< Part One
24 April 2012
If you haven't seen The Land of the Livid Dead for yourself, you should. Don't let me spoil any surprises for you; play the game and earn entry.
At the risk of over-hyping it, I'll say that it's worth the suspense and mystique. I'll repeat that I spent months anticipating the surprise, and I was still more impressed than I could have imagined. The team ubiART Montpellier development team isn't stupid. On the contrary, they possess brilliance and talent far beyond the majority of their peers. The structure of Rayman Origins was no accident, and hinting at the mysterious Land of the Livid Dead from the game's first moments was fully intentional. If the payoff couldn't deliver on the promise, the designers wouldn't have put such effort into making that promise in the first place.
The Land of the Livid Dead was designed from the start to build expectations, then shatter them.
Step One: Tell the player about a place that can't yet be accessed.
Step Two: Remind the player about this place without providing any additional information.
Step Three: Provide tiny, incremental progress. (A Lum, a challenge, a tooth.)
Step Four: Repeat steps two and three for dozens of hours.
Step Five: Surprise the player by simultaneously playing off and reversing the expectations established over dozens of hours.
I can't elaborate on the final step without speaking candidly about The Land of the Livid Dead, so if you ignored the previous spoiler warning, this would be a good time to stop reading.
The Land of the Livid Dead is a single stage followed by a final boss. This is the first surprise, though it might sound obvious to some. Honestly, I didn't know whether to expect a minigame, a cartoon, or a complete bonus world, because the game hadn't given me any hints.
Even so, I'd entertained the possibility of it being a special level. I did not, however, anticipate how special it would be. The rest of Rayman Origins takes place across six worlds. There's a fair amount of variety within the worlds - some levels in Gourmand Land are icy; others are volcanic - but art and sound assets are heavily reused. I couldn't tell you how many similar-looking jungle stages and underwater stages there are. Beautiful environments, but there's no denying the repetition.
This level - this one level - gets a theme that doesn't appear anywhere else. I'm talking backgrounds, enemies, music tracks - there were as many assets created for this one freaking level as there were for other worlds, which is insane enough, but when you stop and think about how punishingly difficult it is even to get this far, you realise that 90% of the people who buy this game will never even see any of this.
It's not only an aesthetic change. I already mentioned that the enemies who appear here are unique to The Land of the Livid Dead, but so is the fundamental concept behind the level's layout. As mentioned previously, most stages are littered with collectable Electoons and hidden areas. This encourages thorough exploration. The only exceptions are the Tricky Treasure speed-run stages. These demand speed above all else.
Speed definitely helps in the Land of the Livid Dead, and it's required in a few stretches, but the greatest challenge is survival. No distractions, no gimmicks, no secondary goals. There's only one question: Can you reach the end?
Suffer a few consecutive deaths in any other stage of Rayman Origins, and a menu will pop up to ask if you'd like to take a break. The Land of the Livid Dead doesn't bother. You are going to die, and you are going to die often. Take a break? Ha! The Land of the Livid Dead is the Ivan Drago of video game levels. It must break you.
You're doing the same running/jumping/punching schtick you've done across dozens of levels already, but it feels significantly different. It looks different. It sounds different. It's more focused and more challenging than what you've encountered to this point. It's subtle, but it's effective.
Mostly, though, it's the framing, and not only the framing within Rayman Origins. Yes, I've written at length about the genius of the toothless Grim Reaper, but this goes beyond one game. Nobody puts this kind of work into a single level, especially one that's this hard to reach. It isn't done.
That's why the Land of the Livid Dead is a triumph. It's remarkable and exciting because it exists. It isn't a great level by accident. On the contrary, it's a great level because ubiART worked to make a great level.
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