This is the eighty-seventh entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
marble girl hacks computers, eats cake
I have long suspected that the primary leisure activities of celestial hacker girls include hacking computers and eating cake, especially when the celestial hacker girls in question are also marbles. Vindication!
Celestial Hacker Girl Jessica immediately reminded me of my personal favorite pick from the first year of this series: Space Hole 2018 (spaces were added to its title since my original post about it). Like that game, Celestial Hacker Girl Jessica involves rolling a spherical protagonist (in this case, Jessica, a celestial hacker girl who is also a marble) around otherworldly 3D environments floating in a strange void, jumping between different structures while listening to weird and cool music and gawping at the strange scenery. This instantly ingratiated me towards it, but it’s unfair to judge Celestial Hacker Girl Jessica solely through comparisons to another game. There’s plenty to give it its own flavor: where Space Hole 2018 contains hundreds of small interconnected levels, often notable more for their psychedelic presentation than anything else, Celestial Hacker Girl Jessica contains 36 levels that are (mostly) tackled in sequence, and which focus on navigational and jumping puzzles. There’s nothing like Space Hole 2018’s free flying sections here, Jessica is all about rolling, all the time. The environs she explores are less overtly psychedelic too, lacking the often intense visual effects that pervade Space Hole 2018.
That’s not to say the locales are any less weird, though. Constructed with pre-made assets from the Unity Asset Store, they often feature odd juxtapositions, with simple, almost flat-shaded structures abutting surfaces with high resolution wood textures, or reflective, translucent stained glass. Other objects will be scattered about, a giant frog (which occasionally leaps) here, some Greek pillars there, human figures floating off to one side. Levels are set against a strange cosmic backdrop, huge planets or swirling vortexes filling the space with color. If Jessica falls into the void, a massive rainbow-hued skeleton reaches out an arm to catch and (presumably) destroy her, before she respawns at the start of the level. Celestial Hacker Girl Jessica is never boring to look at.
The goal of each level is to find the cake. Although this was not immediately clear. The first level acts as a tutorial, with floating messages explaining the rules, but otherwise appears to be a featureless, walled space to roll around in. I couldn’t figure out any way to proceed, and tried returning to the menu to select a different level, but found no option to do so. So I resumed rolling aimlessly around until, somehow, a cake appeared. I still do not know what caused its appearance, although I have a suspicion. Fortunately, later levels are much less obtuse. In many, the cake can be seen straight off, but players must work out how to reach it. In others, there’s a clear gauntlet of obstacles that must be passed, with the assumption that the cake is at the end. Sometimes Jessica must find and hack boxy computers (by rolling up to them) to proceed. This might open a forcefield that’s enclosing the cake, or one that blocks passage to some other part of the level, or it might spawn new elements into the level or otherwise change its layout. Jessica can’t jump very high, but she can gain impressive speed if she has room to accelerate, flying across platforms and leaping over pits. She can also climb ivy that grows on walls, gaining some elevation from which to drop into new places. Sometimes this involves taking advantage of bouncy surfaces, reminiscent of some of the gel-based puzzles in Portal 2.
If there are antagonists in the game, they must be the lasers. Some laser beams are fixed and can be jumped over, and others move in fixed patterns that must be dodged, but the most nefarious slowly home in on Jessica’s position. The ominous buzzing of an approaching laser is unsettling and conducive to panic. Some levels feature several of these homing lasers at once, leading to a tense dance in which Jessica goads the lasers into pointing elsewhere so she can pass through. Sometimes floating points of laser light appear, hovering in small swarms like drones that slowly, inexorably chase Jessica around the level, emitting the same terrifying buzz when they get close. These obstacles can be challenging to navigate, and many levels took me several attempts to finish. But Celestial Hacker Girl Jessica never felt punishing. It manages to feel sedate and relaxing, even when things get hairy.
My biggest complaint about the game is one that will not matter at all to many people: it is controlled with the keyboard and mouse, but lacks the option to invert the mouse y-axis. For those (like me) who learned to navigate 3D games with an inverted mouse, this makes looking around extremely awkward. I managed, but was never comfortable, and often found myself pointing the camera straight into the floor just when things got tricky, as my inverted mouse instincts took over. It doesn’t help that the camera seems to rotate around Jessica’s position, and she’s very close to the ground. It’s easy to drop the camera below the floor, causing it to disappear from view in a very disorienting manner. I often wanted to pan the camera around to admire the scenery, but the positioning is such that most of the frame is filled with the nearby floor (as you can see in many of the screenshots in this post). I would have preferred if the camera were centered slightly above Jessica, to more closely match the camera behavior of other third-person games.
That’s not the only rough edge players will encounter. It’s clear that Celestial Hacker Girl Jessica was built with a small budget, without the benefit of teams of designers and testers to hone its platforming controls for maximum responsiveness. But none of that bothered me. The level design is surprisingly solid and imaginative, offering fresh challenges along with fresh sights and sounds. I don’t know the sources for all the music (I assume music was obtained in the Unity Asset Store along with everything else?), but it’s consistently interesting and a lot of it is great. Sound effects are simple but effective, and I love Jessica’s enthusiastic yelp whenever she jumps. I played through all 36 levels in a single sitting, but there are reasons to return. Most (all?) levels also have a hidden soda can to find, which takes Jessica to a warp zone area that lets her travel to any level in which she’s found a soda can (and some she hasn’t). If she’s collected the CDs or other marbles scattered throughout the levels, she can use them in the warp zone to listen to the different music tracks from the game, or change the color of her marble. I’m sure I missed some of these, and I definitely missed a lot of the soda cans, even after revisiting a few levels to look for them. Dedicated players may want to scour old levels for these secrets.
This one is pretty cool, and I never would have found it without the bundle. Thanks, bundle! If you missed the bundle, Celestial Hacker Girl Jessica is sold for a minimum price of $1.99, including versions for Windows, Mac and Linux. If you fancy some strangely relaxing 3D platforming, definitely check it out.
That’s 87 down, and only 1654 to go!