Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass, and Open-Ended Stories

Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass is an RPG by Kasey Ozymy, the developer of A Very Long Rope to the Top of the Sky and The God of Crawling Eyes, two games we previously reviewed. It’s clear that the developer learned a lot about game design in the intervening time; Jimmy is actually fun to play, with challenging battles that never feel like brick walls or games of roulette, as well as a tight and intuitive set of tools and mechanics for you to play with. It also just doesn’t bother with elemental effects, which I thought was a nice bit of streamlining. There’s a ton of content and it’s honestly a steal at $15, so definitely pick it up if you’re in the mood for a jRPG.

(Don’t bother with the postgame, though. It just throws you against the exact same enemies and bosses from the main game with literally no difference except bigger numbers, then caps it off with a really tedious battle that’s a total crapshoot followed by you effectively winning halfway through but having to continue punching your way through mountains of HP anyway. Save yourself the time and just look it up on YouTube.)

Unfortunately, story-wise, the author decided to dive into a completely different genre, and his inexperience in that area is very stark. The premise of the game is that it all takes place in the imagination of Jimmy, a young boy — and because it’s a world of his dreams, it’s also a world of his nightmares. To the developer’s credit, this is not your typical “looks cutesy but is secretly SUPER EDGY!!!” affair: the story does genuinely oscillate between horror and truly lighthearted segments, and most of the horror elements are relegated to the edges, which I thought was very fitting — to confront Jimmy’s repressed fears, you have to go searching for them. It does a really good job of making it feel like the horror is intruding on Jimmy’s fantasy, and that he’s actively trying to push it back.

My issue is that none of it really goes anywhere. The horror elements are all flash and no substance — or if there is substance, it’s so vague and opaque I can’t find it. Individual areas are very well-designed, but they don’t seem to add up into any coherent whole. Supposedly, the horror levels are meant to give us a psychological profile of Jimmy via his worst fears, but I couldn’t find any consistent thread that paints any meaningful picture beyond the most banal, superficial, and obvious reading. I wouldn’t mind this so much if the horror levels were just window dressing, but they’re not. The main story is one of those infuriatingly obtuse plots where everything is ~up to your interpretation~, right down to the ending itself, which explains absolutely nothing, not even what the Pulsating Mass is. The horror dungeons feel like they’re supposed to be vital pieces of the puzzle, but trying to use them to read into the main plot feels like grasping at straws.

More details under the cut, with major spoilers, obviously, but I will say that I don’t think the spoilers will ruin the game for you — the plot’s strength is in the characters and areas, and like I said, there’s not even a big ending reveal to spoil in the first place.


So as you probably guessed from the title, this is Yet Another Sad Cancer Story. Except we don’t actually get to learn this until the endgame and it’s never explicitly confirmed.

My only reaction was… seriously? That’s it? The most banal, trite, cliche, dead-horse twist in indie games people constantly complain about? That’s what the author thought justified this elaborate game-spanning mystery? That’s what we get for all the time and effort spent going through all these vague hints with a fine-toothed comb? I just feel cheated of my time and effort spent piecing together this jigsaw puzzle only to find the picture was what I already knew but hoped it wouldn’t be from the beginning.

This is something I’ve seen way too often in video game plots, especially indie ones. Everything is all flash and no substance: people love showing off a SHOCKING TWIST!!! and then the game just… ends. But that’s not a story. What matters is what you do with the twist. “The cute kid has cancer” isn’t a story, it’s a premise. (A genre, actually, if we’re being totally honest.) What makes those stories interesting is how people relate to and cope with the cancer, because those are the unique human experiences that can make a meaningful narrative.

There are parts of Jimmy that… look like they’re getting into that, but they’re all incredibly vague and stashed away in the most secret of secret areas. And they’re not even complete scenes — probably the most galling example is that there are secret areas where you can hear quotes from what are presumably the real world, but they’re not even complete sentences, they’re one-sided conversations with multiple words cut off by static. So, our key context needs key context. I don’t know how the author expects anyone to piece together anything coherent from that.

This story would be much stronger if we were explicitly told this was about cancer from the start. Throughout the game, I was too distracted asking the question of “What is the Pulsating Mass?” to pay too much attention to the symbolism throughout. I assumed the symbolism was all going to be in service to that reveal. Instead, the symbolism is actually where the real story is, but you need the ending reveal to know what lens you’re supposed to see it through. You need to go through the whole game a second time to figure out the interesting parts of the story — how do Jimmy and his family feel about this — and that’s asking a lot of your audience. It would have been much more considerate if we were given that lens at the start and went in knowing this was a symbolic puzzle story. As it is, knowing this is just another cancer story, I’m not invested enough to do a deep reading.

There is also the issue that it’s hard to tell whether any given symbol is important or not. As I already said, the horror levels feel less than the sum of their parts.

Here’s what I think is the starkest example: the final dungeon of the third arc. For reasons I won’t get into because they are pretty much the only legitimate spoiler here, Jimmy has complicated feelings towards a kid’s show he used to love. For the climax of the third arc, he goes into an imagined version of the kid’s show that proceeds to go through the painfully cliche sequence of everything being initially bright and cheery before transitioning into horror and gore everywhere.

(What really gets me here is that the “dark” Hug Monkey’s design makes no sense. The point is that it hugs you, something that requires two arms. So why is it holding something? Does it put the head down before it hugs you? And this is without even getting into the silliness of something holding its own severed head in the first place. I don’t know why so many horror designers think that’s scary and not ridiculous.)

So, on its own, this is perfectly adequate as a horror level. The progression is well-paced, there’s a lot of detail to the graphics, and even though I think the Hug Monkey is dumb I do actually like the other monsters.

But the problem comes when you try to slot this into the greater narrative. What is this supposed to tell us about Jimmy, psychologically? Why is he scared of his happy place being corrupted by gore and violence? That has absolutely nothing to do with shame and guilt, the neurosis this arc revolves around, or the greater narrative with the Pulsating Mass. It’s just a painfully generic horror trope. You could reasonably do a thing where this specific nightmare is relevant to the character, but I don’t see any evidence for that here.

And all the horror levels are like that. They all just revolve around a single common fear (the powers from The Magnus Archives would have a field day with this kid) that is then never brought up again and never seems to matter at all. They don’t even really make sense, really — why is a kid confined to a hospital bed scared of falling, or of the earth swallowing him up? Occasionally they will tie into the cancer theme, but it’s often a non-sequitor tacked on to the end of a generic horror level. All this tells us is the little kid is scared of scary things. And in other news, water is wet.

Late in the game, we do learn that Jimmy watches horror movies with his big brother a lot, and the example movie we’re shown does tie into a lot of the more generic horror dungeons, implying that he was scarred by the experience — but like, seriously? That’s the big reveal this was all building towards? Little kids get scarred from watching age-inappropriate movies? Once again, water is wet. This tells us nothing, it means nothing.

I feel like a lot of this is the medium holding it back, too. Making everything revolve around combat pens you in to very specific types of horror, ones that revolve around monsters and violence. Not only is that nowhere near the full spectrum of horror, it’s a brand of horror actively undermined by a power fantasy RPG. The monsters aren’t scary when I know I can beat them and that there are no consequences for losing anyway. I think the only horror dungeons that actually unsettled me were the beehive and the crow’s nest, and that was because the monsters looked like they were suffering. Everywhere else, I just thought “this is really weird/cool”, not “this is really creepy”. I actually ended up being excited to find new horror dungeons just because they were so much cooler than the normal areas.

…Can’t think of a good transition here, but I’m also gonna talk about representation talk real quick, because the developer’s said he was concerned about it: A lot of people seem bothered by the only major female character being the mom and the healer, but I actually think Helga is fine. She’s far from just a mousy background supporter — she’s very lively and extroverted, and drives a lot of the plot in the early sections. I actually thought she was a nice take on the supportive mother — she’s a beacon of light to everyone, not just to Jimmy, and she’s clearly happy being herself as well. I also thought the detail of her being so optimistic she’s literally immune to status effects was really cute.

do take issue with the only other playable female character existing only to fulfill Jimmy’s weeaboo uncle’s waifu fantasy. I know the point is supposed to be that it’s Jimmy’s naive view of things and he doesn’t realize why it’s problematic, but that excuse doesn’t cut it if you’re concerned about representation. The point of good representation is to challenge unseen assumptions. If you have to read into the story to find that challenge, it does no good for the people who really are totally uncritical of the waifu fantasy — people will see what they want to see.

I was also bothered that the boy mouse got to have a fun adventure fantasy but the girl mouse got horribly murdered when she tried to do the same thing.

…So, in sum.

I could be totally wrong about all of this. There could be some brilliant subversive narrative underneath it all and I’m just too dumb to see it. But as the Lingering Eye says, if I can’t see it, it may as well not exist. When a story leaves everything up to interpretation, people are naturally going to fill it in with the most cliched options, just because that’s what they’ve been primed to expect when they see these hints. I’d much rather the author just display their clever ideas for us to appreciate clearly. That’s why I read stories: to be exposed to other peoples’ thoughts and perspectives. If I wanted to come up with my own interpretations, I’d write my own story.

9 Comments

  1. Also I’m not normally one to complain about this but wow the Steam community is whiny. The only story boss I actually lost against was the Lingering Eye, and even the optional bosses didn’t give me much trouble. Git gud, kids.

  2. Act says:

    This is going to sound really bizarre, but can you hide the title image under a cut? I must have seen it while I was sick and now every time I come to the blog and see it I feel nauseous…

  3. Indiscretion says:

    Yo, I’m playing this. Spoilers ahead.

    I’m not done, I’m currently at the Pulsating Mass Hub where you fight winged Buck with the eyeballs and spoiled myself on a lot of the plot, but the standout plot moments to me so far were:

    Andrew’s in game stuff kinda showing off how self-centered he was. In the pyramid, there was a mural of how he did a really advanced science fair project ‘with’ Jimmy, and how Jimmy was a great ‘lab assistant’ for it. Which convinces him that Jimmy as a genius who needs to be ahead in school, for some reason. I think it’s interesting that Jimmy dreams of there being a book that holds the knowledge to defeating the pulsating mass (defeating cancer) even though he also is acknowledging to himself that it’s inevitable and the book won’t help, and all the finding and pursuing the book is driven by Andrew.

    Helga is also similarly confusing. I think in her Rainbow Park (?) scene she says something like, if I knew what was happening I’d buy you a shelf full of teddy bears, and clearly doesn’t hold Jimmy to the extreme guilt he holds himself to for stealing the Jonathan bear. Except before that Jimmy still has a huge dungeon and character arc with it in his dream world and terrifies himself with Jonathan I-know-what-you-did Bear… so I guess that was a lead up to him putting things in perspective in the carnival dungeon?

    When you’re fighting Jimmy, I like the transformation note of ‘Jimmy imagines himself as a monster’.

    Before this, there was a Lars beach scene where he’s talking about how shitty people have treated him and then suddenly I WISH I HAD AN ASIAN GIRL. THAT WOULD MAKE IT ALL BETTER was really abrupt and terrible and why. Having Hitomi exist to fawn over Lars at the school and then literally have a baby with him and fulfill every ideation with zero deconstruction or second-guessing of his fantasy was…. why. Why. I don’t know if there’s something to be said that I haven’t reached yet, but so far it felt like it was played so straight it was nasty.

    The Punch Tanaka suicide scene and Jonathan Bear suicide baiting him thing felt unfitting. Like the author probably had a need to show that Jonathan was malicious and Punch needed a drastic life event, but that’s about as far as the reasoning goes, I think. The rest of Jonathan’s arc doesn’t really have much to do with giving in to despair or thinking the world would be a better place without you (he’s more of greed and guilt and not forgetting), so he doesn’t really fit with that scene, and I have qualms with attempted suicide being the major life event that is needed to change people for the better. Punch acts better to his crew, goes on a journey of self improvement, and helps Jimmy and then sacrifice-saves Jimmy by holding off demonic Buck, with his suicide attempt being the spur for all of these things via fall induced memory loss, which is, ugh.

    I think there’s an argument to be made that this is all Jimmy’s skewed perspective of things and how things work, but it really doesn’t seem like that that was addressed or tied in storywise as an unhealthy perspective. And Jimmy has plenty of examples of thinking about these things, like Cordelia and Timothy Mouse, who both question if they’re doing the right thing in how they behave to other people (is Cordelia a bad person if she helps people to be seen as a good person? is Timothy hurting his family like his abandoning father by going on his own journey?) that the lack of anything that suicide KILLS PEOPLE (like how Punch’s suicide attempt could have easily killed him) and sacrificing yourself for to help people you think you owe is not a healthy anything. Believing you’re a burden to others unless you sacrifice yourself is bad.

    There are other things I’d want to mention but I spent a longer time than I thought on these.

    1. Helga is also similarly confusing. I think in her Rainbow Park (?) scene she says something like, if I knew what was happening I’d buy you a shelf full of teddy bears, and clearly doesn’t hold Jimmy to the extreme guilt he holds himself to for stealing the Jonathan bear. Except before that Jimmy still has a huge dungeon and character arc with it in his dream world and terrifies himself with Jonathan I-know-what-you-did Bear… so I guess that was a lead up to him putting things in perspective in the carnival dungeon?

      Yeah, I don’t really know what’s going on there. Maybe Jonathonland represents him getting over it, but it’s really confusing. This is what’s frustrating about stories that are all metaphor, we have no objective scale to judge anything against or to know what’s going through the protagonist’s head.

      I was talking about it with Farla and what she thought was going on was that Jimmy thinks everyone is lying to him when they say he’s a good boy, because you have to be nice to ill kids regardless of what you really think. In that light, Helga may be reenacting a real-life conversation where they already found out and forgave him, but he’s not convinced. I really don’t know, though. Jonathon is very weird in general in the way that Jimmy keeps trying to understand him and make him into a sympathetic villain — it may just be an extension of Jimmy being empathetic in general, or it could be him focusing on a specific thing. (Abandonment? There’s a postgame scene that implies he fears that.) I initially thought Jonathon may have represented Jimmy’s hatred or frustration, but Central-Jimmy seems to represent that already.

      The rest of Jonathan’s arc doesn’t really have much to do with giving in to despair or thinking the world would be a better place without you (he’s more of greed and guilt and not forgetting), so he doesn’t really fit with that scene

      I think that’s more the Pulsating Mass being evil and, in particular, screwing up the way kiddie narratives are supposed to go. That’s something I was struck by early on with the bees: the setup is the textbook RPG opening of the wise monarch giving you a quest that they can’t deal with themselves because *mumble mumble*, and then it all gets flipped on its head. The Punch suicide felt similar to me — the way that scene is supposed to go is that the heroes talk him down and we learn an important lesson about life and friendship etc. Jonathon forces that off-script. So I think that’s more Jonathon acting in his capacity as an avatar of the Pulsating Mass rather than as Jonathon himself.

      Can’t really speak for the rest of it. I didn’t really see Punch’s suicide attempt as the spur that started his character growth, but rather Jimmy fighting the Pulsating Mass for control of the narrative — see, he’s okay, he didn’t die, everything’s fine.

      Have you been finding the secret areas with snapshots of the real family members? They’re in Blue Staff River, the Blood Marsh, the Path of Enlightenment, and Shinryu. They’re frustratingly vague, but provide some insight into the real-world situation.

      1. Indiscretion says:

        [Have you been finding the secret areas with snapshots of the real family members? They’re in Blue Staff River, the Blood Marsh, the Path of Enlightenment, and Shinryu. They’re frustratingly vague, but provide some insight into the real-world situation.]

        Just found the Blue Staff River/Helga one! They seem rather mundane? to me. Helga talking about being overwhelmed by the situation (but promising to talk to Jimmy later!) seemed like the most important quote, while the others felt like normal everyday motherly Helga stuff. The items from here were: Rollerskates (Don’t be afraid of falling. If you don’t deal with the embarrassment now, you’ll never have fun.), Helping Hands (Who wants to fight when you can just hug it out? Jonathan only), Caffeinated Inhaler, the first two of which are unique.

        [The Punch suicide felt similar to me — the way that scene is supposed to go is that the heroes talk him down and we learn an important lesson about life and friendship etc.]

        …is that a rpg trope thing? eek, yeah, I don’t really imbibe a lot of different media, I wouldn’t know.

        I don’t know, I think co-opting your characters for the pulsating mass just feels kinda lazy to me.  I guess it makes sense overarching with this being Jimmy’s dream, but what stood out to me about it most at the time was how it advanced the arcs, gave the player a reason to push Jonathan in the fire and the Punch thing, rather than the game going off-script as a subversion.

        It took me a while to find Blue Staff River (That’s the first secret area I found) and I’m currently pulling skulls around for Blood Marsh.

        1. …is that a rpg trope thing?

          Oh no, it’s not a specific thing, but whenever it comes up (like a Very Special Episode or something), the characters are supposed to behave like Helga does in the scene. It does serve the purpose of advancing the plot, obviously, but tonally that’s the reading I got from it.

          The Blood Marsh secret area has nothing to do with the skulls. It’s in the cave — one of the walls with the hands has a secret passage. The Helga area is pretty underwhelming, but the others are a bit meatier, I think, especially Andrew’s.

  4. FGSFDS says:
    Spoilers ahead for the whole game:

    I felt like the game peaked at the third arc with its storytelling, then just didn’t know what to do with the secret knowledge plot, so it just spun its wheels enough so the creator could brag about how long the game is and then just ended. Jonathon was way more compelling to me than the pulsating mass itself. Then stuff like Cordelia’s plotline’s ending and Hitomi in general began to make me question the creator’s writing capabilities, and I honestly wish I had dropped the game at Megatropolis which I was seriously considering, even if I really enjoyed the scenes with Jimmy’s family members at the locations you had to visit to open up the final area. It sucks that Lars was pretty much ruined for me because of the unfunny anime tropes jokes in Megatropolis that were so overly long they turned into a character, and an unwelcome party member at that. I liked his relationship with Helga and his grandparents, and wish there had been a scene where he got to talk to the computer version of his grandma in the endgame.

     

    Much has been said about the unenjoyable nature of the postgame battles, but I feel like the postgame in general is just a giant middle finger to people hoping for something more than what they got with the ending. The secret stones you are able to get there that are completely worthless and especially the final form Jimmy is able to obtain just feel like both a dropped plotline that could have given some much needed catharsis to the ending, and very spiteful meta commentary on the futility of Jimmy’s story. The ultimate futility and finality of it all in the ending also pretty much kills any desire to speculate on things, at least for me, because ultimately none of it matters.

    1
    1. I felt like the game peaked at the third arc with its storytelling, then just didn’t know what to do with the secret knowledge plot, so it just spun its wheels enough so the creator could brag about how long the game is and then just ended. Jonathon was way more compelling to me than the pulsating mass itself.

      Seconded. I liked Secret Meridian’s aesthetic, but the plot definitely slowed way down.

      The ultimate futility and finality of it all in the ending also pretty much kills any desire to speculate on things, at least for me, because ultimately none of it matters.

      Yeah. I talked about this in A Very Long Rope and I Miss the Sunrise too. I really hate stories where the ultimate lesson is “No hope, get the rope.” It’s one thing if this is a tragedy, where we know this going in (another reason this would have been improved if we knew about the cancer from the start), but to pull people in like it’s a normal adventure story and then say “LOL J/K it was all for nothing, everything is misery and suffering forever” is just cruel. Art should tell us something more meaningful than that.

      If this was something like Jimmy grappling with the end of his life and how to cope with it, like, you know, an actual cancer story, that could be interesting, but that’s not really what we get.

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