Breaking the rules

I visited the Brighton Centre for what was probably going to be the last time in July. I was about to leave the country for foreign climes. I’d given myself the day off to walk about in the sunshine and later hook up with my pals and take a look at the new Borderlands and Aliens games they had on show there. We had a good time. Won some goodies, played some demos and got to listen to Molyneux and Pitchford go on about this and that. But that’s not what I will remember most about the show.

When I’d agreed to go I didn’t really, honestly, know what I was going to see, I’d read almost nothing about it and had been invited to join some friends who already had tickets. I said it was a good idea since I’d been working so hard on my Android games I could do with a break. I then forgot. A week before the event I’d remembered something was going on and rushed to book a ticket. In my worry-induced haste, again, I forgot to find out what REZZED actually was. 

“PC and Indie games show” Is what the sign said on West street. I think these days you’d find it hard to categorise me as a PC gamer. Long ago it’s what I had access to and, so, was my de facto weapon of choice, but today I play more on a console than anything else. As I turned the corner onto the seafront road I wasn’t sure If I’d get much out of the games on show, but then, that wasn’t really why I’d come. 

The front side of the Brighton Centre had been adorned with a two hundred thousand foot banner for Borderlands 2. Ah, perhaps I will get something out of the games on the show floor, I thought.

Once inside I learned that I was in for a bit of a wait regarding my friends. This gave me time to wander around on my own and take everything in. Sure, there was Borderlands and Aliens: Colonial Marines, but I was drawn to the indie gaming section, with the bright lights, flashing colours and instructions for how to play writing in black marker above each monitor. Some said ‘w’ ‘a’ ‘s’ ‘d’ etc, giving explicit gameplay instructions, some simply said ‘put on headphones’ or ‘explore’. 

I didn’t play them all, but out of all the games on display in the whole show we spent more time with the likes of mcpixel than with borderlands.

One game in particular I was taken with. Its name I can’t remember (if you know, please tell me) but in a way it’s not important. It looked very much like an atari 2600 game. It has a very simple colour scheme with two single colour player sprites and a single colour ball sprite. A two player side scrolling platform game, the aim of the which was to kick the ball into the opponent’s goal. It caught my imagination in a way nothing else at the show could manage. It adhered so closely to a set rules and yet broke them subtly so that my expectations were dashed. All the while, playing the game, I was thinking ‘the rules have been broken, won’t someone think of the rules…’.

As a developer of software and games I’ve been told by my gaming pals that there are some things a gamer isn’t meant to know. My good friends have suffered much from my ability to see ‘into the game’ as they put it, one even calls it ‘matrix eyes’ and does a twilight zone ‘do do do do’ noise whevever I start talking about the underlying mechanics of a game we’re ‘trying to just enjoy’. This ‘ability’ has sucked the joy out of a few games for me (and for others near me) but in the case of this unknown retro indie game it was the cause for great joy. Like a joke put there just for me, a moment shared between people who’ve only met through the artistic medium of software in motion.

Games, like real life, are all about rules. When a game spends time teaching you how a world works, what rules apply in any given situation, they’re training you to think, setting your expectations for what is to come and what better way is there to cause turmoil than to strategically break those rules once they are well established. Many games employ this technique to great effect. A good joke is about a setup and an unexpected turn of events. A broken rule can be funny, exciting, frustrating, empowering or terrifying. Yet a world without rules isn’t any fun at all. Rules are made to be broken but break few or no one will be able to tell what’s changed. Like science.

I look into the game with my ‘matrix eyes’ and while suffering total defeat by my opponent Barry using his arcade-nimble fingers to great effect I see the framework. A framework of rules, but not those of the game we are playing, a set of rules laid down by the traditions of an archaic processor designed to display two play sprites and a ball and nothing else.

Here we have a game running on a pc that could emulate a hundred thousand atari home consoles and yet the developer has chosen to limit themselves to the two player sprites and one ball that was all the 2600 could muster. A pc capable of rendering the worlds of borderlands in its fine artistic detail and yet they were using one colour bitmap sprites. And yet, the frame rate was smooth and high, the screen scrolled around the play area in a fashion I’ve never seen a 2600 manage, and the blocky water that washed up and down at the bottom of the screen, while looking retro and suitably blocky, felt as smooth and well crafted as anything else I’d seen that day. 

I was inspired that day to make a thing. As I often am. This day I wanted to create something new, but that felt old. Something that looked like the games you used to play as a kid, but played like a game that had been made today. I wanted to create a ruleset based on an old technology and break as few rules as possible, while breaking just enough, to make something thats fun and playable.

We also decided it should be called “Super Skull Smash GO! 2 Turbo”. But I broke that rule too.

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