Among other such ballyhooed features as a time-saving sleep/resume function and the ability to purchase a rising mountain of slightly remastered versions of games you already purchased between two and 10 years ago, the Playstation 4 also makes it dead simple for anyone to engage in the formerly cost- and technically-prohibitive act of streaming a live performance of their gameplay to all who wish to watch it.
Now let's amend that statement for Bossa Studios' "I Am Bread." Among other such blah blah blah as something something God of War III High-High Definition Edition, the PS4 makes it dead simple for anyone but you to spend their own $13 to play "Bread" on a live stream while you, and not them, enjoy the game's best feature -- schadenfreude -- for free. You need not even own a PS4 to take advantage of this incredible offer.
"Bread's" gameplay operates in league with the likes of "Octodad," "Surgeon Simulator" (Bossa's previous game) and the ancestral "QWOP," all of which tasked players with doing simple things -- walking around as an octopus, maneuvering a surgeon's hands and running on a track, respectively -- via purposely unintuitive controls that transformed elementary motion into acts of comedy and horror.
This time, you control a slice of bread, whose four corners are mapped to, of all things, the Dual Shock 4’s shoulder (L1, R1) and trigger (L2, R2) buttons. Hold the corresponding buttons to apply weight and grip to those corners, and use the left stick to swing, nudge, flip and fling the bread according to the whims of physics and whatever combination of corners you have gripping onto whatever surface stands between you and the floor.
From this, a system of movement is sort of born, and if it sounds willfully messy in written form, the words have done their job. Even "Bread's" lone attempt at helpfulness, wherein it denotes each corner's button assignment with a corresponding icon on that corner, sort of backfires. All four icons look nearly identical, and you may wonder, with increasing lament, why the iconic Playstation face buttons weren't used instead or simply offered as an option. (They come into play as well, but in service of a secondary grip mechanic that isn't nearly as instrumental or complicated.)
The objective of all this? Get yourself toasted before too much exposure to the ground or other unsavory elements deems you inedible.
(Never mind that the walls and furniture you maneuver to stay off the ground appear just as dirty as anything below. "Bread's" definition of what constitutes an edible slice of toast is right up there with its controls in terms of erratic interpretation, so please do not consult it when making real toast in your own home.)
Aggravatingly, "Bread's" physics are similarly temperamental — sometimes obeying the laws of this earth, but just as frequently suffering a crisis of gravity that turns the task of gently steering a simple bread slice into either (a) a reactive guessing game or (b) an experience reminiscent of accidentally wandering into quicksand and trying to crabwalk your way out. Soft touches sometimes trigger wildly erratic flops, while other times, all the jamming in the world on the stick and buttons won't move the slice more than a painfully impotent tick at a time.
Yes, while you're working all this out and seeing these digital tantrums for the first time, "Bread" is funny — not laugh-out-loudly so, because the games that broke this genre in did so with more absurdity, charm, surprise and shock, but amusing at least.
But "Bread's" temperament and sluggishness spell a quick demise for the joke. And once the joke wears off and all that remains is you, these not-quite controls, these not-quite physics, a fickle edibility meter and the constant threat of one wrong anything — from you or the game — undoing 20-plus minutes of monotonously careful maneuvering that had sapped all pretense of being fun to play at around minute four, "Bread" feels less like amusement, or even a game, and mostly like digital antagonism that's designed to be enjoyed by everyone but the person tasked with playing it.
(That, after only three failed attempts, each level tosses in an invincibility power-up that makes failing the level completely impossible is quite telling in multiple interpretative ways. An unspoken admission that the developer recognizes but has no interest in intelligently reconciling the laughable imbalance between the task at hand and the tools provided to complete or even just enjoy it? Or just yet another way for game and audience alike to mock the poor soul who ponied up the $13 sacrifice? All of the above? Take your pick. No wrong answers here.)
The shame in all this is that some genuine novelty peeks through all that contrived aggravation. When you discover, possibly by accident, that you can toast your bread without a toaster, it's enough to wonder if "Bread" could have been a clever environmental puzzle game instead of a practical joke. Physics are sometimes employed to clever effect, even if these instances are telegraphed by the standout placement of certain objects in each area. "Bread's" end-of-level grading system takes toasting technique into account, and had it gone all in on this pursuit and left the willfully obtuse control scheme giggles behind, it could have been a genre unto itself instead of an also-ran.
"Bread's" story mode — which is punctuated by interstitial text that, to its credit, pays off with a clever conclusion and remains amusing long after your smile might fade everywhere else -- accompanies a series of secondary modes that all engender their own ill will in their own special ways.
There's a multiple-item fetch quest mode in which you play as a cracker that's susceptible to breakage as well as dirt and bad physics and is, as such, even more tedious to control. There's a very basic racing mode starring a bagel that's amusing except for the part where you steer a bagel that occasionally betrays everything you're doing with the controller, and there's a zero G mode that's amusing except for the part where you bang your head against a stubborn control scheme that feels like that aforementioned quicksand with a side of frozen tundra mixed in.
Finally, there's a destruction mode, starring a presumably stale baguette, that should be the cathartic foil to the antagonistic game that envelopes it. But even here, where failure is nearly impossible and the only task is to create as much chaos as possible in two minutes' time, a diving framerate and the worst, most not-of-this-earth physics in the entire game join forces to pry aggravation from the jaws of mindless fun.
At that point, with all other options exhausted, the only recourse is to quit the game, fire up the Live From PlayStation app, find a stream of someone else playing "Bread," and experience the game as it's most likely intended to be experienced. Only here — when you set out to revel in someone else getting their turn at comedic misery but instead experience pangs of empathy while watching an increasingly dispirited fellow player attempt to justify 13 evaporated dollars by chasing it with countless wasted minutes — does "Bread" feel like a product whose intent and result are in strangely perfect alignment.
- Published in Playstation 4