‘Headlander’? What the hell’s a headlander? I’ve been out of the writing game for three weeks; did the English language change dramatically overnight when I wasn’t looking? Is anything of what I’m writing even making sense to you anymore? Any more so than usual, I mean.
We might never know what went through Double Fine‘s and Adult Swim‘s minds when they made a game called Headlander. But what we do know is that Headlander is billed as a fun, fancy, retro-futuristic Metroidvania-esque adventure game. “Set in a world ruled by 70’s fiction”, if the Steam page is to be believed. Honestly, I didn’t need to know much more than ‘new Double Fine game that is also a Metroidvania adventure’, the rest is just gravy. Not a whole lot of setup needed for this one; I suggest we just… head in.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, medium.)
(Game source: Patreon funds.)
I can certainly see the promised 1970’s aesthetic right off the bat.
Headlander‘s menu is rendered in the same lovely warm colours. New Game Yellow, Options Red, Achievements Purple… It sticks with the theming to the point where the option sub-menus — audio/video, controls, keybindings, and credits, for some reason — actually become a little hard to read. Nothing major, but I catch myself squinting at the pink-on-dark-red text bits.
Headlander does the relatively common thing of switching the on-screen key displays between ‘keyboard controls’ and ‘gamepad controls’, depending on the last button you pressed. It’s a good idea in theory: done well, it’s an intuitive way of adapting to user preferences without forcing people to be concrete about it. But Headlander messes up a little bit in the keybindings screen, where the controls you can set are literally dependent on whether you’re in controller mode or keyboard mode. Without warning! Which means you can start out looking at this:
And then switch to keyboard mode (maybe by trying to answer a Steam message?) and suddenly see this:
It’s a small thing, but I noticed it. Be warned if you start out playing controller and then decide to switch to keyboard halfway in, I guess: there are more buttons for things. Which now makes me wonder how the controller even manages all that? It’s a mystery wrapped in another mystery.
Anyway, let’s get started. I hit the New Game button, and…
I get to choose from three different characters. Well, three different heads, wrapped in astronaut helmets. White Guy, Pale White Woman, and Old Black Guy. I opt for the latter, just because he looks the most like he means business. Gotta respect that ‘stache.
I make my selection, and…
Cutscene. A majestic spaceship cuts through the void of stars. It’s called the ‘Starcophagus’, and I’ll refrain from mentioning both how morbid that sounds, and what the ship very much looks like.
After a psychedelic colour shift, the camera zooms in on my character’s wrinkly grey-haired head. He’s asleep. Then he suddenly wakes up, eyes wide in alarm! What, what’s happening? What’s going on?
Some static noise buzzes, and then a voice cuts in. “I’m through! Y’all should be hearing me on your helmet radio now.”
The voice is male, warm and Southern, a comfortable drawl with a played-up accent. I imagine myself drinking peach cobblers on a Georgia prairie porch with the man behind the voice. Hey, maybe I should ask him about that!
Wait, what? I don’t have any lungs? That sounds like a big problem!
Okay, so I’m a disembodied head. This is a strange situation to be in. And a little existentially terrifying. I have a lot of questions about this, but the voice (“Name’s Earl, by the way”) cleverly cut off that avenue of character development when he mentioned I have no lungs and, therefore, cannot talk. I guess I’m a very specific life support situation where I do need lungs to move air through my diaphragm to be able to talk, but I don’t need lungs to move air through my lungs in order to survive. But, sure, whatever. We’ve apparently got more pressing issues than me just being a disembodied head: there are ‘shepherds incoming’, under the direction of ‘Methuselah’, and it’s apparently important that I stay out of the latter’s hands. Assuming Methuselah even has hands. Apparently wholeness of body is no longer a sure bet in the future.
“Y’all gonna need yourself a body,” Earl says, as a big tube-y robot arm descends from the ceiling. The camera pans, and two meters to the left, I see shiny grey-white headless body.
Sure enough, the claw grabs my disembodied head, swivels over, and screws it onto the headless body. Round and round and round and click. And just like that, I have a physical presence again. Still no lungs for talking, because this is apparently a robot body. But I’ve got arms for flexing and legs for walking, and a crotch for uncomfortable posing shots.
Let’s get started.
To the left, there’s nothing. A large computer screen that alternates between ‘stasis released’ and ‘STAY CALM’. But to the right, a circular open door! It’s ringed with red lights, and the word ROOD is emblazoned above. Fun fact: ‘rood’ is the Dutch word for ‘red’. Entirely coincidental, I’m sure.
While the first room was nice and yellow, the second room is… much more of a warfare disaster. The ground is lousy with scorch marks, and littered with broken robots in various shades of grey and red. And one functioning robot, too. I spent a pleasant minute or so talking to a diminutive threaded space-Roomba. They’re… very enthusiastic about their job.
Then I walk into the third room, again to the right. And…
What do I do? For all his earlier babbling, Earl is silent right now. It’s clear I have to get past this lightning crevasse, but I don’t think I can air-jump or fly or anything. What to do, what to do…
I walk closer to the edge of the broken bridge. As I do, a button prompt appears on-screen. ‘[Q] Launch Head’. Which is… what the hell does that mean? ‘Launch head’. Surely it can’t be the obvious thing. Why would I even be bothering with this robot body if my helmet head could launch itself?
Welp, I’m a flying head now. There’s a conceit you don’t see in too many games. I can think of like, two, three, tops.
I spend a few seconds flying around as a rocket head. Woo! Both control stick and keyboard buttons work on a set-directions principle, with the control stick allowing for more freedom of movement but the keyboard buttons allowing more abrupt turns. And it feels good. The head is very responsive in either set, and it zips across the map rapidly. This is a breath of fresh air after that clunky android shape. Glad to be rid of that garbage can. And while there’s a new, conveniently headless red robot body on the other side of the chasm, I’m having a hard time coming up with reasons for why I’d want to confine myself to that prison of legs.
Ah. The red door on the right is closed. And me bonking my rocket head into it isn’t doing much for the opening process. Alright then; red robot body prison it is.
The closed door is run by a finicky door AI, because what would a space-future setting be without sapient computer obstruction? Because this door is RED, it’ll only open for someone with RED clearance or higher. Hey, remember when I explictly mentioned the colour of my new metal bod? But just being red isn’t good enough; I have assert my dominance using my red arm laser.
Wait, hold on. This body has a laser?
In the bottom right corner, I can see the name of my current robot body: ‘Patrol Red Single’. This conveys two pieces of information. One, there will likely be other Red robots for me to get, either not ‘Patrol’ or not ‘Single’. And two, there’s a ROY G BIV ordering of security clearances that’s reminiscent of the tabletop game Paranoia in more ways than one. Not that I know about that sort of stuff, of course, that’d be treason. But I fully expect to see myself rising the colour ranks in Headlander at some point in the future.
At this point in the present, though, I’ve just found an entirely different class of robot. For one, it’s a wall-mounted head. For two, it has the voice I’ve come to associate with ‘Methuselah’, the ship-wide presence that I’ve been told wants me dead. For three, Methuselah here doesn’t think highly of me.
I need to escape the current room before murder-robots come to investigate. But, problem! The bottom door is broken and impassibly blocked! And the top door is, well, all the way up there. I could fly to it… but I need my red laser to get it to open. What do?
And then I reach the next room and I have to fight robots anyway.
Fighting my way to the escape pods, which is apparently what I’m doing, involves quite a lot of lasers. Security lasers block the exit, meaning I’ll have to turn them off to proceed. To cross the gap over the laser fence, I’ll need to engage in laser fights with enemy Shepherd robots. And if I manage to snipe their heads off and claim their better-located bodies for myself, I then have to use my laser to verify my security clearance for every single door. It’s a good thing it’s lasers we’re talking about, or I’d worry that this was too much of a good thing.
‘But Jarenth, what if you don’t snipe the robot head off? What if you shoot their bodies over and over again?’ Good question, strawman reader! If I do that, the robots explode. Into a million shrapnel pieces. And for a few terrifying seconds, I get to wonder if I’ve broken the puzzle permanently and if I need to start over. And then, a second, identical robot walks in form the door behind the first one. Or even teleports in out of thin air. Headlander doesn’t do permanently-unwinnable states, I’m guessing.
I make my way through the ship. Sometimes, I take robot bodies and use their power of redness to open doors. Sometimes, I bail my earthly attachments and fly my head through spacious ventilation shafts. Sometimes other robots get shot. Sometimes punching is involved.
And just when I think I’ve got this game’s number on allowed actions…
On Earl’s behest, I fly my head into a particularly out-of-the-way ventilation shaft. I find something there called a ‘Trans-Fiber Node’. Earl urges me to land my head on the strange-looking piece of machinery. Then a glass tube lowers, locking my head in. And then…
I’m about to tell at Earl for this weird impromptu acid trip, but it turns out messing with my brainwaves actually had a purpose. These Trans-Fiber Nodes permanently upgrade my head-helmet… somehow. This one has given me some sort of quantum tunneling vacuum power, which gives me the ability to yank up and carry around small objects. Like small security locks that bar ventilation shafts, to give a very specific example for no reason. Or like the heads of my enemies! I can approach one of the Shepherds now as a zippy hard-to-hit robot face, yank their head right off their shoulders, and then land on the body and claim it as my own.
Well, at the very least this answers the problem of ‘how can I fight evil laser robots if my own evil robot laser body gets blown up’. Because let me tell you, there is plenty of evil robot laser fighting here. And my bodies can’t take a tremendous beating. And it’s damn near impossible to avoid enemy laser hits. There’s some finicky sort of cover system, but honestly? It’s much easier to just fight until the body explodes, then pilot the head to the nearest empty body — or yank the head off an active enemy, and steal theirs. The head has a separate health bar, and I assume once that gets depleted it’s game over for real. But I say ‘assume’ because that hasn’t happened yet; I take at most one laser blast from enemies whose head I’m actively yanking off, and once I’m headlanded (ugh), the body health bar takes precedence. And the head health bar regenerates rapidly, to boot. Headlander is a very forgiving game so far, I guess is what I’m saying.
I fight my way to the escape pod laser controls. I disable the lasers, using my head (to land on the control pad). I fight my way to the escape pod activators. I activate the escape pods (again, with my head). Then, finally, I fight my way to the escape pods proper. And I strap myself into the escape pod for fast, safe and easy escape… the only way I know how.
As the escape pod rockets off into the great beyond — which is to say, straight at a nearby space station, for some reason — I have some time to reflect on my experiences with Headlander. This has been a… strange game, so far. I think I have I have its number with regard to mechanics, and I ‘think’ I have its ‘number’ with regard to tone. But time will have to tell if I’m any way on-message. Are we going to see more movement- and access-boosting upgrades? Any more poorly disguised innuendo? And will the colour-based access I predicted ever materialize, or was that just (ho ho ho) a red herring?