There’s an indie game event-thing called BitBash that’s been going on in Chicago for a few years now. They’ve got a big one that happens in the summer as well as a few smaller events scattered throughout the year.
A few games I played at these events got me to thinking about depth in game design.
About a month ago I attended one of the smaller BitBashes. It was some time around Valentines Day and had maybe a punk theme to it, I think. There were some bands playing and I think they were punk bands. The indie game punkisnotdead was definitely one of the games being projected onto the brick walls. And it seems like a very Chicagoan thing to do to celebrate a holiday devoted to smarmy, sugary expressions of love by embracing grimy punk culture.
Man, have I gone off topic.
Anyway, there were a lot of games there. There was a Bari Bari Ball tournament happening. There was some VR stuff happening. Lesbian Spider Queens of Mars was going on. Out in the parking lot people were goofin’ around with Johann Sebastian Joust. I took some pictures, but they didn’t come out well.
There was also this cool game called Cylindrus that was played on an upright cylindrical tower of LED lights. It was 2-player versus and you had to circle around the tower with your wireless controller to follow the movement of your “tank”. It looked really cool. I didn’t play it though because I was pretty tired by that point in the night.
Anyway, my favorite game there was one called 0space. At first it didn’t seem like anything special, but as I played it I really got sucked in, and I wasn’t the only one who was delightfully surprised by it’s innovativeness.
But before I talk about 0space, I wanted to briefly talk about another game, Inversus, which I played at a summer BitBash years ago, wanted to write about it on this blog, but never got around to it.
In brief, Inversus is played on a black and white grid; one player is white and the other is black and they’re trying to shoot each other. The white player can only move on black spaces; black player can only move on white spaces; gun shots move through everything. The interesting thing is that a shot from your gun will change the color of the squares to whatever color you’re able to move across.
So, this tiny mechanic (shooting) has both violent and nonviolent purposes. You can create paths for yourself; or, you can cut off your opponent’s path to try and trap him; or, you can just try to kill your opponent.
As you’re playing the game you’re juggling these three possibilities in your head and trying to combine them to create a winning outcome. It’s actually a really intense experience all the more so because one action has multiple, valid, and valuable purposes.
That’s pretty much the definition of “depth in gameplay”.
Inversus is not a complicated game. It’s relatively simple. But, that tiny mechanic expands the game beyond its minimalist presentation. When I played it a few years ago I was so impressed with its elegant simplicity that I decided it had the best design of any other game at that BitBash.
I really can’t get over how exquisitely clever the design of this game is.
So, now let me talk about 0space, which also has some depth in gameplay similar to Inversus.
I had a feeling I was going to enjoy 0space just based on how the title was spelled.
It’s a 2-4 player arena platformer. At first glance it seems identical to something like Samurai Gunn or… I don’t know… something else in that vein, I can’t think of anything else at the moment. Nidhogg? Yeah, like Nidhogg.
You’ve got your little guy and you move around the arena trying to kill the other dudes with various weapons. You’ve got a gun, and while it’s reloading you can use a sword. You’ve also got a grenade, and you can plant it on the ground as a satchel charge.
However, 0space is different than other games in this category. It makes you stop and rethink how you’re playing in order to be successful. You have to remap your perception of what’s going on.
This is primarily because of the change the developer made to jumping.
In 0space, there is no gravity; when you jump, you just keep going in a straight trajectory. There is also no normal way to adjust your movement while in mid-air like most games.
The only way to change your flight path is by firing your gun in the opposite direction that you want to go in. The gun takes a bit of time to reload so you have to be precise.
And this small change had a colossal impact on how the game was played.
As gamers we usually play under the assumption that we have control. When a game developer does anything with, let’s say, jumping it is usually a change that gives us more control over how we’re moving through the air: double jumping, triple jumping, gliding, changing directions. That expectation of empowerment is subverted in 0space. Our power is taken away from us, and this encourages us to be more thoughtful and less rash in how we move through the level.
Similarly, our assumptions about jumping and moving through physical space are subverted by there being no gravity. First, we expect to fall back down and that doesn’t happen, obviously. Secondly, and more interestingly, there is no up and down. Just like in real life, most games have a clear concept of direction and our progress through the game is heavily based off this. 0space subverts this spatial awareness by putting us in an alien environment where our normal compass no longer functions. (It is unsurprising that the developer was inspired by the battle school in Ender’s Game, where a major tactical revelation the protagonist has is that there is “no up or down” in space.)
Both these aspects of the game design, the lack of gravity and lack of air control, require us as players to remap our perception of physical space and revise the normal routes we would expect to take.
And all of that takes place in an environment where death lurks around every corner in the form of gunfire, mines, bombs, lava, or an accident leap into outer space. It winds up being hectic and chaotic despite a lot of your movement being very slow paced.
Like Inversus. 0space adds depth to it’s gameplay by providing multiple outcomes to a single function. Aside from your gunfire redirecting your flight path there’s other examples: bombs can be used as grenades or as stationary mines; anyone can shoot a bomb so your own bomb can be your friend or your enemy; walls can be ceilings, ceilings can be floors, jumping up can suddenly mean falling down into space.
So, that’s that.
I thought it was interesting how these two games really changed the way you play by altering your perception of the space you were in and altering your perception of your own behavior. And both of them did this partially or entirely by adding depth to the mechanic of “shooting”; giving it more purpose than just “kill”.
As a final thought, it’s worth noting that I don’t any modern platform to play modern games on. I probably would have never had the chance to play either of these games if it wasn’t for BitBash. If you are in the Chicago area and you don’t mind lots of noise and large crowds then it’s worth checking out.