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The videogame mechanics of Patema Inverted

The conceit behind Patema Inverted, a 2013 anime by Yasuhiro Yoshiura, is that at some point in the past, scientists inadvertently reversed the direction of Earth’s gravity, causing mass destruction and many deaths, with the survivors splintering into two societies, one above ground and one below, each subjected to an opposing gravitational force: those above appear to be pulled down into the planet, and those underground appear to be pulled upwards, toward the sky.

As conceits go, this is patently nonsense but I’m ok with that. Unlike last year’s relentlessly idiotic Lucy, which took a dumb idea and then wove it so tightly through the fabric of the film it was impossible to see where the film ended and the stupid began, Patema Inverted sets up the inverted gravity concept at the start, never bothers explaining it, and then gets on with things. Accept it, or don’t, whatever. A wizard did it, who knows.

The titular Patema is a young girl with a restless explorer’s spirit, living underground but poking at the edges of her world. She’s the kind of young, strong-willed, female protagonist typical of a Ghibli film, which made it all the more frustrating when she threatens to become the film’s MacGuffin for male characters to fight over, after accidentally falling through a hole into the right-way up world. Once she’s there, she’s powerless, constantly at risk of being pulled up into the sky, and totally dependent on residents of that world — her ally, a young boy named Age, and her enemy, Izamura, a pantomime villain — to keep her from flying away.

Fortunately, the dual-gravity helps avoid Patema being relegated to the damsel-in-distress role; the switching back and forth between different gravities gives her as much agency as anybody else in the film. Initially helpless, she’s soon able to use her differences to escape the film’s antagonist and rescue Age at the same time, and when in her own world with Age, it’s Age that’s obliged to rely on others to keep him safe. In the end, Patema reminded me of Chihiro from Spirited Away: initially lost, she learns how to live in a bizarre world to the best of her abilities, and is very much the hero of the story.

Patema Inverted is a great film with energetic, interesting characters. Visually, it’s pretty crazy at times, with the inverted gravity giving plenty of opportunity for camera swoops and flips that gave me vertigo at times, dizzying and sometimes disorientating. What really grabbed me about the film was how videogame-like it became, not because of showy set-pieces but the core mechanics. When Age holds on to Patema, he’s able to anchor her, to prevent her falling up into space, but the combination of his weight and Patema’s upward-pulling buoyancy allows them to leap great distances. Another, heavier, character pulls people down instead. Pairs are frequently forced to split up and go their separate ways, depending on whether there’s a floor or ceiling for them to use, rejoining each other at the end of different routes and spreading the story up to the sky and back down into the earth.

The mechanic of having multiple characters with complementary abilities is one that’s been used over and over in videogames, dating at least as far back to 1987’s Head Over Heels which saw you controlling two characters — one with a powerful jump and the other with a fast running speed — that were stronger combined, but forced at times to separate to progress through the levels. ’90s action puzzler The Lost Vikings had three characters, a runner, a warrior and a defensive character that could work together to reach level areas that an individual character couldn’t access. More recent examples include The Cave, Trine and Thomas Was Alone. Seasoned gamers should feel right at home watching Patema Inverted.

By Paul Haine, in