The storytelling and narrative in Spearhead Games' action puzzler Tiny Brains was built with a specific, unique interest in mind: It had to be something that cooperative players could shout over in the heat of action.
"The story was never meant to be serious or very deep," Spearhead co-founder and president Malik Boukhira told Polygon. "But we wanted to create a context for players to have fun in the game and learn some of the story behind the Tiny Brains."
In a recent demo of the title running on PlayStation 4, I played through the first two chapters of Tiny Brains' story mode. The campaign itself begins with an introduction to the game's narrator — the mad scientist responsible for the creation of the four small superpowered rodents. He has created the four Tiny Brains in his lab, which, in addition to being packed with test tubes and other tools of science, plays host to number of unhappy-looking hamsters with helicopter propellers nailed into their skulls. It's a very gruesome concept, but it doesn't get in the way of Tiny Brains' upbeat, campy tone.
Throughout the two chapters I played, along with Boukhira and two other studio representatives, the narrator would often make fun of the game's mechanics. Each rodent has a different power: one can push objects over a short distance without touching them, one can pull them, another can create blocks of ice and another can swap places with moveable objects by teleporting to them. Boukhira explained that the game's self-awareness is part of Spearhead's plan to keep the game as whimsical as possible and keep players laughing.
"The narrator himself will sometimes make fun of the mechanics; he knows how silly it is," Boukhira said. "We wanted to keep it lighthearted."
Boukhira said the story was meant to create an "ambience," a plot as absurd as the idea of superpowered rodents. The first chapter of the four-part story allows players to familiarize themselves with how the powers work, offering a series of puzzles that for each player to learn their rodent's power and how it works in conjunction with other players' powers.
"We wanted story to be secondary to the way players interact with each other."
Despite the story unraveling before us, during the demo, the four players hardly paid attention to what the narrator was saying. The room was filled with constant chatter as we strategized on the fly to get through puzzles. We were constantly shouting to each other to use our powers, or go to a certain point in the arena, or just laughing and reprimanding each other for messing something up. Falling off a ledge or into a hole will result in death, but players will always respawn after three seconds. Gameplay was fast-paced and frantic at times, but the PS4's crisp graphical quality made the action easy to follow, as well as visually pleasing.
In story mode, players can also interact with the environment using their powers. The rodents can pull telephones off the hook, smash cardboard furniture and wreck a number of free-floating objects just for the heck of it. Powers do have a few seconds of cooldown, however, so players may want to save their fire for when a challenge crops up.
Running underneath this lightheaded romp through an abandoned lab overrun by cannibalistic baby chickens is a darker story; notes scattered throughout the second chapter hint at isolation, dwindling supplies and a military takeover of the lab. What this could all mean, Bouhkira didn't say, but reaffirmed that it will be a silly story meant to be flavoring for Tiny Brains' real meat: its heavy co-op focus.
"We want players to interpret for themselves what's going on in the story," Boukhira explained. "We don't want people just sitting there watching cutscenes. We didn't care too much about developing the story, but we wanted players to have fun and to keep them laughing. We wanted it to be secondary to the way players interact with each other."
Tiny Brains will launch on Nov. 15 for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and Windows PC.