You were an animator, a really good one. You made some great cartoons back in the day, you and Joey. Your main character, Bendy, was a real hit! But you disagreed. One of you had to go, and in the end it was you. You never thought you’d talk to him again after what happened, so thirty years later, it came as something of a shock to receive a note inviting you back to your old studio. Joey’s got something to show you…
Stepping through the door, it doesn’t take long to realise that Joey’s become more and more unhinged in the intervening years. Perhaps he’s been dabbling in things he really shouldn’t? All the old disagreements come bubbling up in your memory… From the state of the place and the hints dotted about, it seems that whatever he’s been up to, it’s affected his mind. He may no longer be the master of his own creations…
The game is currently under active expansion, with three parts already completed, and two in the pipeline. The twisted mind behind it is a well-known comic artist, the Meatly. Bendy was originally a “pay what you want” title on Patreon. A few games have started this way recently as a halfway-house between self-funded and full-on kickstarter. Given that $1 was the recommended minimum, it probably came as something of a surprise to even the Meatly when people started paying full indie-level prices: $5, $10 and up. Such interest was shown in the game, and such high praise heaped on the developers; the Meatly himself and Mike Mood (who may be the same person, for all I know), that the game has earned itself a revamp, several ports, and a commitment to five chapters!
As someone asked on Twitter, “How can a game with just three jump scares and some random oddness be so good?”. It’s true that the intro chapter is short (a couple of hours to complete, max!), and compared to games like SOMA or Amnesia, Bendy is far simpler, and less, uh, pant-wettingly-scary…
So, if that’s the case, what spurred people to pay five-times the minimum and make a fairly short, very simple-looking little indie game such a hit? It certainly wasn’t the action or the hi-res graphics: The main character travels at a relatively shambling pace, with ‘run’ being a slightly-faster shamble… And the levels and artwork are simplistic, monochromatic and ultra-low-poly. Indeed, Bend’s overnight success is something of a phenomenon in the indie scene which I’ve been watching with pleasant surprise since it was released.
Firstly, you have the Meatly himself: He’s well-liked in the industry, and his cartoons tend to be erudite and pointed, similar to how Dilbert used to be in the early years. He’s got a great social media following, and responds to a lot of fan messages. So, before he started on the Bendy project, he already had an audience waiting for new material. I think, to some degree, this explains the out-of-the-gate success of the game.
However, the continuing success can’t be explained in the same way; once the game released, it snowballed into a great success story. As an example, at two recent games expos I wore my Bendy and the Ink Machine (known as #BATIM to its devout followers) T-shirt. I was pleased by the number of knowing smiles and thumbs-ups I got, along with a few people saying “I know that game! It’s great!”. This kind of following can only really be sustained by something worth playing, so let’s have a dive into this little indie title and try to divine what gives BATIM its secret sauce…
The first chapter (the Patreon ‘demo’, and short intro) is set in the old building of the studios. Everything is coloured a faded yellow and cream and drawn with big black outlines of simple shapes, just like old cartoons. Old film reels lie around on the floor, octagonal and looking like they were ‘drawn’ , like octagonal yellow pizza boxes. Old cartoon advert posters are pinned to the wall at haphazard angles, and the floor is littered with thousands of discarded pages, while animators’ desks sit in darkened corners covered in partial sketches, ink pots and notes from their long-departed owners. Lights flicker from broken bulbs, and old reel-to-reel projecters which hum and clack, as they project white blank squares onto torn projection sheets. The whole style really evokes the 1930’s animation style, and utterly blurs the lines between real-world and cartoon-world. The simplicity absolutely plays into the game: Cartoons can’t hurt you… But, what if you’re in the cartoon?
As you enter the game, the music sets a discordant weird hollywood-style “something is very definitely wrong” feel. This is complemented by the general dilapidation and the flickering of an abandoned projector as it plays to an empty room with a single chair in the distance, as if someone was just watching it, but stepped away when the reel ended. The strange music continues, and the narrator expresses sadness at the state of the place. Ink drips down the walls from thick pipes, shelves are cluttered with debris.
In the first few areas, there is nothing to clue you in. Without weapons, or ability to run quickly, this leads the player into feeling very vulnerable while creeping around the maze-like abandoned studios. The corridors are designed for you to ‘get lost’ in: You can’t run, you can’t hide, there’s weird sounds, the lights are all crazy, and you’re lost in a strange building.
Little clues are dotted about, in the form of notes and tape recorders. They continue the gentle direction, telling the story of Joey’s increasing madness, and how he tried to achieve his goals, creating the enormous Ink Machine, but he started to go too far…
The main part of the first chapter plays out as a “find the object” game. Joey created an elaborate ‘lock’ for the ink machine, which requires a series of physical objects to be found. This part of the game is perfectly timed and wonderfully executed, because you’ve already had a scout around, and the objects are randomly scattered about the level. No walkthrough can give you the locations of the objects, as they are never in the same place twice. So you know the layout, you know how the game works, and you start jogging about at your less-than-stellar running speed to locate the objects, utterly blazé.
This is when the game starts to play dirty, and this, I think, is why people love it so. You’ve already explored the building and come to the conclusion it’s empty except for you. In fact, you’re slightly disappointed at how long you’ve taken creeping around! You’re slightly irritated at yourself that you felt so scared; Bloody indie game with no content, tricking me into thinking there was scariness! Why was I creeping about? I’m not scared of this! What did I pay my money for? So you stand up, dust yourself off, laugh at your silliness, and turn around… To find Bendy smiling at you.
After cleaning up the mess, getting a cup of tea, or smoking a cigarette, whatever calms you down in real life, you un-pause the game, and take stock. The first jump scare is a beauty, the timing is perfect! You emerge unscathed (except for perhaps soiled undergarments), but the game has very clearly laid down the first gauntlet. So, you think you know what’s going on, eh? But the manner of the encounter is very ambiguous… Is there someone else here? Or something altogether more sinister? Did you just miss it on the way in?! It’s not long before you start to wonder if the cardboard cutouts leaning against the walls are actually moving, following you… At first Bendy seems cute.. But soon, that rictus smile takes on a far more sinister tone. Soon you realise you’re passing them, without turning your back on them… Well, that’s just sensible, right?
You plough on down the corridors looking for things. When the next encounter happens, it’s brief, a snatched glimpse, a screech of violins, and then it’s gone, leaving you all alone in a silent, dark corridor. I think my heart actually stopped at this point. Technically, I probably died for about 3 seconds. You know full well what’s around the corner since you explored it earlier, but for some reason you now really do not want to go down there! You pluck up the courage and sure enough, what you thought you saw is right there, leaning against the wall, smiling at you just round the corner, just a cardboard cutout… But it wasn’t there before was it? Is it watching you? Did someone move it? If so, where did they go, it’s a dead end?! It can’t have moved itself! Can it? CAN IT?!
The decision not to allow the player to run fast is perfect. It feels like one of those nightmares where you’re being chased, but can’t run away. Many times, you want to escape, to find a room and shut the door to make the nasties go away. But there aren’t any rooms, the doors are all locked, and you can’t run! So you better be careful! The feeling of being trapped, and the general level of malevolent anger, impending danger, and other-worldliness combine into an experience which would only work in an indie game. It’s experimental, it’s artsy and it’s off-beat.
Assuming your nerves hold, you continue working towards bringing the ink machine back online… You learn more and more about what Joey was doing, but cast them aside as superstitious nonsense. As things go from bad to worse, you continue as if stuck in a bad dream. The two DLCs so far released continue the nightmare, expanding the story, and adding new and even more sinister characters….
So why are you still going? Why didn’t you turn back when you knew what Joey was doing??? Why did you turn on that damned machine??? As with all things, sometimes we’re so busy asking ourselves if we *can* do something, we forget to stop and ask if we *should*.