So a little while back some internet people decided that episodic story game Life is Strange was actually Tumblr: The Videogame. I’m not deep enough into the culture war to tell you what they think that means, but I’m pretty sure SJWs are involved somehow, whatever they are. It does strike me as odd though; Life is Strange is absolutely nothing like the stuff I get on Tumblr. My Tumblr feed is wall to wall death-metal album covers, architectural photography, schlock horror movie posters, and Warhammer 40,000 fan art, none of which really show up in Life is Strange. And that made me wonder; what would Tumblr: The Videogame really be like?
First, the platform. Tumblr is obviously available on the PC but it gets mobile support too. I do most of my Tumbling lying on my side underneath the baby’s crib as part of a sleep training technique called the ‘Disappearing Chair Method’. Fellow parents will recognize the incredible skill with which the child has manipulated me into a position of prostration, curled up on the floor like a dog so I can both reassure her with my presence without in any way keeping her awake. My desperate need for distraction from her sleepless screams is well met by mobile Tumblr. Developed with scalability in mind in the cross-platform Unreal 3 engine, graphical fidelity has not been sacrificed to fit the game onto a smaller screen, though loading times can be an issue.
The unnamed land Tumblr takes place in resembles a stylized, gothic central Europe of the late nineteenth century. Untamed wildernesses and crumbling ruins dominate the scene. Monsters, some of them classical beasts, others more like grindhouse killers and video nasties, stalk this landscape in search of prey. But something isn’t quite right. Among the mountains and gothic cathedrals you find the brutalist architecture of the 1980s: concrete tower blocks, jagged monolithic office complexes, abandoned soviet bus stops. Sometimes you will crest a glacial mountain to discover the gleaming yellow hulk of a spacecraft crashed in the valley below. Something strange happened here, leaving a world riven by contradictions. Some monsters have the high dignity of religious art. Others are literally just a horse with a tiny normal-sized bee for a head. The sacred, profane, and absurd mingle easily and without explanation. Perhaps the answer can be found among all the kung fu fighters, D-list superheroes, and little-known 1970s TV cops who are brawling it out for supremacy, or in the vintage Japanese erotica that occasionally drops from high level mobs. This is just my experience of course, and I imagine there is a trove of content I’ve yet to discover.
The plot is a confused mess. Tumblr hops from scene to scene with hardly a nod to continuity. From a cold open we go straight to a confrontation with a leering skull wearing an astronaut’s helmet, across a storm-tossed ocean in a tiny boat beneath moonshot clouds into a detailed dialogue about Captain America’s sexual orientation. Thence to a stylized fencing duel between two nobles leered over by a nebulous Death, then a brief and gratuitous femdom bondage scene with all the characters dressed in silver sci-fi onesies, then a Satanic black mass performed by hairy Norwegians, and so on and so on. The asset budget for this game is off the hook and it’s hard to find anything to compare it to; only Jazzpunk and WarioWare are as relentlessly, schizophrenically inventive.
Gameplay is similarly diverse. At its core Tumblr is a procedural roguelike that drives you from scene to scene, with mechanics sprinkled almost at random on top of the already scattershot setting. QTEs, beat-em-up stages, FPS and 3PS, some neat traversal levels that bring to mind Rise of the Tomb Raider, the odd bullet hell space shooter, pitched RTS battles, a cooking challenge, detailed verb-and-noun text adventures, and doujinshi romance visual novels have all appeared. A meta-game system allows you to kill gameplay streams that produce content you don’t like, and suggests new ones based on your preferences. While you might start out focusing on the exploration elements, you could end up playing a Gran Turismo style motor-fetish racer or a blacksploitation kung fu cop drama.
There are some gripes. Tumblr is free-to-play, with no micro-transactions but plenty of ad support. That would be fine if the targeting algorithm worked better. Tumblr’s A.I. thinks I’m a tech startup ready to open its first office in the USA, and the major cities and states are sending me adverts. San Jose has excellent ice cream. Texas appears the most scholarly with both the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame Museum and George Bush Presidential Library and Museum. Chicago has a 30-foot statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain. All intriguing, if irrelevant. This monetization strategy is at least not as jarring as Solid Snake flogging me a Ford Fusion.
The user-generated content system could use some work too. The sharing tools are robust, with full support for users to add original content and create their own gameplay streams, but most people just re-upload other people’s modules. If you follow several users with similar interests you might find your game filled with repeated encounters. Copyright theft is rife, with comics, media, and of course other games regularly ripped off in user modules. In my playthrough I had several boss encounters that were obviously recycled from Dark Souls 3, as well as stages I’m pretty sure are just adaptations of Psygnosis box art.
For all its inconsistency it’s hard not to be enthralled. You never know what’s going to come next, and if you don’t like what you at first find then press on and once again the game has changed. In an industry that promises infinite possibilities yet so often delivers the same old same old, Tumblr: The Videogame’s biggest failing is that it doesn’t actually exist.