Lilly Looking Through is the kind of game I wish I could play on mushrooms. It's gentle and passive in a way most games aren't. There's no points or lives or monsters or bullets to pass the time. Instead, gamers get a visually rich, puzzle-driven point-and-click gaming experience that accomplishes an epic feel in a short amount of time. It's virtually impossible to spoiler anything in Lilly Looking Through because the story is more or less what you make it; the game aspires to, and achieves, an artistic ambiguity that invites interpretation. It also happens to be addictive and fun in the way well-designed games can be.
Lilly Looking Through Trailer
Steve Hoogendyk, along with his wife Jessica, are the heart and soul behind Lilly Looking Through. Partially funded through a Kickstarter effort (but largely funded by the savings of a married couple with two kids) Lilly Looking Through is the freshman effort of their simple studio, Geeta Games. So it should be no surprise that even the name of the company came from a cost-effective source.
"My daughter Hannah kept making these Ewok noises while she was learning to talk. She kept saying 'Geeta! Geeta!' and my wife thought 'Geeta Games' had a nice ring to it," Hoogendyk told me on the phone from his home in Kalamazoo, Mich. "Which is good because I had a bunch of horrible name ideas and Jessica hated all of them."
Lilly Looking Through is, fortunately, full of good ideas. The game begins simply enough. You control Lilly, a small girl in an anonymous village that could be just about anywhere. You click on a frog, it hops off a log and you've basically finished the tutorial mode for Lilly Looking Through. If you can click a mouse and understand the concept of moving left-to-right then you can enjoy this game. Hoogendyk believes that keeping games simple is part of keeping games fun.
"What I was trying to do was make a game that was digestible. I wanted to keep it down to 15-45 minutes per area," he said.
As point-and-click adventures go, Lilly Looking Through delivers a light experience. It's not terribly long (five hours or so) and there aren't an overwhelming number of interactions on screen at any given time. There really is no inventory to speak of. If you happen to find something you can carry you will be using it within the next five minutes.
"No inventory because backtracking is boring," he said.
Lilly Looking Through is being released on Steam and GOG.com, as well as Geeta Games own site. Hoogendyk acknowledges he's received extra support from GOG.com and that their audience of classic gaming fans is more likely to fall in love with Lilly than the average gamer off the street. If you're among the core of GOG's audience and live for old-school point-and-clicks you might find Lilly Looking Through to be mere child's play compared to classics like the King's Quest series. But I encourage fans of the genre to focus on the merits of Lilly Looking Through, because there are many. I think you'll find, as I did, that a game needn't be tedious to be challenging.
This was Geeta Games's intent with Lilly Looking Through. Hoogendyk has "always loved adventure games" and points to 1993's Myst as one of his inspirations. Lilly Looking Through was a labor of love, and it plays that way. Hoogendyk and his wife, Jessica, are well-traveled character animators and have worked on films such as "Cloudy with A Chance Of Meatballs," "The Green Lantern" and "The Chronicles of Narnia." Steve has some video game studio work scattered on his 14-year long resume, including a stint at Presto Studios. But when he and Jessica decided to make their own adventure game three years ago and packed up for Kalamazoo they didn't expect the indie gaming scene would develop along with them.
"We had no idea indie games would get real popular the last two years," he said. The budget for Lilly Looking Through is around $350,000 by Hoogendyk's estimate, the $33,516 raised on Kickstarter helped but "was more for marketing purposes."
Despite being new to game design, Geeta Games delivers a delightful set of challenges in Lilly Looking Through. Several of the puzzles are true head scratchers and walk the fine line between vague and impossible quite well. Without any text-based clues or obvious objectives beyond the point-A to point-B level design Lilly Looking Through relies on serious trial-and-error click sessions. You turn a column red, then purple, then back to red when you thought it would turn blue and slowly start learning how to manipulate the world around you. The real puzzle, for some, is how a husband and wife team managed to work together for three years on a risky venture like an indie game and manage not to murder each other.
"We've broken down a few times," Hoogendyk said, laughing. He met his wife at a salsa class and the two fell for each other while training for a dance contest. "I thought the best way to talk to this pretty girl would be to ask her to do the contest with me, so our relationship was kind of built on us being partners."
Jessica did the character design for Lilly, and Hoogendyk said having "a girl illustrate a girl" helped give Lilly her outstanding in-game personality. The whole of Lilly Looking Through is designed to have a "classic Disney" feel because of the female protagonist and the hand-painted background. Beyond the obvious visual beauty I found that Lilly Looking Through was also a pleasure to listen to. Geeta Games' Chris Beazer composed the special kind of soundtrack that doesn't sound repetitive or annoying when you're trying to solve a difficult puzzle. There is a lot of quiet thinking that needs to be done in Lilly Looking Through and the soundtrack encourages soft, silent reflection.
Beyond the wonderful design and mechanics, what I liked best about Lilly Looking Through was the lack of explanation. There is no guiding narrator or on-screen text to transition you from one scene to the next. The mystery of Lilly and her magical goggles remain intact throughout the game. This, too, was a deliberate move by Geeta Games in order to protect the fantastical tone of the game.
"We all got burned by Midi-Chlorians, I think," Hoogendyk explained, referencing the biological explanation for the Force in the Star Wars universe. "The moment you have the magic explained it kind of ruins it a little bit. This is why [Lilly Looking Through] has no big explanation."
Lilly Looking Through stands out as one of the better indie games I've played this year because it delivers what all games want: a lasting experience. I walked away from the final stage with a sense of accomplishment and, hours later, still found myself musing on the ambiguities I uncovered along the way. It is a game that, at its best, is reminiscent of great short story writing. It is simple. It is good. And it is worth your time and $9.99.
Lilly Looking Through can be purchased on GOG.com, Steam or the company website. There will also be a livestreamed launch event for fans and Kickstarter backers to celebrate the release on November 1.