Review

BattleBlock Theater

Cat’s Entertainment

BattleBlock Theater is a place for players to put on a show.

By Matt Kodner • April 25, 2013

In a recent New Yorker article, Joan Acocella praised puppetry—specifically, puppets’ ability to tell truths and opinions that we’re unable to express ourselves. For example, when actors on a Kenyan TV show performed a skit lampooning the country’s wonky political system, they were only able to get away with it because they used puppets. In a Punch And Judy show—for an audience of kids—Punch might kill other puppet people and turn them into sausages for a quick laugh. Anything goes in the world of puppetry.

Yet video games will go to great lengths to make their players forget they’re partaking in a virtual puppet show. After all, no matter how uncanny or immersive BioShock Infinite is, it’s still you pulling Booker DeWitt’s intangible strings. For its part, BattleBlock Theater goes the Punch route. It never lets you forget that you’re the puppet master running the show.

BattleBlock Theater

BattleBlock Theater begins with an enthusiastic narrator who spins a yarn about puppet people—these are your people—whose ship ran aground on an island ruled by bored cats. (At least, they’re bored until you show up.) The cats force their captives into increasingly deadly coliseum-style performances in a run-down theater. On paper, you’re essentially playing The Running Man, the ’80s action flick in which Arnold Schwarzenegger slaughters his way through a death gauntlet on reality TV. But thanks to BattleBlock’s bright visuals and animated puppet aesthetic, the ensuing game is lighthearted—even when you’re suffering yet another quick, gruesome death.

Given that these cats have a love of theater, the game is split into acts, each with its own scenes, finale, and optional “encore” stages. The goal throughout is simple: Escape with your life. To do so, you must avoid the usual death traps—sawblades and heat rats and the like. BattleBlock playfully escalates the peril with new ideas: While an early level might have you push a button to turn off a laser beam, later levels make you redirect the beam itself. New twists are introduced with a “show, don’t tell” approach—a triumph of thoughtful design.

BattleBlock Theater

The logistics of combat, though, are undercooked. Feline oppressors often show up to kung-fu you into a watery grave, but if you choose to fight, you’ll often face the annoyance of being clumsily pushed into your death. You’d do well to seek out the well-hidden balls of yarn, which you can use to bribe indifferent cat guards. With enough textile encouragement, they’ll hand over a shiny new weapon, and having a good offensive tool is a must. I found that a well-aimed grenade is the perfect way to keep the game moving.

Like The Behemoth’s popular beat ‘em up Castle Crashers, team play gets a prominent focus in BattleBlock. But where Castle Crashers’ chaos all but demanded more than one player for its hacking and slashing to work, I found that running solo through BattleBlock is more enjoyable than playing cooperatively.

BattleBlock Theater

The multiplayer doesn’t quite work unless you play with an equally skilled partner, which is a testament in its own way to the game’s expert level design. Each scene is deceptively large, and one of two things will happen if you’re mismatched. You might glide through the stage and be made to wait while your dopey partner stumbles along—or you might be the schmuck holding up the fun. That’s who I was every time I played online. Still, I can imagine how much fun it would be to load BattleBlock up for the first time and tear through it with a buddy and a six-pack of PBR.

True to its name, BattleBlock Theater is an excellent stage for improbable spectacle, complemented by a hilarious running commentary. It’s enough of a challenge that becoming great feels like an accomplishment, but it’s accessible enough that greatness is a reasonable goal. And thanks to its earnest embrace of puppetry, there are no pretenses to your triumphs. It’s simple fun, and after dodging bursts of flame and death spikes, the hardest part is cutting your buddy’s strings and setting the controller down.

BattleBlock Theater
Developer:
The Behemoth
Publisher: Microsoft
Platform: Xbox 360
Price: $15

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30 Responses to “Cat’s Entertainment”

  1. SamPlays says:

    I hope the feline oppressors spit hairballs… on your pants lying on the floor. True story.

    • WarrenPeace says:

      Or pee in your laundry baskets.

      • dreadguacamole says:

        Or leave a disembodied mouse head in the middle of your kitchen floor.
         (true story, I’ve got pictures!)

        • SamPlays says:

          Gross. Mine are exclusively indoor cats. I sometimes think about making them exclusively outdoor cats. Especially when I think too hard about how they’ve ruined the hardwood floors in our relatively new house. Sons of bitches.

        • Girard says:

          My cats would always bring little dead things to the doorstep. Our next door neighbor had an insane, Hannibal-Lecter-like cat who was an indoor cat for years, and once he started going outdoors, he would leave the most awful carcasses on their doorstep. The worst was when he had disembowled a pregnant mouse, and laid her corpse, and the corpses of all the little fetuses, in a neat, straight little line on the welcome mat.

        • dreadguacamole says:

          @paraclete_pizza:disqus – Wow. Just. Wow.

           There’s no way I can top that, but let’s break the cat stories out. I’ve got two – a cute, fluffy long-haired white one, and a short haired one with panda-like markings (called, of course, Pandæmonium). The cute one is an efficient, merciless killing machine – the most you’ll find of her kills is a bit of fur, a pile of guts, a head or, usually, just a stain. Panda brings mice all the time to my house and… loses them. We usually find them a week later, starved to death under some piece of furniture.
           Once he brought one to our room, and I flipped out; we went to sleep downstairs, and locked the two cats in the room overnight with a tray of kitty litter. Next morning we go up and find them both placidly going about their feline business.  We found the mouse in one of the first places I look – one of my shoes, terrified and very much alive. Stupid cats.
           Anyhow; he once also somehow herded a young (unharmed) hare to our backyard. I have no idea how he pulled that off, we had to take the poor thing to the RSPCA.

        • SamPlays says:

          @dreadguacamole:disqus This is why I’ve resorted to closing our bedroom door at night. I don’t have to worry about carcasses and hostage mice – my issue is cats stomping on genitals and faces. I like sleeping on my back but it’s a no-go if the door is left open. Also, I find it revolting when my long-haired cat walks across my face and his fur it wet… likely remnants of recently urinating in the litter box. The fur around his asshole is so long and fine that he often gets lumps of poo stuck on there. Sometimes they fall off in the foyer or kitchen. Other times we have to intervene and actually cut the offending fur lump out because he’s dragging his ass all over the floor and furniture. I’d love to assume he drags it around because he wants to get rid of it, not because he wants to smear cat shit all over the place.

      • SamPlays says:

        Been there except that the laundry basket is a closet full of shoes. He will actively seek out this spot despite always having a clean litter. Son of a bitch.

    • The_Misanthrope says:

       I used to have a fat cat that used to overeat then climb up on me when I was in bed and throw up right on my blanket.

    • SamPlays says:

      In all fairness, I love my cats. But they are frequently disgusting, typically lazy and have personalities that would get them classified as sociopaths if they were human. I love those sons of bitches.

      • PaganPoet says:

        Cats are terrible people!

        • SamPlays says:

          Well said. Not sure if Cross-Eyed Clark is your pet or just an amusing Internet find but the pirate hat is a nice touch. Arrrgh!

        • Girard says:

          I prefer cats-as-people to dogs-as-people, though. Cats are independent and quiet, and can take care of themselves. They’re happy to hang out, and happy to do their own thing (though the times they feel like doing each can be irritatingly contrary to what YOU feel like doing at a given time).

          Dogs are like this obnoxious, over-friendly, exhaustingly enthusiastic loud idiot with boundary issues. Until they arbitrarily freak out and start barking and growling at someone/something. And they could totally snap and kill you if they decided to.

        • SamPlays says:

          @paraclete_pizza:disqus Cats are not quite so independent because they completely lose their shit whenever it comes close to feeding time. Plus, as you point out, they’re only happy to hang out when it suits them – it’s often a very one-sided relationship. Like sociopaths, they can be very charming but their motivations are sometimes kind of fucked up. Plus, you gotta scoop their shit every day. Where’s the independence in that?

          I also have a greyhound and they’re pretty much the perfect dog for anyone who dislikes obnoxious, over-friendly, exhaustingly enthusiastic loud idiots. Despite some boundary issues (Ex: standing like a coffee table in the middle of the kitchen when cooking is a nuisance), he’s also very accommodating and will listen when necessary. In human terms he’s more like a well-behaved toddler.

        • dreadguacamole says:

          I have to chose dogs; only some of them are evil. All cats are evil, at least some of the time, and the prospect of a human one scares the shit out of me. They’d find ways to be supremely evil, always get their way, and make it look easy…

        • SamPlays says:

          @dreadguacamole:disqus I’ll call mine out on their bullshit manipulations but they don’t care. Ice cold, man!

  2. Roswulf says:

     I really enjoyed the musings on puppet-ness in this review. I may be wrong, but my understanding is that the obvious puppetry in this game stems from its extreme stylization…and possibly the use of the word ‘puppet.’

    But there are other ways to emphasize puppetry in a game. In Bioshock, a man screaming “PUPPET!” is a climactic reveal. However the most puppet-y thing in games to me is when the player has control of multiple entities that stand purposeless unless given explicit instructions. A couple of days ago I was watching a speedrun of Zelda Wind Waker, and was struck by the need of the player to use magic to mind control another sentient being in order to get an ally to walk forward. It was such a bizaare mechanic to insert into a game that had otherwise maintained a close identity between player and protagonist. I don’t think the effect was sought by the designers, but I nevertheless felt a powerful sense of alienation. This varety of apparent puppetry is more fundamentally woven into most strategy games- it’s the essence of both Chess and Starcraft.

    I can’t really think of any games that make good thematic use of this dynamic (although I hasten to add my knowledge of game history is limited at best). Surely there’s something interesting to be said about the role of the player as an animating force?

  3. dreadguacamole says:

     Having the other player not be as good as you is really not much of a problem if you’re playing couch co-op; I’ve been playing this with my wife, who’s not at all a twitch gamer, and we’re having a lot of fun finding every last gem. The only thing we’re missing out on is the time bonuses. Of course, every now and then I need to get her past a particularly spiky bit, but the game is pretty good at teleporting her to my side when she dies and I’ve gotten ahead.

  4. boardgameguy says:

    I have it on good authority that this is how Matt Kodner felt after beating the game and realizing he had no more levels to explore: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LU19Rqy1s9Y

  5. PaganPoet says:

    I hope one of the anti-kitty weapons is a spray bottle of water.

    • SamPlays says:

      My cats are terrified of plastic bags that are being crumpled or shaken. It’s actually a bit more perverse than that because if the bag is lying on the ground they will lick it like it’s crack. If this game has a plastic bag that can be remotely detonated, I might buy an XBox 360 for that.

      • PaganPoet says:

        Oh my god, my cat HATES plastic shopping bags too. Even if it’s not particularly sudden or loud, I can see his ears go back and a look of disgust on his face.

        • SamPlays says:

          Here’s a special anecdote: One my cats who passed away years ago would drag a scarf across the house, dangling between his legs, find a nice corner and basically fuck it with his mouth and limbs. He was the weirdest of all the cats I’ve had.

          Back to plastic bags: Despite living their entire lives in the lap of luxury and absolute security, my cats are the most distrustful fucking ingrates EVER.

  6. Uncle Roundy says:

    I haven’t played this game, but I’m giving it a pass based solely on this.