At the beginning of December, everyone’s favourite charity-cum-indie games bazaar Humble Bundle offered a new and exciting opportunity for the alpha loving gamer by teaming up with Double Fine. Taking full advantage of their enormous positive exposure thanks to an overwhelmingly popular Kickstarter, Double Fine decided to make one of their internal gamejams open to the public in order to raise some cash for a worthy cause.
The Amnesia Fortnight, as it is internally known, was originally designed to boost morale as the company slogged its way through rough waters to meet publisher targets during the development of the much maligned Brutal Legend. For two weeks, the entire development team were split into groups and tasked with not only coming up with a viable idea, but executing it into a playable prototype state.
The success of the original fortnight spawned what is now an annual event, with five games originally devised during these periods being made into full titles — Iron Brigade, Once Upon a Monster, Stacking, Costume Quest, and Middle Manager of Justice, with several of these gaining serious critical acclaim amongst critics and players alike. Tim Schafer has credited these Amnesia Fortnights with keeping his studio viable, which is interesting considering that when this process is live, the entire studio shuts down production of their current title, dedicating all (and sometimes even additional) resources to craft and blossom new ideas.
I found the entire idea fascinating, especially at a time when creativity in not only design but mechanics feels lacking in release after release, generating a blur of irrelevancy and static deafness that becomes increasingly difficult to crawl out from beneath. At the end of November, those who donated at least $1 to the Humble Bundle were able to vote up 23 ideas, five of which would be promoted to full fledged prototypes, developed over two weeks, and documented by the team at 2PP, the same crew behind the Penny Arcade documentary series.
Those five were Hack n Slash, a Zelda-style action adventure where you can “hack” the attributes of enemy NPCs to solve puzzles, Spacebase DF-9, a combination of FTL and Theme Hospital, where you run a space station, The White Birch, an ambient platformer in the style of Ico, Autonomous, an FPS robot building sandbox, and The Black Lake, an exploration game set in a mysterious locale.
Two weeks later, I hit up Steam and downloaded the prototypes. Could the team at Double Fine cook up a winner in a matter of days?
(Please note: None of what follows are reviews by any stretch of the word, they are simply impressions of the released prototype code that I played, and what I thought was most likely to end up being a great game.)
Hack n Slash
This idea was probably one of the most ambitious of the bunch that I voted for, namely due to the difficulty in adapting the idea of “hacking” to a game without breaking mechanics or bogging down play. I was pleasantly surprised in the end, but the first quarter of the (unfortunately short) game was spent confused and lost, hunting through a library for a book, until I was presented with the golden egg – the USB cable.
Once you get a hold of this retractable tool, you can launch it at enemies and manually change their attributes to suit your needs. Want them dead? Just lower their health. Want them blind? Reduce their sight to zero. Want to make them comically fast? Increase their movement speed.
The available avenues for exploitation aren’t immediately obvious. It’s impossible to simply zero off everyone’s health, nor is it really fun to do so. Finding new and imaginative ways to clear your path to the end was much more interesting, especially once you can affect your own stats. The only issue for me was that the game took a little too long to get started and ended way too early, but that’s probably to be expected due to such a short period of development. Here’s hoping that the team gets the ability to expand on the idea in the near future.
Spacebase DF-9 has a lot of strong elements that have been borrowed from other sims, namely Theme Hospital and Introversion’s Prison Architect , particularily in the manner that you construct “zones” where your astronauts operate, alongside assigning employment for your bored and listless populace. Each of your prospective staff are randomly attributed with a point value that represents their ability, so much of your opening strategy is making a few sacrifices so your doctor’s office is filled and there’s someone (who is possibly very overqualified) to pull pints in the bar after hours.
Your base is also randomly generated at the beginning of each game, so you may spawn with an already fully decked out pad, or a modern day Mir. Nevertheless, you can harvest nearby asteroids for base expansion resources, expand your digs and… that seems to be about it. It’s a very basic sim – your guys will get hungry, get sick or get bored if you don’t have the right facilities in place. Much of the game, as it stands, feels like a great template for a Theme Spacebase title but, unlike Prison Architect, there isn’t much that’s unique nor any game mechanics that are especially interesting.
The White Birch
The game opens with a young girl, alone, in the middle of a garden. She looks unsure, scared and directionless. With a lack of direction and narrative, you do too; but that could also have to do with the awful camera, jerky animations and the punishing puzzles. But for the efforts of a small team and only 2 weeks, the amount of content and detail within the artwork is staggering. The developers of The White Birch held a lot of their influences on their sleeves, with many of the quiet, dark scenes and atmospheric locales straight out of the Team Ico playbook.
I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought, outside of the agonizing camera issues providing some pain with quite a few jump puzzles, because it didn’t feel the need to drop into the trap of awkward, needless combat. The game flowed well, and although it was missing that especially unique feeling of a clever mechanic or fun little twist that I was looking forward to seeing in these Double Fine creative melting pots pots, it was different enough to feel fresh. I enjoyed the ride although there were a lot of rough edges – I fell through the map at least 3-4 times, and some of the animations were broken. The artwork was outstanding, however.
I was terrible at Autonomous. But I couldn’t tell if it was due to the design — which drops you in a front facing POV into the middle of what can only be described as a Tron-style battlefield with a couple of robot parts — or my apparent inability to think on my feet. You slap a few pieces together and you’ve built your first autonomous fighting force. Unfortunately, your new mechanical friend has a mind of his own, charging off ambitiously into frequently overpowered opponents. Most of the time, my guy was in pieces within seconds and I was running around attempting to stun enemies in between putting the poor bastard back together.
But I’ll hand it to DF here, this was definitely an original property, and easily the most ambitious attempt at a complete title out of all 5 alphas. The game feels extraordinarily polished from the beginning, with a slick, vector based environment, littered with virtual debris and 10 foot high walls. It’s a fast, visceral run through a maze of other robots that you can destroy and use to create other, more powerful machines, although they don’t make it easy on you. But the brilliance is in the AI – the different bots all have various strengths and weaknesses (strong but blind, fast but one handed) and react with each other as well as yourself. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up on Steam or XBLA in 6 months time.
The Black Lake
To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to the Black Lake. I’ve never been much of an adventure fan, and watching the initial pitch video for the concept didn’t capture my attention (although a few thousand others seemed to find something in it). But I shouldn’t have worried, especially since the guys at DF obviously have a lot of love for the genre and, in this case, have approached it in a fresh way. One of the primary mechanics, outside of being the only title with an actual narrative, is the ability to switch between using a light, which signifies “sight”, and using the dark, or your “senses” to avoid enemies or locate objectives.
The art design was phenomenal — in fact, almost all of the prototypes were immaculately detailed for such a short development timeframe, but the attention to detail here shows an artist was definitely one of the project leads. The environment is the prime motivator and the need to explore it is almost impossible to ignore, you just have to look behind every nook and cranny with solid trepidation. It’s a shame that the game is over all too quickly, although, like a great short story, there is a beginning, middle and proper conclusion to the narrative string.
Like a five-course degustation menu at a fine French restaurant, Double Fine served me up five distinctly different parts of their collective personality. I enjoyed each one for what they were; the creativity and willingness to explore new concepts and ideas for the sheer sake of it. Game design used to be about recreating the deepest parts of your imagination, so here’s hoping that events like these become a regular peek into the passionate consciousness of some extraordinary developers.