Cityscapes have always had a kind of ugly charm to them for me. Even if your main definition of beauty derives from a moonlit flower on a winter's eve, or the blossoming sunrise over a mountainous horizon, there's no doubt that peering into a vast, endless concrete forest has an awe-inspiring effect as you imagine the intricate weaving of life it contains.
The problem is that the beauty you can find in cities is so elusive that it can be hard to imitate. In trying to forge its own charm from the ugliness of the concrete walls that shape the space so many of us call home, City Climber, a ragdoll physics game, does something remarkable.
Developed and published in 2017, the game is a physics-based platformer composed of the same keyboard-twister style mechanics that you would see in titles like QWOP. With nothing but your mouse, your character's arms, and an array of conveniently placed handlebars to grab ahold of, you're tasked with climbing through the game's 14 levels in the best possible time.
Your adventure naturally takes place in various parts of an undefined, minimalistic city, from gangling electrical pylons to dank sewer systems. If there's one thing that City Climber excels at, it's the allure it conjures through its own limitations.
The decision to build the game around a low-poly art style was a wise one for a multitude of reasons. Instead of having busy textures that fill the level with unneeded confusion, City Climber opts to just throw them out almost entirely.
As a result of this decision, each level's environment is free to layer on details in different ways - with geometry. Props and objects litter the world, either as grim reminders of the heap you've found yourself in, or as nefarious obstacles in your path to the exit. Everything is so brilliantly alive.
Even things like rooftops, which I imagine have trouble being interesting design-wise, are so gorgeously messy in a way that a city can only really be.
Pipes and ventilation systems worm through the buildings like life-giving veins, boxes and leftovers piled atop construction sites crash down tremendously onto the city streets.
Even in the levels where you're climbing up towers, the staunch, never-ending buildings are offset by an army of white blocks representing the city in the distance. It's beautiful, whilst also serving a purpose as it keeps the distractions towards your goal at bay.
It's so charming in its messy simplicity. In a way, the theme is perfect for a game that attempts something so simple, even if it arguably falls short of the bar in terms of implementation at times. City Climber may be too fiddly to be fun from start to finish, but for me, it is the perfect counter-argument to the idea that games have only a handful of ways to be beautiful.