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Icycle: On Thin Ice

A Naked Bicycle Fever Dream

Video games are well-suited for strange experiences. They don’t have to make narrative sense; they can be about anything, from blocks falling down a well and disappearing when stacked properly to super hero missions where you battle dinosaurs while eating mushrooms and flowers that give you special powers. Or – as it is in the case of Icycle: On Thin Ice – they can tell the story of a very cold, very naked man named Dennis who rides a miniature bike through freezing environments in search of love, pausing periodically to daydream.

Icycle: On Thin Ice is one of the most bizarre games I have ever played. The whole experience feels like a strange dream that wanders off in odd directions, but still makes sense in context. Dennis is a man searching for love – I think. He rides a bike and doesn’t wear clothes for reasons unknown. His motivation isn’t exactly clear, but it involves platforming through attractive, constantly changing environments.

Every level begins with Dennis shouting a far-echoing “Hello?” as though he is searching for anybody – not for somebody in particular. It gives the whole game a post-apocalyptic vibe, where Dennis was able to scrounge up a hat and small bike in this abandoned world, but not much else. This is never strictly stated in what little narrative that exists, but the dreamlike nature makes it easy for players to project their own assumptions about the world onto the game.

As he rolls and hops along, the world shifts and opens as if to both welcome and imperil him simultaneously. Cracks appear in the ground offering new routes, and Dennis eventually makes his way deep underground, suffers a head injury and finds himself in a world inspired by René Magritte’s iconic painting “The Son of Man.” Dennis is suddenly wearing clothes, a bowler cap, and a handlebar mustache. He floats through a series of suspended buildings, collecting green apples until he meets a half-lady, half-fish that he valiantly tries to kiss, but wakes up right before his lips meet hers. Back underground again, platforms appear and stretch from the ground, both creating new avenues of movement and impeding progress. All of this happens in the opening few levels, and things continue to get more bizarre.

The constantly changing environmental themes serve their aesthetic purposes, but the lack of consistency makes defining threats difficult; what looks like a deadly spike in one level becomes an area you can jump on in the next. The platforming gameplay recalls games like Sound Shapes and Trials, and even a little bit of Super Meat Boy. You must bicycle hop your way across the stages, avoiding spikes and falling debris, changing course as the environment shifts around you. An umbrella gives you some light floating capabilities, which helps with some of the more difficult platforming sequences.

The challenge ramps up during the last few levels, and playing on a touchscreen doesn’t help matters. The same issues that make many mobile games difficult exist here. Your fingers sometimes cover up important details, and I often found myself pressing the wrong directional button leading to unfair deaths. Despite the difficulty, however, the game is forgiving in restarts. Levels are short and broken down by checkpoints. You will have to restart frequently, especially near the end, but you are never sent back far thanks to the brevity of each level.

In many ways, Icycle: On Thin Ice feels like an art experiment as much as it does a video game. I missed having buttons, but not enough to make me abandon the game before getting to the end. Even without a defined narrative, I wanted to see everything Icycle: On Thin Ice had to offer.

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