Tiny and Big: Channeling… Portal?
This feels a bit insane, but I’m going to go out on a limb here. I could tell you that I finished Tiny and Big: Grandpa’s Leftovers last night, but that would only be half of the matter. I also started it. I played it in a single sitting. It took a little over three hours. I didn’t set any records, though I found most of the recorded collectibles and only got stumped twice in the process. And I loved—loved, and I emphasize that because I didn’t expect it—about 170 of my 192 minutes with it (numbers approximate).
The last game to have that effect on me was the same one that I kept thinking about while playing Tiny and Big. I’m referring, of course, to Valve’s masterpiece, Portal.
Before the Exercitus Valvae show up, I’ll interject some sanity: I’m not saying that Tiny and Big is as good as Portal. It’s great, but we haven’t crossed the threshold into an alternate dimension quite yet. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that T&B channels a number of Portal’s strengths—and misses one or two as well.
(Sidenote: I know at least two of my regular readers have not played Portal. Which is fine. We all somehow miss aspects of mass culture—in my case, Harry Potter. But be aware that what follows might spoil Portal like egg salad left out in the sun since its 2007 release).
In terms of mechanics, both Portal and T&B are about figuring out how to traverse the environment. Chell uses her portal gun to open inter-dimensional doorways to move herself and helpful objects across wide distances, or to gain sufficient momentum to access otherwise-unreachable areas, while Tiny uses his homemade “Tool” to remove obstacles or create new routes to his objective. Tiny’s Tool (hmm… Note to self: figure out better phrasing) has three functions: a laser beam that carves straight lines through nearly any of the objects found littered throughout the game, a grappling hook that drags things down (usually after they’ve been sliced with the laser), and attachable rockets that can transform fallen stones or pillars into guided missiles.
Saying that T&B is all about this tool is like saying that Portal is just about the portal gun. The interaction between these tools and the environment may be the primary means of play, and without them there wouldn’t be any game; but still, both games use these tools as the basis to create something far more unified than a mere series of levels built around terrain puzzles. So even though I spent three hours using Tiny’s equipment (nope, not any better) to move from point A to point B, I still wouldn’t say that the game was about that equipment.
The Game World
This is one of the ways in which T&B, like Portal, shines. Portal’s Aperture Science was sprawling and slapdash, but it possessed a strong coherency that it maintained across two games. It had a tangible and consistent sense of place.
T&B manages something similar, though it takes place in a wackier world where the only points in common with ours are the basic laws of physics. Within that silly world, however, things feel extremely consistent: levels take place in distinct locations—I was always aware of my rough position compared to previous levels—and the craziness contained within them (empowered underpants, shy sand creatures, ancient arcades, and cool tunes on lost cassettes) generates something beautifully disordered and skewampus.
Take the above pic as an example. En route to the rocky desert to liberate his grandfather’s legacy (a pair of tighty whiteys) from his nemesis Big, Tiny whips out his Reality Boy and decides for a quick refresher course in the use of his equipment—because, the game has the gumption to tell us, we all know that virtual skills freely transition into the real world. And this Reality Boy is somehow entirely consistent within this world of old and tired technology, filled as it is with talking radio buddies and hazardous robo-taxis. As in Portal, it’s a joy to peel back the layers of this world to see what mysterious force is making things tick.
I tried out T&B’s engine prototype a few months back, and though it had impressive terrain deformation, I wasn’t too taken with some of its more finicky aspects. So I was relieved to discover that the puzzles in Tiny and Big never become all that difficult. I was stumped once or twice, but, like Portal, the puzzles are more of speed bumps than brick walls. The one exception came from my own stupidity: On the second level I thought I had to build a staircase up a mountain, but it turned out I just needed to explore a bit more and walk through a door in the shadows. Whoops.
Now, I like a good puzzle, but both Portal and Tiny and Big manage to create breezy scenarios that might offer momentary challenge, but aren’t going to terminate in smashed keyboards. And since T&B is more about exploring this peculiar world than about halting your forward momentum, I quite liked being free to meander around without much worry. The downside is that the game saves things at checkpoints, so a ten-minute exploration session to climb up a mountain with careful cuts and grapples and rockets might come to an abrupt end when a rolling three-ton stone barely brushes you and leaves you dead, undoing all that work and tossing you back to the last save spot like an unloved chew toy. This only became a problem for me in a handful of spots, but when it’s a problem, it’s a big one.
This is the one thing that I think Tiny and Big got totally wrong.
Remember the final act from Portal? GLaDOS finally decided to discard you and you escaped to the hidden backside of Aperture Science. Up to that point, there had been a few puzzles that could kill you, but they weren’t particularly dangerous so long as you took your time to observe how all their moving parts worked together. But now, you were on the run. GLaDOS was throwing everything she could at you, and as a result the game was suddenly deadlier, faster, and harder.
But this was fine, because it happened after hours of learning. This tonal shift only began in about the last third of the game, and you’d been given plenty of time to become comfortable with the portal gun and the rules of movement and conserved momentum that governed its use.
Tiny and Big has a similar act change, but it comes only a little ways into the game—it starts on level three of six (the levels are pretty huge), so you end up spending over half of the game fighting against dangerous powers that want to rub you out. By this point, I was still figuring out the optimal way to use Tiny’s tools, and I would have preferred a few more open levels to just play around in before things got serious. As it stands, I was having boulders hurled at me before I really knew how to use all my tools effectively, and as a result, much of the joy of exploration was abandoned, since I spent more time playing in fear of being killed and losing my progress to a misplaced checkpoint. T&B does manage to recover a good portion of its fun, but really, one more large open level would have been much appreciated.
Final Thoughts: I’m curious to know whether the developers of Tiny and Big were consciously internalizing some of Portal’s lessons—you’d be hard-pressed to find a better game to emulate, after all. It’s at its best when it’s about discovering the inner working of its fun and mysterious universe, and then cracking jokes about it. I wish the developers had taken it all a bit further, as it sometimes feels like it’s 80% of a completed project, but there’s still a lot to praise here, and I hope more people get to dive into it—it’s a brief and satisfying adventure that I don’t regret experiencing in the slightest.