“I saw the traveller make his way toward the monolith, that thin gash amidst the clouds; an open seam between heaven and earth that eluded the eye of God.”
-Journal of an unknown traveller
First off, let me recommend that you play through Tower of Heaven yourself by clicking here before you read on. I’d like to discuss the game in its entirety, including an ending that’s open to interpretation. I’d hate to tell you what that ending is like without you experiencing it first, considering it’s a bit breathtaking when it drops the visual façade, and it’s thought provoking enough that someone should generate their own interpretation of it first. No spoiler warnings for you, then. This game is really short and can be completed in less than an hour, if you’re good enough, that is.
Done? Alright, moving on.
The most significant thing about Askiisoft’s free 2D platformer flash-based browser game Tower of Heaven is the difference between what it appears to be and what it actually is. On the surface, its “retro” aesthetic places it neatly among the throwback indie titles that have become increasingly popular. Tower of Heaven looks like it belongs on the original Game Boy with its pixelated, monochrome visuals and warbling 8-bit tunes.
However the last non-Game Boy Color game was Pokemon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition, released in 1999, and the first version of Tower of Heaven was launched in 2009, so of course it’s impossible that it could be played on Nintendo’s Game Boy and the correlation is purely tributary. Playing Tower of Heaven for any length of time you’ll find that its simplistic graphics are deceptive and more advanced than they originally appeared to be (if you can get far at all, that is… this game is tough).
Further, the title Tower of Heaven is misleading as well. I assume intentionally so. Reaching the top of the tower reveals that it hasn’t really gotten you to heaven at all, not in the Judeo-Christian religious sense of “Heaven” at least. This is not a Tower to Heaven, which is at least the meaning that I took from the title, and one which I think the dialogue attempts to convince the player of. But more on that later when we try to interpret the game’s conclusion.
When climbing the titular tower of the heavenlies, a voice which we’ll call the Voice speaks to you (I hesitate to call it “God” even though it clearly makes you think that it is).
The Voice often recites the tagline “May heaven grant you fortune” and uses stereotypical phrases that culture associates with an angry “God of wrath” type of deity such as the threat it gives should you break its rules: “I will smite you”. Increasingly, you get the gist that the Voice doesn’t want you to climb the Tower at all, though it beckons you “welcome” at the start. The Voice continually threatens and bullies and discourages you to go any further, at once even aghast and enraged that you made it as far as you did. So the Voice attempts to stop your ascension by creating increasingly strict rules, to the point of ridiculousness.
Beneath Tower of Heaven’s appearance lies a kind of devious (nigh unfair) level design and gameplay that belies the primitive graphics. There are a total of five laws that further complicate the platforming. The first rule the Voice gives you? “Thou shalt not touch golden blocks” (clearly a verbal reference to the Ten Commandments’ language, further solidifying the religious connotations of the game). If you happen to so much as brush a hair against a gold block, it means instant death. And those blocks are everywhere but it sounds simple enough. Oh and if you forget the rules you can check the Book of Laws by pressing the shift key.
Second commandment: “Thou shalt not touch blocks or walls from the side”. Again, breaking the rule means instant mortification. This means you need to climb steps without touching the sides of the steps ahead of you, and jump clear over walls without nicking even a toenail against the top. And trust me, the game is a stickler for accuracy. No sides means no sides.
Third rule: “Thou shalt not walk left.” What? Yes. Of course the level then begins with your character in the middle of a low hallway with a buzzsaw approaching you from the right. The only way to escape is to the left and you can’t walk left. You’ll need to use some expert timing and your brains to get out of that mess.
These are all cumulative rules, by the way, meaning that never touching a gold block, never touching the side of a block and never walking leftways all apply at the same time. Have fun.
Fourthly: “Thou shalt not touch living things”. Sounds easy, though arbitrary. Good thing the tower is infested with circling butterflies and grassy carpets across the floor. Now dandelions have become absolutely deadly. And the butterflies are everywhere, obstructing your path and your jumps, screwing with your timing.
The fifth rule is just a final insult. “Thou shalt no longer check the rules.” It’s really not too bad. There are only five laws including this one and the level design does absolutely everything it can to remind you that you can’t walk left and can’t touch any gold bricks. Like I said, it’s just an insult. And once you reach the last stage of the tower the Rule Book shatters and the laws no longer apply, anyhow.
After that, all that’s left is to climb the tower, discover its secrets, reach the top, confront… whatever it is, and accept your “reward”. That is the moment when the gameplay stops testing your skills and the ending begins playing with your mind.
In the case of the first four grading criteria (Visuals, Audio, Gameplay and Narrative), Tower of Heaven is not what it seems. The primitive graphics are pixelated circa the early days of the Game Boy but the greenish-yellow and black visuals are illusory. There are some strikingly quick animations in the game, specifically the death animations. Getting hit by a buzzsaw, the head of the player’s character explodes into a few dozen pixels and his limp body slips to the ground, or touching the gold block changes his entire body into gold dust which is blown away, or making the mistake of walking left earns you a thunderbolt that vaporizes you into atoms. The first time I died, I thought the animations were really well done, like this would be what the original Game Boy could do if it didn’t evolve into its subsequent colorized successors. Tower of Heaven embraces the monochrome minimalism until the facade drops and the final scenes are viewed in color, with the blindfolds removed.
If you aren’t into early 8-bit music, this OST may be jarring and even irritating to you, but I think it’s genius. Someone named Flashygoodness created the soundtrack for Tower of Heaven and me loves it. It’s a big kiss on the forehead of the elderly, bed-ridden 8-bit era. What’s most interesting to me is how it takes a central 12-note musical theme and revisits it throughout the game in different paces and rhythms. Audibly, it helps to keep the game focused. Also, when the curtain drops and the tinny beeping gives way to real piano at the game’s closing: goosebumps. “Atop the World” instantly became one of the most endearing video game tracks to me.
Thought you were just getting a cheap platformer or stereotypical indie throwback title? There’s more than meets the eye than just jumping on blocks. With 11 levels, Tower of Heaven is characteristically short with some video playthroughs on Youtube less than 10 minutes long. Yes, it’s possible. But with ridiculous constraints like being unable to walk left through some of the stages in the game, Tower of Heaven demands a bit more wit and not just timing from the player. There are also 3 secrets to find in the tower, treasure boxes in hidden rooms.
Once completing the game, players unlock a Speed Run mode. There’s also a Level Creator, allowing you to custom design your own deathtraps.
Whew, okay. Narrative. We’ve established that this godlike Voice taunts you and attempts to prevent you from climbing the tower by establishing its laws. But the big reveal once reaching the pinnacle of the tower is not staring into the face of God. You encounter a butterfly. Huge anticlimax as the butterfly apparently tells you that the tower was worthless and that there’s one last thing it can offer, right before the tower quakes and shatters as it falls to the ground. Then the final words of the game read: “I saw the traveller make his way toward the monolith, that thin gash amidst the clouds; an open seam between heaven and earth that eluded the eye of God. Or perhaps it had not; perhaps it beckoned from one realm to the other, wedded and ruled as one; for look how clean it splits the horizon ‘twain. A tower of heaven.” The silhouette of the player’s character is seen, arm raised to allow a butterfly to alight on the tip of his hand. The character is apparently named Eid, which could be a reference to the psychological term “id“.
A couple observations here and I have no idea if this is what they were trying to convey, but here’s my interpretation nonetheless. As mentioned, this is not so much a tower to heaven as it is as tower representing heaven and how to get there (Tower of Heaven). I think that’s underscored by the presence of butterflies and the final butterfly speaking to you at the pinnacle. Delicate and ethereal, the butterfly was thought to be the personification of a human soul in ancient Japanese and Greco-Roman cultures. In Rome there’s a marble relief depicting a butterfly rising out of the mouth of a dead man stretched out on a bed: a vision of the soul leaving the body at death. In fact, the Greek word psyche means both “soul/mind” and “butterfly”.
With butterflies as prevalent as they are in Tower of Heaven, I have a mind (heh) to think that the meaning they convey is the tower itself isn’t really a tower to heaven so much as it is a metaphor for man’s innate drive to reach heaven on his own merits. And with the tearing down of that tower, called in the game a “prize”, there is freedom granted from the hopeless despair of attempting to keep rules to earn one’s way into paradise.
Secondly, the fact that the final revelation is not God Himself but another butterfly (or it could be God appearing as a butterfly, I guess) indicates to me that this is again not a real monologue from the Voice of Deity through the tower but a figment of the character’s mind. Whether that leads to ultimate atheism or to ultimate faith at the conclusion is something that I don’t think the game makes explicit. The last butterfly says “Thou shalt go this far, but no further”.
I disagree with some of the interpretations out there that the game is symbolic of the “death of God” in some sort of Nietzschean sense of abandoning the Christian God as a source of moral and existential explanation. Sure you can interpret it that way if you want but I think that my disagreement is allowed by the “perhaps” in the final statements of the game, and by the fact that the final butterfly ends up being the Voice and yet the way is still barred to heaven, but then a butterfly alights upon the character’s arm, symbolic of the embracing of this revelation of the tower as I’ve already explained.
If the player character, Eid, indeed is named after “id“, then Tower of Heaven represents the basic, instinctual human drive to reach for and understand or attain the spiritual.
So take it or leave it, my theory is that Tower of Heaven is about a profound concept: the reason for religion, to make an attempt to reach heaven and finding that that is impossible. The last butterfly even seems dismissive of the riches you accumulated in the tower, as if that should help you reach your final destination. As a Christian, the thought resonated with me. Historic Christianity has taught since the early church that merit is meaningless in regards to reaching heaven. Hence the Christian concept of grace. “Tetelestai”, the work is “finished”. Or in other words “May heaven grant you fortune”. Never mind of course the various perversions and subversions of that classic doctrine through church history. It exists in the primary sources.
Tower of Heaven is a mental and spiritual journey through the aspirations of the human mind.
If you’ve got a different theory or you know something official, let me know. I didn’t go out of my way to find out what the creators of Tower of Heaven said about the meaning of their game. I just played it and enjoyed it.
With only a few short levels and five commandments, there isn’t too much to learn. Moving and jumping goes back to some of the earliest games ever and the rule book doesn’t really stir up that formula too much besides for making you thinking outside of the box now and then. But the level design is superb enough that you’ll quickly learn how each rule functions to avoid instant death. Because it’s trial and error, you’ll get it quickly. Dying starts you right back at the beginning of the level. Plus, it’s FREE. Can’t get much more accessible than free, in that regard.
Tower of Heaven is hard enough to make most people I’ve talked to give up very early on. Level 9 and 11 are both absolutely grueling, demanding perfect timing. When jumping, the character seems to float almost weightlessly, as if the tower were on the moon. You may find that a bit odd at first, that is until you welcome the additional jumping precision this allows in the later levels when you have to make a mid-air maneuver through floor and ceiling mounted buzzsaws, or likewise around circling butterflies. By the time you reach level 8, freakin’ grass can kill you!
The rules seem pretty arbitrary but all of them except for the last add some truly demanding difficulty to the game. Yet it never seemed unfair to me, just clever in its design. I just knew that its jumps were possible, even if I died 109 times my first time through.
How many times did you die?
While indie titles tend to fall into the category of mere 8-bit homage, they allow for a lot of innovation on that old school appeal and schematic. Tower of Heaven does that by its unique concept and set of rules added as you progress. It was actually the visual of the original Game Boy that caught my attention when a friend told me about the game, and I think that too sets it apart from other more colorful indie titles. While 2D sidescrolling platformers are a dime a dozen, Tower of Heaven has the presentation to stand a head above the rest of the chatter.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
I really enjoyed Tower of Heaven. I found its visuals and music enticing, its themes thought-provoking, and its difficulty level motivating and engaging. Of late I’ve had some real appreciation for the indie video game scene and this game didn’t let me down. I highly recommend it, and I recommend you push yourself to survive its many challenges. If you remember holding that old gray brick-shaped Game Boy in your hands and staring at that green and black screen as a kid, then Tower of Heaven may just be the game for you. It’s certainly short enough to visit and enjoy without derailing any of your backlogging plans. I plan on checking out other Askiisoft games. Hopefully they’re just as good.
Aggregated Score: 8.4