Exploring unusual mechanics: how Swarm Racer let’s you quickly control a swarm of insects

swarm racer big circle

I was musing idly one day about game mechanics when I remembered an indie game I played many years ago that had an interesting mechanic for controlling a group of units.

The game is Swarm Racer by Lexaloffle Games. The game is still available for free on his website.

In the game you control a swarm of bees and your goal is to race them around a track against a timer while collecting gems.

The way you control this group of individual units is kind of unique from anything I’ve seen in other games (such as RTSs). So let’s get into it:

You move the swarm with the arrow keys. Pressing “left” will make every bee move to the left, for example. You can also control the density of the swarm:

swarm racer green

Pressing “x” will bring the swarm into a close knit, slow moving ball so it’s easier to navigate around corners. Pressing “z” will expand the swarm into a wide ring of bees so you can collect as many gems as quickly as possible. Pressing neither “z” nor “x” will leave the swarm in a loose, fast, medium sized formation.

swarm racer tight ball

Here’s the thing though: the swarm isn’t just a single game object animated to give the appearance of a swarm of bees. Each bee is an individual and each bee can have it’s own momentum and trajectory that’s different than the others.

And because of this, various factors can make moving your swarm around the racetrack very tricky. When moving your bees to the right, some might move into a tunnel while others get stuck on a wall, leading you to perform a juggling act between all four directions to get your entire swarm moving where you want.

swarm racer stuck behind wall

Bees will get stuck around corners, behind walls, or inside various traps set up throughout the tracks. These bees will be left behind if you keep moving without them. Sometimes losses are acceptable, but you don’t want to lose too many because then it’s harder to collect all the gems.

Swarm Racer is pretty small (there’s only nine tracks) and I don’t think the mechanic is really explored or pushed to its fullest extent (I believe it was made for a game jam). Nevertheless, I think it’s an interesting mechanic that I’d like to see get used in other games and other settings; racing gametype might not be the best way to display this mechanic either (although there are a couple pretty good moments).

swarm racer pipes

I think it would be interesting to see a multiplayer game where some players control individual characters while some other players control little swarms of creatures; a more experimental AvP game would be pretty good for this. Or, an exploration/puzzle game where you’re a swarm of aliens or robotic probes that are exploring some foreign planet or installation, trying to navigate through the terrain/architecture in this interesting way.

If anyone happens to read this, have you encountered any games with interesting swarm control mechanics?

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