I am a little late this time around, but I wanted to keep the trend going of giving my thoughts on each of the top ten “compo” finishers from the triannual Ludum Dare 48 hour game development jam. Each participant must quickly brainstorm an idea that is inspired by the theme, and execute on it to completion, all within two days. I won’t go into much depth on any of these entries, but it is a good exercise for me as a game designer as I can learn from how the top ranking developers approached their games. Hopefully it also provides a small, easy-to-digest summary of the top finishers for anyone who is interested, but may not have the time to try the entries themselves. This time around, the theme was “The more you have, the worse it is,” so let’s take a look at what these designers came up with!
10. Dangle Copter
Dangle Copter by Patrick Kenney applies the “more is bad” theme to a helicopter rescue mission, where each rescued miner adds to a chain that makes your helicopter all the more difficult to control. I found the controls on this entry to be super smooth; you simply moved the mouse to control each axis of the helicopters movement. While the simple controls without any clicking or buttons was rather relaxing, the gameplay could often go from relaxing to panic in a few seconds. It is a classic case of where a slight mistake causes an overcompensation in the other direction, repeating back and forth until you are completely out of control. I beat the first five levels or so, and there were a couple times where I was trying to very slowly ascend with a chain of five miners, when my helicopter blade clipped the wall and sent the poor miners swinging haphazardly around, and inevitably resulting in them falling down once again. The whole thing had a nice feel and I enjoyed the comical art style. I like the interpretation of the theme here, as it capitalized on a physical situation where more really does make things more difficult.
9. Snake Force
Snake Force by Jeff Chen actually takes a similar approach to Dangle Copter, in that you are rescuing people who then follow you in a chain. Here, the challenge is that every “bro” in your chain shoots simultaneously towards the same point, making it easy for them to accidentally shoot each other. You have to carefully maneuver your group to line them up properly to shoot at a target, while still dodging enemy fire. The polish on this entry is superb; every Ludum Dare seems to bring a few 3D games that seem more professional than 48 hours should allow, and Snake Force definitely fits in that category. Despite the interpretation of the theme being similar to Dangle Copter (though both took the idea in a different direction), I still think the core concept is a creative approach to the “the more you have, the worse it is” theme.
8. The More You Make
I absolutely love the approach that TerraCottaFrog took with the entry The More You Make. In his (her?) words, “I made 24 games for this Ludum Dare, because the more games you make, the worse they are.” Not only is this a very original interpretation of the theme that I am guessing was unique among all the entries, but it is also fairly “meta” as the meaning transcends the game itself and applies to the actual quality of the games as perceived by an outsider. I will say that despite creating one game, on average, every 2 hours; the quality of the games is surprisingly good! Lots of classic arcade genres are touched on here, but I particularly appreciated the virtual pet that you had to remember to go back and feed periodically while you played the other games. My favorite Ludum Dare entries are the ones where I really appreciate the creativity in integrating the theme, and this might be the first that had me literally laughing out loud as I read the description.
7. To The Depths
In To The Depths, Pedro Medeiros takes a more thematic approach, rather than interpreting the theme as an abstracted game mechanic. You play as a warrior who is killing enemies and drinking their blood, but once you drink it, you will die after a certain amount of time if you don’t find more blood to drink. Each time more blood is consumed, the sooner you need drink. This layers a time pressure on the top-down action game that otherwise involves killing the enemies in each room. I have followed Pedro for a long time on Twitter as I find his creative work very inspirational, particularly his pixel art and contributions to awesome games like Towerfall. I often forget that he does much more than art, and it is cool to see him put some of his other skills on display for Ludum Dare. The graphics here are awesome, the animations fluid, and I would expect nothing less from Pedro despite the time constraint.
6. Hunt Together
One thing that I enjoy about playing the top entries with each Ludum Dare, is that I start to recognize the names of developers that consistently participate and rank highly. Gao Ming has been a regular in these posts with two previous top ten finishes: Room 007 in Ludum Dare 37, and Yet Another Exhausted Day in Ludum Dare 39. He is back at it again with another polished 3D entry, and an entertaining take on the theme. Essentially, you play a spider that is trying to collect flies that get caught in webs around the blocky, three-dimensional world, but each time you successfully retrieve a fly, a virtual spider appears that copies the path that you just finished. As you collect more flies, more and more virtual spiders appear, all moving on their own historical paths. This ramps up the difficulty quickly because, if you ever hit one of those digital spiders, it is game over. I thought this was an interesting way to create a difficulty curve, as your approach to the level directly affects the future challenge found in the digital spiders. I mostly just ran around quickly and hoped for the best (which was fun and chaotic), but I could definitely see a strategy in planning routes to be predictable and non-interfering, so that you can handle multiple digital spiders reliably. Another enjoyable and creative entry from Gao, and I am sure I will continue to see his name popping up in these competitions.
5. Alien Crab in the Rotormaze
Alien in the Rotormaze by Jérémy Bouin is a beautifully polished little game where you are trying to find different switches to turn on and escape the abandoned space station. Each switch enables new functionality in the maze, thereby allowing you to figure out how to reach switches that you were unable to reach before. I always find it interesting when there is level design that must account for different “phases” in the game in terms of what the player is able to do. This tends to be common in the whole “metroidvania” genre that revolves around having an open game world that controls the players progress by requiring specific acquisitions to overcome certain obstacles. It is cool to see details that seemed insignificant come to life later in the game because new information has been introduced. Unfortunately Jérémy wasn’t able to finish the whole game in the limited time, but what he has is really well put together and I enjoyed my time with it.
Cardhoard by HacksawUnit has the feel of a polished little mobile game, where you are trying to package up boxes and then stomp to have them “delivered.” The more boxes that you stomp at once, the more points you get, but if the boxes ever stack higher than the red line, you lose. This adds an interesting twist compared to other games of this genre. Whereas in games like Tetris, you are typically trying to clear things as quickly as possible, here you may want to let stacks pile up so that you can maximize the points you can gain from combos. It is a simple idea, and the final product is executed so cleanly that you wouldn’t guess that it was made in 48 hours. Overall, a nice little variation on a well-established game genre.
3. Lonk’s Greedy Adventure
Lonk’s Greedy Adventure is a parody of The Legend of Zelda, made by Javi Cepa. The theme integration revolves around the protagonist, Lonk, acquiring more and more items into his inventory, which ultimately tend to lead to his downfall (at least this was true in the couple of play-throughs that I did). What I most appreciated about this entry is that it is an approach that you don’t often see in a Ludum Dare game. An open world exploration game with multiple unique endings would typically be outside the scope of a 48 hour game, but Javi Cepa did a great job of keeping things like graphics simple in order to allow him to spend time fleshing out a larger game world. One other aesthetic choice that I appreciated was how the camera worked. At times, the camera was extremely zoomed in, and so a given room could feel very small. But then you could move into a new room and the camera would zoom way out and let you see and move around a much larger area. It is a little hard to explain, but it was something I don’t really recall seeing in many games, and it made the world feel more interesting and varied. Only complaint is that I wished I could have moved around more quickly (I tend to be a very impatient gamer haha), but it was definitely a solid entry.
2. Burrowed Time
Burrowed Time is ENDESGA‘s entry in which you are running around a cave, fighting enemies, and trying to find the gate that ends the level. The twist is that you get to define the tradeoff in difficulty. You can either give yourself more time, but the level will be much harder, or less time, but the rest of the level will be easier. After each level, you are able to spent points to unlock new guns and enter the cave again. I was a little confused when I started playing this entry because on my first couple plays I didn’t actually find the gate to end the level, and the starting gun is so weak that I wasn’t even sure if I could kill any of the enemies. As a result, I spent most of my time just running around not attacking anyone as I looked for the exit. I thought the concept of picking your time vs. difficulty tradeoff was clever, but I just found myself just setting it somewhere in the middle, and then running for the exit avoiding enemies where possible. Everything is really well polished and impressive for a Ludum Dare entry, but for me it just lacked some of the fun factor as it seemed like I was better off avoiding some of the main gameplay elements. Still a good one, and one with quite a few features for a 48 hour game.
Permanence is the winner of Ludum Dare 40, and is another brilliant puzzle game from Steven Miller. Back in Ludum Dare 39, Steven’s entry HackOS was my favorite of the top ten, and it showed that he had a knack for creating puzzle games with a simple but innovative game mechanic. Permanence solidifies that these kinds of puzzle games are his specialty. The integration of the theme seems to be more connected to the storyline, where your character is continuing to drink out of depression (“the more you have, the worse it is”). It is out of this theme of the character wanting to forget parts of his past, that a really clever puzzle mechanic is born. Each level is a fairly simple setup where you are moving around a grid, pressing colored switches to lower the corresponding walls, and ultimately trying to make it to the exit. The catch is that whenever you can’t see a space on the level, it will stay the same as the last time you saw it. For example, you might need to hold down a switch to lower a wall, but when you step off the switch, the wall returns before you have a chance to move past it. But with this mechanic, you could step on the switch, turn backwards so you can no longer see the wall, and then walk backwards through it. The levels get much more challenging towards the end, but I felt like I was always able to wrap my head around the different elements and work backwards from the final solution. I was happy to complete all of the levels (it was a satisfying amount of content for a 48 hour game), and I have to say that Permanence is a worthy winner of Ludum Dare 40, and Steven Miller is definitely a puzzle game designer to keep an eye on!
Another Ludum Dare in the books! My wife and I have discussed wanting to enter a Ludum Dare this year (the “jam” category allows teams of people as opposed to the solo “compo”), and going through entries again gets me excited about participating. Drastic time constraints can, no doubt, push artists to sharpen their skills and create proof-of-concepts that can often become the foundation for larger projects.