Ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, we have been gripped by ideas and visions of what would happen if the nukes ever darkened our skies. It’s a judgment day scenario with imponderably gigantic consequences; no more government, mass starvation, lawlessness, severe water scarcity, a miasma of black carbon sucking out our sunlight. These are just a handful of outcomes that artists and storytellers find so irresistible to engage with.
Such curiosity has led to a library’s-worth of books, comics, films, artwork, and games covering the subject. Mushroom 11 is the latest entrant on the shelves, and almost certainly its most impressive feat is how it manages to distinguish itself from the stacks of doomsday media. Its underpinning gameplay, however, doesn’t succeed so emphatically.
As its name would suggest, Mushroom 11’s vision of Earth is one that has been ravaged by nuclear disaster on nearly a dozen occasions. This is not post-apocalypse, but post-extinction. Post-human, more to the point, with little more than a couple of surviving portraits to suggest that mankind had existed in the first place.
Toadstools the height of barn houses are shown towering out of fallow cornfields, seemingly as though they have replaced pylon towers.
Only rarely will Mushroom 11 provide clear reference that its world was burnt and baked over our own, and that usually comes from the occasional trope; the corroded crumple of bicycle frames, the devastated roads that have been pulverised into the Earth’s crust, the brick and iron skeletons of buildings that dominate the city skylines. Then there are the haunting murals, faded in colour but still bright with anger, reminiscent of the shadowy figures who hang across walls in Pripyat. (Take a look at some of the screenshots below if you’re curious).
Later, Mushroom 11 begins to explore a more unusual depiction of the world after nuclear disaster. On level three (of seven), toadstools the height of barn houses are shown towering out of fallow cornfields, seemingly as though they have replaced pylon towers. On level five, fungi clusters the size of hills sway under a furious fire-red sky. Venturing later into one derelict underground laboratory (or perhaps it was a hospital) you can find on the wall a curious indentation where a humanoid would have presumably stood, with wires connecting various appendages to wall sockets. Elsewhere you will pass through an abhorrent processing factory, with giant prawn-like creatures suspended in battery farm cages. Much like with those satellite images of Chernobyl’s buildings engulfed by trees, it’s the extraordinary oddities in Mushroom 11 that give it a wonderful sense of story and chronology.
Perhaps most unusual and original of all is the hero in this tale of post-armageddon. You play something that resembles a sort of gelatine circuit board, which I gather is about the size of an adult dog, resplendent with semi-transparent green cells that encase tiny shapes of viscera. It’s not Bruce Willis.
Much of the challenge here, certainly at the outset, is quite similar to what a Mario game demands; clamber from one side of a level to the other. The crucial difference is that your hero is not an implausibly acrobatic plumber, but a blob of gunk that doesn’t freely move by itself. Of course it’s only courteous to grant a hero a super-power, and in this case, Mushroom 11’s starring lead has the ability to regenerate its body-mass if parts are cut off.
If, for example, a strip of goo is sheared from the blob’s right-hand side, about a second later it will be replenished elsewhere (usually, but not quite exactly, on its opposite side). Imagine trimming down one side of a garden hedge, only to find the leaves have since extended on the other side, and you’re close.
Equipped with nothing other than mouse-controlled eraser, your task is to evaluate how to transport this oobleck gloop through progressively demanding levels; up and over fire pits, across flimsy rope bridges, through dark tunnels, and beyond caves guarded by poisonous spiders.
Shrewd pacing ensures that the gameplay arithmetic is easy to grasp each step of the way. Continue to cut at the blob’s right-hand side, and it’ll keep growing out the left. Keep going at a steady rhythm and, eureka, your blob is walking leftwards. Mushroom 11 builds everything around this underpinning mechanism of spreading outward by cutting inward. Hack away faster and your hero will run. Force it against a wall and it will spread upwards.
While the left-mouse button activates a large eraser (which in diameter is about a fifth the height of the screen), the right-mouse button can summon a smaller version. The bigger eraser can purge at speed, which is essential for running, while the other can chop our hero into chunks, and even delicately sculpt the blob into rudimentary shapes. Those latter techniques become increasingly important during the first two hours, and outright essential for the remainder. As time passes you begin to encounter more complex platformer conventions; mazes of conveyor-belts, tiny stepping-stones suspended above pits of spikes, giant metallic balance balls rolling across lava, enemy-patrolled underground tunnels, wide chasms filled with corrosive acid. Both erasers small and big will be necessary for overcoming these obstacles.
While in theory this sounds like an appealing puzzle-platformer concept, how enjoyable you find Mushroom 11’s mechanics really depends on how comfortable you are with the trial-and-error of inexact platforming. I found it wearisome, at times maddening, and nearly always unrewarding. It’s chess with boxing gloves. Charades in a nightclub. It’s awkward and taxing for the wrong reasons.
Solutions to platform challenges are usually not solved but stumbled upon. Too often the task is not about mentally unlocking answers, but instead forcing and tricking your hero into performing the solution. Safely transporting the blob over three small platforms attached by string, for example, is achievable if you keep smooshing it and moving it along, praying it won’t slip through the cracks. Keep trying and eventually you can overcome every obstacle thrown at you, but not to the extent that you can explain why you succeeded while at other times you didn’t. When you overcome most challenges, there’s little confidence you could perform the same feat on command. You’re not learning and growing as much as the game wants; you’re just improvising, retrying, hitting checkpoints.
By the time Mushroom 11’s challenge matures and it introduces more perplexing obstacles, the kind that this game was built for, it’s arguably too late.
Admirably, and equally tragically, the development team at Untame has crafted a harmonious learning curve around its flawed concept. Smart design decisions are obvious throughout; clearly the result of scrupulous failure-analysis that Mushroom 11 underwent during its four years in development. Always you’ll find checkpoints just before the game teaches something new, and it re-educates at a flawless pace.
Just the right amount of risk is added at just the right amount of time. On several occasions in the first level, for example, you’ll be taught how to snake though a series of tunnels, just before having to perform the same feat in a sinking building. The glorious end-level bosses, meanwhile, will challenge the player to be creative with the new ideas they have picked up on the way.
Such a well balanced and considered implementation of a poor concept means Mushroom 11 is constantly battling with itself over how challenging it should be, with many of the obstacles ranging from unentertaining to utterly infuriating, yet all smoothed over with wonderful pacing and generous checkpoints. It’s five-star service at a Hotel built on sewage.
By the time Mushroom 11’s challenge matures and it introduces more perplexing obstacles, the kind that this game was built for, it’s arguably too late. The Honeymoon period has passed. For those who manage to stick around, level four is probably the best on offer, demanding you constantly erase and trim at speed. You will desperately hang onto slippery crane arms and moving platforms, squeezing the gloop into moving cylinders, constantly moulding it so it has the perfect aerodynamics to fly off a ramp at the ideal velocity.
Level six throws up conundrums that demand inventive thinking and pondering the smartest outcome. You will mould your blob into a makeshift spanner, and an impromptu trebuchet, and a temporary battering ram, when the game demands. It’s creative and rewarding.
But on too many occasions, Mushroom 11 presents a challenge akin to opening an old door lock; the kind that demands you twist the key in a very particular way, without offering much insight on how. Often you’ll have little choice other than artlessly attempt various solutions until one of them unlocks your pathway to the next challenge.
Comparing such an inventive and distinct game to a bothersome door, of all things, absolutely does a disservice to its wonderfully talented artists and storytellers. This gracefully hand-drawn dystopia deserves to be explored and pondered over. The developers at Untame should be proud and confident that they can build thorough and robust gameplay structures around their ideas. But the concept at the centre of Mushroom 11, I would implore, is not something they should return to.