The Vellum Interactive booth isn’t a booth so much as it is a foldout table and some iPad Minis. Spread across their sole physical structure is a slew of stickers that say “DOES YOUR MIND EVEN LIFT?” And if the Vellum name sounds familiar, it’s probably because they made a splash during the election last year with their presidential punching game Political Arena. So how did this tiny hooligan studio from Dallas make a game about a little boy gaining self-confidence?
Telekinesis Kyle is a game about a kid named Kyle who happens to have telekinetic powers. That much, I’m sure, you can surmise from the title, but the narrative built around that premise is where it gets good. Kyle is enrolled in a school for gifted youngsters—Professor X-style—but it turns out that the school is nothing more than a sham, a front for government-sponsored experiments on said youths. They want to harvest these supernatural abilities for military applications, but Kyle would really rather not get involved in that.
So to escape all these little clinical rooms littered with security cameras, spikes, and pressure-sensitive switches that open doors, Kyle uses his powers to solve puzzles that involve moving platforms, jumping chasms, and dodging lasers. It actually feels a lot like Portal, and for good reason: that was a major influence on the game.
“We really like what Portal did in the puzzle space,” says creative director Daniel Luecke. The setting is pretty similar, as you can tell, but the story goes in a vastly different direction. Rather than discovering ambient scenes of absurdism and the oddly macabre, Telekinesis Kyle tells the tale of a little boy who discovers himself.
In that respect, the game is rather ambitious, but Luecke is no stranger to narrative heights. He actually came over from film and the world of student cinema. “It’s weird,” he says, “because the indie game community is so friendly. Everyone supports one another. Back when I made student films, it was really competitive.”
Bringing certain aspects over to games, though, might give Vellum a leg up on other studios anyways. “Cameras and lighting,” says Luecke when I asked about the differences between the two. Luecke is so used to working under physical and financial constraints that now that he has the relatively inconsequential limitations of virtual environments, he knows how to effectively achieve that which he’d only dreamt of before.
Camera movements are especially important to him. “An important part of directing is subverting expectations,” says Luecke, “and making games is the same way.” This was illustrated in one particular level when I had to levitate a single box over to press one of two buttons. Each would force a respective platform to raise and lower in a loop. However, when I got to the end of a rather short path, it dawned on me that the end-of-level door wasn’t open. But how to get it open? There were no other buttons and neither the ones I’d used opened up the exit.
The answer was in plain sight the whole time: the moving platforms make a circuit that lights up when connected. So then I moved the first one into place, watching the line along the bottom light up. Then I moved the second one, only to see the light disappear. Another subversion: the second button moved not just the second platform but the first one as well. It was a series of twists that elevated what I thought was an otherwise simple and straightforward puzzle.
There were parts, though, that certainly show the game is still a work in progress. The second puzzle of the five-level demo had a similar “oh no, the door isn’t open” moment, but it wasn’t completely intentional. “That’s something we’re working on,” says Luecke. “The camera should pan over to this part of the level and show you this button,” a button that was completely hidden from view in the process of my solving the stage. But at least he’s keeping it in mind and keeping to his roots.
Luecke’s history with film, however, has also influenced the game in terms of puzzle design. Used to working with slim pickings, “the goal is to keep the number of objects you use to an absolute minimum,” he says. And over the course of the demo, they seemed to have reached that goal; I never used more than three objects at any given time. But the number of the objects isn’t as important as the weight.
Kyle can use his powers indefinitely, but he can only lift so much at once, a metric visualized by a kU meter at the bottom of the screen. So if there are a bunch of little wooden crates, Kyle can probably lift them all at once and hold them in place as he runs across them. If he needs to lift a giant metal box and a giant metal plank, however, then he’ll need to do a little Tower of Hanoi-esque problem solving to get them where (and when) he needs them to be.
This is where the game gets a little fuzzy, though. At the end of each level, you get a rating of one to four stars (each one taking increasing amounts of time to *ding* as your score racks up in its best Pokémon impression), which is primarily based on however much kU you use to solve the puzzle. I’m not entirely sure how it’s measured since I repeatedly dropped and picked up and moved things erroneously along the way to the solution and regularly picked up things that would deplete Kyle’s mental resource but still got four stars on all five levels.
Telekinesis Kyle, though, is still pretty fresh. It’s mere months into development and I didn’t see any comic book-style story sections, fires to put out, or robot guards. What I did see, though, is the midlife stage of a promising indie puzzle game. The mechanics are there, the ambitions lofty, and there’s a creative director who brings in a little something different, a little something new. Let’s just hope they don’t run out of juice before all the heavy lifting is done.
Look for Telekinesis Kyle on iOS devices this spring.