I touched every button on my controller before figuring out how to control my avatar in THOTH. I figured out right away that the left stick moved my little blip around, but buttons A through Y did nothing, and the triggers and bumpers were equally useless. When I finally thought to try the right stick, then ah-ha, I slowed a bit and started shooting in my chosen direction.
The confusion only lasted a few seconds, but still: Oh. This is a twin-stick shooter. How didn’t I get that immediately?
It could be because THOTH is committed to minimalism, and more than that, to the distancing effect that minimalism can produce. As I’ve discussed before, a minimalist twin-stick shooter (or a minimalist anything) is an exercise in focusing on what’s important about a genre, style, medium, or conceit. When you take away everything that isn’t absolutely necessary, what’s left may surprise you—and that sense of surprise can be uncanny. The familiar (in this case the familiar feeling of managing movement and attacks, balancing offense with evasion) becomes unfamiliar, and newly engrossing as a result. THOTH operates on that level.
The parameters of its gameplay are fairly staid. You shoot, you move, and when you shoot you move more slowly. Don’t let things touch you. Levels are single-screen challenges, and they’re strung together into sequences that (after the first one) have to be bested in a single life, which is to say in a single hit.
But these rules aren’t laid out via text or tutorial, thank God, and there’s a spartan intensity to the audiovisual environment in which you learn them. It’s all shifting palettes of flat colors, hectic arrays of motion, and fullscreen cuts to a countdown of level numbers. Presumably we’re counting down to 1 or 0, but not knowing why exactly we’re counting down and not up is oddly unnerving.
When you vanquish your enemies, such as they are, their shapes crackle and recede and what’s left is a still-dangerous chunk of wandering void—a mobile hole in space, revealing a starfield behind. This connection to outer space isn’t merely superficial. Texturally, THOTH is a game about encountering alien objects. Like you, these things follow rules that are arbitrary and freaky but absolutely consistent. They aren’t like you, and they’re dangerous to you, and also they’re indifferent to you (which is as bad, or at least as frightening, as them being hostile to you).
Minimalism is calming, pure. But minimalism is also alienating, alien. It lets us see something we know well as though we’re encountering it for the first time, both reveling in its beauty and tensing up at its strangeness. THOTH evokes all of this, wordlessly and breathlessly.