A couple times a year I like to do some kind of deliberately tiny game project, usually in Flash (easy to program, easy to distribute). It seems to burn off some amount of creative steam, and it's a way for me to give back to the indie community that has had such a big impact on me personally and professionally. And, I should note, it usually has very positive ramifications on my ability to network and my reputation as a designer, so it's not entirely 100% cathartic or philanthropic. But that's really just the icing on the cake!
Anyways, last spring I made this painfully tiny shmup called Nano, and in the summer I put together a sniper game that was subsequently abandoned. Last fall I got to collaborate on a bunch of stuff, including another Flash game called Gravity Hook. Gravity Hook was based on a friend's prototype, and was my first collaboration with the spectacular Danny B. After losing a few more months to larger projects, I finally got a chance to put together a new micro-project: FATHOM. DISCLAIMER: This game has nothing to do with that crazy dolphin + seagull game for the Atari! FATHOM did not end up being quite the compact project that I hoped it would, but it was still pretty fast (10 days), and both its development and release have been fascinating experiences.
FATHOM was built in about 10 days using the Flex Builder plugin for Eclipse, which is about the best possible environment for Flash coding that a dude can ask for. I leveraged a lot of code from Gravity Hook, which I've been slowly abstracting into a library or framework of sorts that I can hopefully release next month. This made a huge difference in the amount of time this project took.
For art I used a couple of different programs, primarily a pixel art application for Windows called Pro Motion 6, made by this German guy Jan. You know the Germans make good stuff! I also used Photoshop for a couple things like the title screens and flashlight effect. For sound effects I used CFXR (the Mac build of the glorious SFXR) to generate the effects, and Audacity for mixing and MP3 conversion.
FATHOM uses a lot of Math.random() calls throughout every section of the game except maybe the ending cutscene bit. Rather than individually hand-placing every tile, levels are created out of blocks that are populated automagically from an array of interchangeable tiles. The entire labyrinth is regenerated each time you play using an algorithm I designed over the winter holidays. The tree is also created differently each time you play, using something that I'm sure is somehow connected to fractals or L-trees, but is probably dumber.
This process of changing the game each time you play I personally feel is important as it is unique to games as a medium, but from a practical perspective it alleviated the need for level editing tools or any of that stuff, which makes a big difference if you're trying to bust out a game in just a few days.
Once the game was starting to pull together I began working with Danny to figure out how the thing should sound, which was really important on account of my design having some...uh minor flaws. Mainly, portions of the game that were necessary for the theme and atmosphere to work were a bit dull without some music to fill in the emotional blanks. This game would not work without the stuff that Danny put together for me!
Phew, all the hard work is done. It's time to throw it off the top of a building and see what happens! When I released Gravity Hook, all I did was post it to my favorite game dev forum and send an email out to some friends. I pretty much did the same thing for FATHOM except I kept my friend Brandon Boyer in the loop.
I was pretty confident that I had made something strange. Pedestrian by literary standards, but definitely short and weird for games...the sort of thing that is (often pejoratively) referred to as an "art game." There were pieces of it that were very interesting to me personally though, and I felt like there was a good chance that some other developers at least would find it interesting, if not enjoyable.
So, I threw it off the building.
My greatest hope after releasing this was for about 2 or 3 people to go "hey! I like some of this." I figured that would be pretty good! I was not prepared for the incredible range of responses that I received. This is the main thing I wanted to share in this article, mainly because of the strength and overall positive reactions to what is a genuinely flawed but well-intentioned bit of game. Rather than sort these in some kind of oligarchical order or something, I would like to put them in chronological order. Pretend you just made a weird game and threw it off a building; these are the sorts of things you might read during the first 24 hours:
SPOILER WARNING ETC
"What’s the tree for? Am I even supposed to be underwater? What’re all these fish for? Why didn’t the game give me instructions when I clicked for instructions? :("
"Fucking best flash game I've ever played, hands down."
"sheesh.. that’s it? i figured you’d give us something nice for wandering around for ages…"
"you do realize there's a great atari 2600 game by the same name, right? at first i was hoping this was a remake since that was my favorite atari 2600 game of all time. but this looks nice anyway."
"Is there more than one ending? Cause that was pretty dark."
"One of the most complete, polished and delightfully presented games i’ve ever played. I felt like everything was operating on all cylinders. The controls, feel, look, music (especially), and everything else."
"I'm too stupid to understand what's going on in this game."
"Kick ass atmosphere I must say, the action sequence at the beginning really contrasts the cold depths of the underwater world."
"That sprite just looks like the cave story one with crap drawn on top"
"That was hilarious."
"I didn’t like this."
"Was it really an Owl Creek Bridge thing, like ngajoe says? Isn’t that a little cliche by now? Either way, the ending was disappointing."
"Once again, thankyou Offworld for showing me the way to an amazing experience."
"Some comments schizophrenically praise it as terrific one second and condemn it as an unfun art game the next. Anyone care to try and explain this game to someone that hasn’t played it (yet)?"
"Quite impressive game. Good word play which ties into the theme. We plunge in the depths (fathoms!) and attempt to fathom what our purpose is, what our goals are. Player considers how he knows what to do. Requires dedication to the end, trust in the designer that it all leads somewhere. And the game doesn't disappoint, it merely ends with anticlimax. All quite postmodern. An experiment in semiotics?"
"So that’s the purgatory where game characters go before they die? It sure plays that way…"
"...there’s a lot you could draw from the game and its mechanics themselves. The fish for instance, love, community, it’s harder alone. The flashlight, stop to think and look and live, etc., you can’t power ahead as you must take the time to observe your environment. The beginning and the transition to water, all structure falls away. It is linear, reward traditional based gameplay. Jump these hurdles and you get this ring, bling. But at the end, if you did not foresee it, you find for yourself that there is nothing but destruction and death. You could draw the conclusion that there is nothing but death as a release. Or you could see it as hopeful."
"Fantastic beginning, then an unnecessary and confusing water level."
"Summary: For an artsy piece, it didn't really strike up in me enough emotion. On the other hand, the art, mood and presentation is oh-so delicious."
"If you had only released the water part of the game and labeled it as an “art game”, people would probably prasie it instead of bash it in the comments."
"It’s a very simple and easy to understand thing, for anybody at all acquanted with literary tropes."
"it's a death delivered No Country For Old Men-style, which can be even more shocking because I think we recognise that this is how callous and arbitrary death can be in real life. Sometimes, you don't even see it coming. The mysterious seed and the weird tree imply that you were a small participant in a much larger story that you will never learn. Plus: darkness and dread, courtesy of the water. I think it's significant that the character is not animated in the water, but appears paralyzed."
"I actually really enjoyed the beginning part. I think if you had extended the opening portion and allowed the player to develop a larger investment in the character, the switchover and ending would have had a greater impact."
"Imagine doing a game where each level had a death scene like this! LOL"
"Is there really no alternate ending or secret? Because if it's true I've been searching for half a day for nothing."
"You give people agency, and so if it all turns out badly, they assume they've made a mistake. A movie with an unhappy ending is understood, because how could it be any different? But with a game... well, we have been so conditioned that player death==whoops, try again."
"Silly thing is, the absence of any exposition ultimately did force me to conjure my own 'narrative' - a simple "robot on a mission reaches unkillable boss, but in the deeps beneath the enemy base, discovers a nuclear bomb... thing, sets it, escapes, is caught in the blast and is destroyed but took out the base and boss anyway so WOOHOO noble sacrifice + victory" I basically resent having to have conjured any such thing."
"So, the jaggy blocks and dark underwater area is at least partially necessary to make sure it takes the player time to discover what they need to, though it also alienates a lot of people. How many game design paradoxes must this game expose?"
"What a day, Fathom and Trico! I was reminded so much of Shadow of the Colossus from the ending of Fathom."
"Fuck fun. This is the future."
This was absolutely the single most satisfying project I have ever worked on, and the amazing variety of reactions to it have made it a completely unforgettable experience! A few things that I will take away from this project:
There absolutely is an eager audience for something that is a little bit different and a little bit serious, and many of them are quite forgiving!
People need (they don't necessarily want) to find a hidden message, even though if they found it they would, I think, decry it as preachy or pretentious.
You cannot please everyone all the time. In fact, if you can even please like half the people with your weird-ass game, that's pretty awesome.
Very contrary to my own loves and desires, there is definitely a sizable subset of players who become hostile when asked to fill in the gaps.