Review

In The Beginning Was The Bic

Ballpoint Universe creates a vast world from the margins of notebooks.

By Anthony John Agnello • May 22, 2013

The high school notebook is the Voynich Manuscript of tomorrow. In 2613, anthropologists will dig up a giant box of Five-Star Notebooks, and it’s going to be hilarious. Assuming there isn’t a full-on societal collapse between now and then, they’ll be able to parse out what most of the notes mean. Earth science facts and an outline of civil rights history in the back won’t be too much of a puzzle for those future explorers, but the margins will no doubt baffle the best of them. All margin scribbles and doodles are unknowable ciphers to everyone but the note-takers themselves. Why are there skulls drawn next to what looks like a can of soda sprouting seaweed arms? And why did the artist put this drawing next to the Pythagorean theorem?

Arachnid Games’ Ballpoint Universe is what it would look like if one of those anthropologists tried to thread together a creation myth that unites every single notebook drawing ever made. Most everything in the game was drawn the old-fashioned way, with blue-lined loose-leaf pages and a ballpoint pen. Then the sketches were rendered into a world of depth and conflict. Like most doodles, the game is outwardly simplistic. Sometimes, you walk and jump over obstacles. Sometimes, you pilot a ship and shoot other ships. But Ballpoint hides a certain depth behind its layers of squiggly ink.

Ballpoint Universe

The idiosyncratic nature of doodles is a central part of Ballpoint’s mythology. New doodles, like the little hook-nosed hero in your control, are born from the Idea Spring. They live in a land of swirly trees, suspension bridges, and even cities. Life was sweet for the doodles until the Logicians showed up to take over what they could and destroy the rest. Order and sense are the primary predator of doodles, in fiction as in life. Ballpoint doesn’t harp on detail in its storytelling, thankfully. It gives you a tiny bit of setup before letting the world speak for itself, and the beautiful chaos carries the player along from there. This is a place where army boots chew cigars and fight laser-shooting eyeballs—which are, for their part, piloting pears. Excess exposition would only bring this lunacy down to earth.

Ballpoint Universe

All new doodles are automatically conscripted into military service, and in Ballpoint Universe, war is fought Gradius-style, with twitchy side-scrolling dogfights. Speaking to residents of the Ballpoint Universe as you hop between the game’s various hubs will open up more dogfights. Plus, exploration and skill as a fighter both reward you with new pieces for your ship, which you badly need to make progress.

The flying stages can be very different from one to the next, so finding a gun you like and sticking to it is not enough. One moment, you’re fighting little evil policemen—each one just a jackboot and a gun—and the next, you’re fighting giant owls armed with cannons. At times, you need a gun to shoot straight; at other times, you need a sword to break through defenses.

Ballpoint Universe

By placing adaptation at the center of the game, Arachnid captures something essential about doodling: When you get to the edge of the page, you always have to circle back and change your design. This is where Ballpoint gets frustrating, though. Unlocking the best new parts for your ship often requires you to finish missions without dying once, which is a laborious process to say the least. It isn’t fun to keep going back into a five-minute long bullet gauntlet on the off chance you’ll earn better armor. It’s just pedantic.

Yet every time Ballpoint Universe started to feel like more trouble than it’s worth, I saw something spectacular. One early stage is just a long boss fight against an anatomically correct head that unhinges at the jaw and unfold into a grisly cruiser made of tongue and teeth. Ten minutes after that, I was flying through clouds, shooting down detailed, spear-wielding angels. The breadth of art and the level of detail in even the most basic character is staggering. It feels like flipping through the idle subconscious of every bored student in history. Ballpoint Universe may not be the Rosetta Stone for 27th-century anthropologists who might dumpster-dive in ancient notebooks, but it’s one hell of a compendium.

Ballpoint Universe
Developer: Arachnid Games
Publisher: Desura
Platforms: Mac, PC
Reviewed on: Mac
Price: $5

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12 Responses to “In The Beginning Was The Bic”

  1. His_Space_Holiness says:

    I think you’ve hit on something with the comparison to the Voynich Manuscript. It’s a doodle writ large, a bored monk tired of illuminating the book of Numbers for twenty years and just drawing all the insane plants and naked ladies whose images he’s been repressing all these years. He’ll be doing some hard self-flagellating later, but it was worth it. I’d lay even money that the text translates as something along the lines of “Abbot Johann SUCKS ASS.”

    • Xyvir says:

      Also, I like how almost every Gameological article references something else apart from video games I’ve never heard of. The juxtaposition of goofy video game tropes combined with allusions to intriguing real world objects and events reminds me a of similar balance that John Hodgman strikes in his ‘Areas of My Expertise’ series.

      tl;dr: Props to the Gameological contributors and editors! You guys rock and your writing reminds me of John Hodgman!

    • mizerock says:

      Wow, this is beautiful and so mysterious. And your story reminds me a bit of the illuminated relic from “A Canticle For Leibowitz”, where a post-apocolytic monk redraws a circuit board blueprint, with added embelishments. I swear my version of the book had gold leaf and intertwined plants in it, meant to glorify the ancient relic. And yet, I can find no appropriate image on the nets.

      http://www.karenhanmer.com/gallery/piece.php?gallery=newwork&p=leibowitz

  2. Girard says:

    I remember going through a phase in 9th or 10th grade where in my science notes I drew a lot of pictures of little cartoon guys drinking weird potions out of round-bottom and Erlenmeyer flasks using elaborate long, twisty crazy straws, and having their heads explode, or mutating in weird, surreal ways.

    One time my mom was helping me study by quizzing me on arcane honors bio vocab or something from my notes, when suddenly her face took on an expression of concern – she had just turned a page, and wanted to know why I had page after page of margin doodles of what, to her (and honestly to anyone less sheltered than me) looked like a bunch of little cartoon folks smoking hookahs, tripping balls, and hallucinating.

  3. NakedSnake says:

    Wow, I was all-in on this game until I saw it was Gradius-style. I feel like, if you didn’t get into SCHMUPS back in the day, they will forever be a gaming black hole.

    • beema says:

      yeah the art style is gorgeous, but bullet-hell sidescrollers… no fucking thanks

      • It’s not super bullet-hellish, like a Radiant Silvergun or the like. It’s much less pattern obsessed. It is, however, really slow and methodical so there’s no recovering from stupid mistakes which is a big drawback.

        Don’t be afraid of scrolling shooters! They’re tons of fun even when you suck at them. I can’t get past the second stage of R-Type Final without cheating, but I love it all the same.

        • NakedSnake says:

           I’ll grant the SCHMUPS this: they were always creative in setting. The weirdness of Ballpoint Universe draws a direct line from Zombie Nation (where you are a giant Zombie head destroying a city) and Life Force (where you are inside a human body destroying viruses and the like).

  4. CNightwing says:

    What you’re describing are known as glosses, and I only have any knowledge about this because my girlfriend studies linguistics, where they are quite important in deciphering how languages have changed in the past. If she reads this I’m sure she’ll describe my explanation of what she’s currently working on as butchery, but here goes. Since Ireland was so very Catholic, they liked sending out monks to the rest of Europe to convert people. As a result, there’s an important manuscript in St. Gallen in Switzerland, which is essentially a Latin/Greek textbook, and which was copied by various monks as part of their duties. The glosses of interest are written in Old Irish, basically as margin notes that helped them understand the manuscript contents, and some of these got copied themselves, a bit like that copy of Animal Farm you were issued in high school. Because these sets of notes are years apart, you can try to trace the changes made in the language of the margin notes. This is, of course, a simplification, but glosses are more than just doodles!

    • CNightwing, that sounds absolutely FASCINATING. Any clue where I can read more about it? Has your girlfriend published anything on the subject? Man, that’s crazy.

      As I side note, the Voynich Manuscript was big in my mind while playing the game as I’d just been listening to the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast about the book. Fascinating stuff and well worth checking out, just like this game.

      • CNightwing says:

        I asked her, but she realised she disappointingly doesn’t know anything entry-level. The field is not very active for english language either, it’s all latin, germanic, celtic and so on. I guess you might try chatting to a linguistics professor!

  5. HilariousNPC says:

    Where’s the Bic for Her version of this game?