In calculus, the inflection point on a curve is where its concavity changes between upwards and down. So, maybe, the inflection pixel is the pixel which represents something that turns my opinion around on a game, like the pixels representing a beam cannon firing in FreeSpace 2, the pixels representing a flying car wreck in Burnout, or the pixels representing my own sentry gun holding off an army in Team Fortress 2.

Using the word 'pixel' in naming something game-related seems clichéd, so sorry about that.


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