DALL-E has been getting a lot of my attention lately. I signed up for the wait list to become a user and got an invitation a few days ago. DALL-E is much more capable than DALL-E mini, later renamed Craiyon, that I had played with previously. It generates images higher quality images, faster.
I’ve been using DALL-E like a bad graphic artist’s client, pestering it every few minutes for free concept art with the promise of “exposure” as its own reward. DALL-E doesn’t seem to mind, though. And we love each other. I ask it for whatever comes to mind, and it seldom disappoints me.
I decided to ask DALL-E to create box cover artwork for Mega Man, since why not. It occurred to me that this would be a good John Henry competition, pitting the new machine up against the mightiest artist to ever lift a colored pencil, to see who was better.
It turns out that DALL-E was more than up for the challenge.
I mean, none of these is exactly good, but all of them are awesome.
Most of these don’t feel like Mega Man, but they all have a pretty good Japanese Giant Robot vibe, which is just fine. Mega Man is a small robot, not a giant robot, of course, but that hardly matters — instantly, my imagination is fired by the idea of a 1960’s or 1970’s Mega Man anime imported to the US in the 80s alongside shows like Star Blazers, Mobile Suit Gundam, Mazinger Z/Tranzor Z, and Macross/Robotech, and Diaclone/Transformers… What a “What If?” to think about! So the nostalgia factor for this alternative Mega Man that never existed is powerful.
It makes me think that if I got back into game development, I’d use DALL-E to give me the initial inspiration, concept art, cover art, what have to get me going.
I have so many questions about DALL-E.
Why does it get the title wrong? Megan? Meggian? Megman? It can’t be hard to get the exact text out of the description I entered and replicate it in the image. Is this a deliberate nerf on the part of the developers to prevent users from creating meme captions that could be offensive?
Due to the way DALL-E can’t seem to get the words right for the titles, a lot of what it generates reminds me of this hilarious meme from years ago, which parodied corporate fast food logos by turning them into dada-ish nonsense. Which makes it unintentionally (or not) hiliarious and entertaining, but it also limits its usefulness for creating images I want to actually use.
It’s exciting to be alive at this time, getting to see these developments in AI. I don’t get the sense that DALL-E is truly intelligent, but what it does is impressive nonetheless. The images it creates are often quite good, and about as often are complete nonsense. But frequently this “nonsense” is either hilarious or entertaining, or has a superficial feeling of artisticness to it. If I knew a human had created some of these “artistic” images, I would be more inclined to ascribe creativity or meaning to them. But what when DALL-E does it, it feels more like it is holding up a mirror to our culture’s human-created art, as though it put the conceptual ideas of art and design into a blender, and reassembled them for us, not quite at random, but according to rules that don’t quite work yet, but still give the impression of… I don’t know, “something going on in there.” Often times the results it spits out give me the impression that I’m looking through a window into an alternate reality; as though, the many worlds theories of physics are true, and DALL-E is somehow extracting images of alternate realities from one of an infinitude of alternate universes in our multiverse. And from an information theory standpoint, perhaps that might as well be what it is doing.
When the images are purely visual representations, the impression of intelligence at work is more effective, but when the images contain words, it’s clear that DALL-E is just throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks, following rules of some kind, but not intelligently, not with deliberation or intent. We get nonsense words that are a jumble of letters that the DALL-E parser decided it thinks we wanted it to put into the image. And sometimes we get strange alternative glyphs, as though from some alien alphabet.
Much of the time the images DALL-E creates could be used to stimulate human creativity, to give a human creator a spark that they could use to work from, an initial inspiration. That’s a valuable thing in itself. And I’m sure the potential is there for it to continue to develop its abilities, and I expect that in time AI development will give us more capable AI. That seems almost a given.
Seeing what DALL-E would create was so fun that I asked it to create alternative cover art for many of my favorite games. There were many that I thought would be fun to share.
Legend of Zelda
Super Mario Bros.
Super Mario World
Ms. Pac Man
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja
These are amazing, especially considering the amount of human effort it takes to create them — literally just typing in a few words and clicking a button. They are so fun to look at, to anticipate what DALL-E will come up with while the progress bar fills. Each one is as interesting for how it fails as it is interesting for how it succeeds. Each seems like an alternative universe’s version of the game title. The art style varies — some of it looks like the illustration on a children’s cereal box, a lot of it looks like the cover of a paperback book or movie, while others look like the box a board game is stored in. Tetris appears to have strong links with Rubik’s Cube, and here and there I can pick up hints of other influences. It’s especially fun to see when DALL-E “knows” the game title, and picks up on stuff that is recognizable from the game, and uses it in the images it composes.
I haven’t done any game development in years. My enthusiasm for game development took a big hit after I struggled to get used to the changes to the IDE that came when GameMaker Studio went from 1.4 to 2.0. I still don’t like the GMS 2 UI, for many reasons. The GMS 1.4 IDE had plenty of UX issues itself, but I thought that YoYoGames threw out too much when they did their ground-up rewrite of the IDE for the 2.x version. A more incremental UX transition from 1.x to 2.x would have been better.
GameMaker 2 is definitely improved over 1 in many other ways and obviously is the way forward for anyone who wants to work in GameMaker. But GameMaker is still rather limited in certain ways that I’ve always found annoying, and so I had the choice: stick with it, switch to something else, or quit.
I opted to quit. After spending nearly 10 years working in GM8 and then GMS1, I didn’t want to start over learning a new tool, and even switching from GMS1 to GMS2 felt enough like learning a new tool that I didn’t want to do that either.
Having taken all that time off, though, I realize that I still have a desire to make games, provided the experience is itself enjoyable more than it is painful.
In 2020, during pandemic lockdown, out of boredom I made a Snake clone in GameMaker, called Tangle, and it made me happy.
The other day, I was feeling nostalgic for the old built-in Windows game Minesweeper, and discovered that it is not included with Windows 10. You can install a version of Minesweeper from the Microsoft Store for free, and so I tried it, but I hated it. They added all this needless tutorial crap to it that tries to teach you how to play minesweeper by telling you how to do every little thing — stuff that’s easy to figure out on your own, and more enjoyable and rewarding to figure out on your own.
There was a fad in game design over the last 10-20 years to build the manual into the game, in the form of tutorials that told you about how every feature in the game works and how to do every single thing. This is a great idea in theory, but in execution they often prove more annoying than useful. There’s so much built-in gamer knowledge that any experienced player will bring to a new game, from the hundreds of games they’re already familiar with. Such conventional knowledge is just tedious to explicitly spell out for a player.
As well, putting up signposts for every single mechanic is insulting to the player’s intelligence. It’s really more delightful to discover things through exploration and experimentation than it to have the experience of someone holding your hand and telling you when and how to interact with every single thing in the world.
At the same time, in a lot of games I find that I can get frustrated when I can’t figure out how to do something, and I spend a long time trying to figure it out, and it’s not obvious how to “do the thing”. Often the game world is dressed up to look like a realistic world that is full of things we’re familiar with, and we bring assumptions and expectations about those things with us. When we see a chair, we think “I know what that is”. In many games, a chair is just a tile that you can’t interact with, that serves to convey to the player that they’re indoors in a furnished room that has a chair. But there’s nothing to do with the chair. You can’t sit on it. You can’t pick it up and use it to tame a lion. You can’t set it on fire. You can’t break it over someone’s head like a pro wrestler. You can’t move it next to the shelf so you can stand on it and get an object on the top. It’s just a tile that you can’t walk over and have to walk around.
And that’s bullshit. Because it creates the expectation of useless or limited usability in the other objects in the world. You see another object in the game, a chest. You know you can open the chest and find a treasure. You know some chests are locked, and some are trapped or trigger encounters. But even though the chest looks like it is made of wood, you can’t break it up and put the pieces into the fireplace, or set a fire and use it to signal an ally far away on the map, or keep yourself warm in a cold zone.
Games like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild amazed us with the greatly broadened scope of things you could do with nearly every object in the game world that you could see. But that amazement was a break in expectation from what decades of more limited games had trained us to know about interactive game worlds.
Minesweeper is super simple and abstract — about as far away from BOTW as you can get. You can figure out how to play it in a few seconds by clicking. There’s no need for a tutorial mode with achievements to track the things the game explicitly taught you to do. You just go directly to the game play, and you figure it out, all on your own. This makes you feel smarter, empowered, and like the game respects your intelligence. The Microsoft Store version of Minesweeper treats you like a baby, insultingly trying to be helpful and explaining things to you that you already knew, or could have figured out faster without their “help”.
It turns out that the OG minesweeper is available for download if you google for it, and you can still run it on modern day Windows. I don’t know how legal it is to download, but it ain’t like anyone’s making a fortune pirating minesweeper, a game that was given away for free for over a decade with every install of Windows.
So I downloaded it and played it and, you know, it’s just minesweeper, but as I was playing it I was appreciating the design of it, the simplicity, the clear logic that it communicates to the user through its iconography. And I have to say, minesweeper, though utterly commonplace, is really well designed as a game.
I thought, “what the hell” and decided to try to make it myself. I just wanted to see if, A) I could do it, and B) if I could find the experience enjoyable.
It turns out, I could.
I fired up GMS1.4, still installed on my PC, because I didn’t feel like being frustrated by the lack of familiarity with where all the controls in the GMS2 IDE are, and how they all look familiar yet work subtly differently.
Minesweeper is really, really simple. You have a grid of cells. Apart from edge cells, each cell has 8 neighbors. A cell can either have a mine in it or be empty. An empty cell is safe to click on, and doing so reveals how many mines there are among the eight neighbors. You can then use this information to deduce the locations of mines. Once you are sure of a mine’s location, you can right-click the cell to mark it with a flag. This makes the cell safe, because you cannot accidentally set off a mine in a cell that has been flagged. You proceed to traverse the entire minefield, until you have identified and marked all of the mines correctly. If you make a mistake, and click a cell containing a mine, you lose the game. When you lose the game, the entire minefield is revealed, and if you mistakenly flagged any empty cells, those flags are marked with a red X to indicate your error; also the mine you clicked on to end the game is drawn with a red background to indicate it blew up.
There’s a bit more to it than that: a timer, which is used to rank players based on how quickly they can complete the game; a scoreboard of high scores; also the first click in the game is always “free” — the position of the mines is determined after the opening move is played, so that the first cell the player clicks on can always be empty, and thus you always have a chance to win the game — there are no unfair first-move deaths. Finally, there are three different levels of play: beginner, intermediate, advanced, with grids of increasing size and more mines to find at the higher difficulties.
I went with the simplest approach I could think of to build the core features. I didn’t bother with the high score, the timer, or the dashboard at the top of the window. I just implemented a mine cell object, a controller object to handle global state and data, and put most of the logic in the cell object. There’s no actual grid data structure; the mines are simply laid out to create a grid, and each mine cell only needs to be aware of its surrounding eight cells, so that’s all they do. The checks for this don’t care if they’re edge or corner cases, either. They check all 8 positions where a cell could be, and check to see there is one; if so, it checks to see if it is empty or a mine, and if it’s a mine it counts the neighbor and adds it to its tally.
When the game starts, every cell is empty, but when you make your first move, the cell you picked is cleared, and the rest of the mine cells that comprise the field randomly determines whether it contains a mine or not, and the state of the minefield is thereby determined. Thereafter, when you click a cell, if you release the button while the mouse is still over the cell, you trigger the sweep script, which will reveal whether there was a mine or not; if not, the cell will reveal how many mines are in its neighboring cells. If you mouse outside of the cell after clicking on it, and then release the mouse button, the mine cell will not trigger. This allows you to think about the move you are about to make while the mouse button is down, and if you decide that you want to take the move back, you can.
If you click in an empty cell that has 0 neighbors with mines, something special happens. Since the game is telling you that all of the neighbors are safe to clear, it does this for you automatically, saving you the time it would take to clear each neighbor manually. To do this, we check when this condition exists, and if there are 0 neighbors for the current cell, we call the “sweep” function for the eight neighbors. This “sweep” function checks each of the 8 neighbors in the same way, so that if any of them also has zero neighbors with a mine, then all of those neighbors are cleared automatically as well. This results in potentially large areas of the filed being cleared by a single click, and is probably the most fun part of the game.
The game conveys all of its information to the user graphically, through sprites. I created one sprite resource, containing the different states for a mine cell: untouched, cleared, mine, flag, and for the number of neighbors containing a mine. Most of my time spent in development was taken up by drawing the sprites. I wanted to get the colors accurate to classic Minesweeper, and but I didn’t otherwise concern myself too much with exact pixel accuracy or font accuracy. Due to my rusty pixeling skills, it took me a bit before I figured out a good workflow that would enable me to create individual images that had consistently centered positioning and sizing. I ended up deciding on 32×32 pixels for my cell size. This enabled me to create attractive, classic-looking cell graphics.
I did the drawing work in paint.net, in a single 32×32 pixel image with one layer for each sub-image in my sprite. The bottom layer had the grey background and outlining needed to convey a sense of bevel and shadow to create the illusion that the un-cleared cells have a raised tile on them. Within these, I drew very rudimentary flag and mine images, and using the text tool I created labeled numbers for the neighbor counts, colored them accurately. Then I imported the graphic into GameMaker and ordered the sub-images in the sprite in such a way to make the coding as convenient as possible.
Coding took the least amount of time out of everything. It was all pretty easy. The only complexity about the code had to do with some order-of-execution details that I worked through at the game start, because I have each cell determining whether it has a mine in it sequentially, and then I have to have each mine check its neighbors for the presence of a mine, in order to count them. Since the counting can’t start until all the cells determine whether they contain a mine, the neighbor counts don’t take place on the first step of game execution.
I also took a lot of time debugging a logic error that I created for myself unwittingly when I tried to code the recursive checking for neighbors that takes place when the player sweeps through a cell having zero neighboring mine cells. This was tricky because I was using the sprite sub-image to contain state information, which made a lot of sense because the sub-images directly convey this information. But there was one case where there was a state ambiguity: when you left click on an un-checked cell, the sub-image briefly switches to the sub-image I used for the cleared cells, because this gives the appearance of the cell being clicked like a button. When the player releases the left mouse button is when the game checks for mines, and then in the event of a zero-neighbor cell, the recursive check that happens used the sprite sub-image to confirm the state of the cell before doing further checking. Because the neighbor cells aren’t clicked on, they don’t switch from the unchecked sub-image to the cleared sub-image, and thus fail the logic test to see if the sweep check should continue, and thus nothing would happen; the if statment would follow a false branch that would stop the recursion from happening.
I had to sleep on the problem but when I woke up I immediately knew what the problem was and what I needed to do to fix it, which is my absolute favorite way to debug my coding mistakes. The only reason this took me so long to debug was that I assumed the cause of the problem was elsewhere in the code, and I tried everything else I could think of first before giving up and going to bed. But then again, if I didn’t do that, I probably wouldn’t have woken up with the answer in my head.
So now I have a fully functional core minesweeper engine. I don’t have the dashboard, timer, high scores, or variable difficulty levels, but what I have will serve as a good base to add those features.
Which makes total sense, and I predicted it about 5 years ago. They denied going to a subscription model at the time, because of course they did. Users at the time weren’t in favor of it, preferring perpetual licensing. But I guess everything changes when you get bought.
Of course, for development tools, everything gets stale if you don’t keep it updated, so a subscription based licensing model probably does make the most sense.
For professionals, anyway. For amateurs and hobbyists, though, it’s a lot of money to pay for a tool if you only use it occasionally. GameMaker’s bread and butter used to be the student/hobbyist/indie developer who could readily afford a one-time price of $40, then $100. Now it’s $100/year, or $9.99/mo. Which is still not that much if you use it a lot, but if you’re just not ready for that type of commitment, there’s really nothing like what GameMaker 8 once was, over a decade ago.
YoYoGames still offers a free edition, intended for student/hobbyist users, but it lacks exports, not even for Desktop OSes, so it’s of extremely limited usefulness for anyone who wants to actually build their projects in order to get feedback from peers and friends.
About 10 years ago, YoYoGames was talking about a Linux IDE for GameMaker Studio on their long-term roadmap. A few years passed, and the roadmap disappeared and all talk about a Linux IDE went silent. It seemed that PlayTech may have been responsible for killing the project when they bought YoYoGames.
I’d given up all hope of a GameMaker IDE on Linux long ago, but a few days ago, this article crossed my newsfeed. It looks like new YoYoGame owners Opera is developing a port, currently in beta. It appears it will be supported on Ubuntu only, but that’s better than zero Linux distros, and Ubuntu is a pretty good choice.
This would have really excited me a decade ago, and would have been the last obstacle to me completely ditching Microsoft. While better late than never, it’s still not really here yet. It sounds like the beta currently has some rather severe issues that make it less than suitable for production at this time. Hopefully this will change quickly. It will be interesting to watch and see how it goes in the coming weeks.
I absolutely love this beautifully produced fake documentary that was published last week.
Imagine the gameplay possibilities. In BOTW, all we can really do with Bokoblins is kill them or ignore them. Occasionally there are encounters where we run into Bokoblins harassing some Hylian travelers or hunting animals. These encounters have their purpose — they allow Link to rescue the Hylians and do something heroic, while the hunting parties provide a demonstration to the player that hunting is possible activity that they could participate in themselves in the game.
But these encounters are somewhat limited and shallow. They don’t build and develop to anything greater. They hint at what could be, however, and I find the possibilities tantalizing.
This video shows potential for a much greater depth possible in the game. If you unlock the “monster shop” Fang and Bone, operated by the creepy, nocturnal Kilton, you can buy monster themed items, including a mask. These masks can be used to fool enemies of the type that the mask is of that you are one of them, allowing you to encounter them without having to fight them. The items from Fang and Bone are not really crucial to completing the game — in fact, they’re completely unnecessary. And in my run through the game, I encountered the shop very late in my exploration of Hyrule, and thus had accumulated so much power that the shop seemed almost pointless. I didn’t need disguises at this point — I was already comfortable hunting down Lynels and Dragons. So I did not explore these possibilities and discover this area of the game very much at all. Clearly, I missed out on some enjoyable, amusing bokoblin antics by not diving into this aspect of the game more.
As I played through Breath of the Wild, I often felt guilty about killing the Bokoblin enemies. They’re almost cute, they’re almost not really dangerous, and it’s clear from their scripted idle behavior that they have a tight-knit tribal culture.
They hunt, they sit around their camp fires, they cook, they dance, they sleep. Sure, they don’t differentiate between people and prey animals as much as we’d prefer, and Bokoblins might get nasty if they detect a threat, but can you blame them? They’re just trying to survive. Why can’t we just get along?
A problem I have with Breath of the Wild is that for being a vast game, it’s depth doesn’t really match its breadth, and thus the game begins to feel repetitive after a certain point. You usually encounter Bokoblins in camps, and they’re pretty much all the same. There’s a camp fire, a few bokoblins sitting about, maybe a cave or some other shelter, a couple of watch towers. You can approach pretty closely and they mostly won’t notice you. And when you grow tired with scouting about the edge of their range of vision, you can pretty much run up at any point and straight up murder them through button mashing without much risk.
They don’t fight very well — your attacks almost never miss, almost always disrupt them, and if you’re just full-on aggressive with them, you can keep them reeling and beat on them repeatedly until they die, which doesn’t usually take very long. Conversely, their attacks aren’t too strong, usually have a big windup that telegraphs to you that you need to either dodge or interdict with a pre-emptive counter attack of your own, and if they do hit you, they will hurt a bit, but you’ll probably be able to shrug it off and hit back and gain the upper hand.
I like bokoblins, and I think they have a lot of potential, but I just don’t find them as interesting as they could have been if they’d been developed a bit more. It seems like a shame, because it feels like a considerable amount of work went into developing them to the point that they were. They exhibit a lot of different behaviors and it gives them personality. The bokoblin documentary shows this quite well. But there’s not that much that you can really do with them, or need to do with them, beyond slaughtering them whenever you encounter them.
This video, though, shows a glimpse of what could have been. Imagine if there were alternatives to fighting that were not just viable, but interesting, rewarding, and even necessary.
Imagine if you could help an injured or trapped bokoblin, and gain its trust.
Imagine if you could approach a camp of freezing, starving bokoblins, and if you approached with your weapons un-equipped, they didn’t immediately regard you as a threat, and if you approached them with your hand outstretched, holding a food item, they would tentatively approach and you could give them the food and then they’d be grateful.
What could they then offer you? Might they trade with you for something that they own, or guard? Might they show you a secret, or allow safe passage through a difficult to get to part of the map? Might you learn how to co-exist peacefully, and put an end to the age-old conflict once the evil Ganon is finally defeated? Might you become an honorary member of their hunting band, and gain allies who come to your aid later when you’re ambushed by another band of hostiles?
I’ve been playing video games for nearly four decades now, and as games become more realistic and immersive, I find myself wanting that reality to offer me solutions to conflicts other than violence and destruction.
I don’t want to be misunderstood in saying this. During my whole life, there has been a pushback against violence in video games. I like videogames, and I like violent videogames. I like shooting everything on the screen, and games where you do nothing but destroy and fight never ending waves of enemies. I just have played enough of them.
I think game designers can challenge themselves, advance the state of the art, and delight players by providing different challenges and different solutions to problems apart from straightforward brute force. And to be fair, Breath of the Wild does this, quite a bit more than most games. It’s just that most of these alternative approaches apply themselves to the games physics puzzles than to dealing with foes. When it comes to foes, you basically can fight, run away, or avoid. The combat system does offer a lot of variety. But what if you encountered foes and didn’t have to fight or sneak? What if you could bribe, negotiate, deceive, trade?
In the late 1990s, games like Thief received critical acclaim because they tried something different — rather than killing everything in the game to overcome challenges, what about using stealth and trickery to avoid violent confrontation that is designed to be impossible to overcome? Nearly 25 years later, I want still more options.
Even in the original Legend of Zelda, we didn’t always fight enemy creatures. Moblins were an overworld enemy who hurled spears at us, and our options were to fight or avoid. But not all of them behaved as enemies.
And who could forget the hungry Goriya from Level 7, who cannot be fought, only placated with food?
There are encounters in Breath of the Wild where Link can give an NPC food or another item, so this sort of interaction with bokoblins wouldn’t be unprecedented, and indeed would have seemed fitting and natural, and a callback to earlier Zelda adventures.
I have a feeling that we’ll get to see such complex, multifaceted interactions in games eventually, and probably we don’t have too much longer to wait for it.
It was a $16.4M purchase in 2015, and during this time they put a ton of development into GMS 2, released it, and so it’s a bit concerning that this hasn’t resulted in YoYoGames becoming a more valuable property.
On the other hand, I can well understand it. In the past several years, I have never felt comfortable with the new GMS 2.x UI. I find it awkward, unintuitive, ugly, and frustrating to use compared to the GMS 1.4 and earlier versions that I learned first. And at the same time, competing technologies like Unity 3D, Unreal Engine, and Godot been strong competition.
From a coding standpoint, there’s no question that the GML programming language has gotten better and better as YoYoGames continued to develop it.
From a UX standpoint, it’s been a crapshoot. The UI has some nominal improvements, but overall I feel like they changed too much too fast, and I could never get used to it. I spend way more time looking for the feature I want to use, and then wondering why it doesn’t work the way I think it should, and it completely kills my productivity and along with it my desire to work with the tool.
In fact, it’s a big part of why I haven’t done much game development in the last year, and have mostly dropped out of the pursuit.
I hope the new owner does better and continues to make improvements with GameMaker. It was very good at its original intended purpose of making it easy for game developers who are not primarily programmers to create simple 2-D games.
Many amazing games have been built with GameMaker over the last 22 years, which shows clearly the merit of putting simple, usable tools into the hands of creators who wouldn’t know where to begin with tools intended for professional programmers. Hopefully even more will be made in the years go come.
It will be interesting to see what the new owner does with the property. I want to see a product like GameMaker continue to serve the market it has traditionally done well with, while offering features that make it viable for professional game developers as a first rate tool.
Usually we hate to forget things. But one of the best things about being able to forget is that you can have a cherished experienced again as though for the first time.
REDDER was a game by indie game developer Anna Anthropy and first released on the web in 2010. I played it for the first time not long after, and it remains to this day one of my favorite puzzle platform games. Few games have made me want to design my own games as much as REDDER, and that’s perhaps the highest compliment I can think of to give it.
I’ve re-played it multiple times since then, and always enjoy it so much.
This year is the first year that Adobe has ended support for Flash, the technology that REDDER was originally built on. I have written previously on the impending death of Flash, and what that means for tens of thousands of video games that were built with it during its 25+ year history.
I feared that this would result in a vast, rich cultural legacy becoming more and more inaccessible. I still fear that. Adobe didn’t just drop support for Flash, didn’t just cease continuing development of it. They pulled the plug. Browsers stopped supporting it, so now in order to run Flash objects in a browser, one needs to keep an outdated browser. This of course has its own problems, and very few people will continue do do it. Moreover, as the userbase moves into a post-flash browser-scape, web hosts will over time have less and less incentive to continue hosting legacy Flash experiences, and in time perhaps the only ones that will persist will be deliberate historical preservation efforts.
That’s a damn shame, because REDDER belongs in the Smithsonian, or the Library of Congress, or both.
Fortunately, Anna Anthropy has re-packaged Redder, in a desktop OS format that wraps a Flash player into stand-alone application, and allows it to be enjoyed on Windows and Mac OS X. It is available for $5 on itch.io, and is worth every penny.
What a beautiful thing it is that I can forget this game just enough to be able to come back to it and experience it again, re-discovering the solutions to the maze and helping my little space explorer friend in their quest to collect all the diamonds to replenish his stranded spaceship.
The platforming is basic. You move, you jump, that’s it. There’s no wall jumps, no edge hanging, no coyote time, it’s pure basic simple. There’s no shooting, no destroying enemies. Your only tools are your brain, to figure out how to get past obstacles and get to where you need to go, and your agility, to accomplish the task. There are save points, to make the deadly obstacles a lot less annoying. There are switches to flip, which toggle special colored platforms into and out of existence, which serve as doors and platforms that block your way or create bridges to access deeper reaches of the world or traverse deadly obstacles to add an element of risk to the challenges you’ll face. When one type is on, the other type is off. And together they serve as the building block of the platform puzzles you’ll need to solve to win the game.
As you progress through the game, the graphics and music begin to glitch. It’s subtle at first, a tile here and there, and it adds an element of mystery to the game. As you continue to collect diamonds, the glitching increases, until, near the end the entire game is out of control with random tile animations. When the final diamond is collected, the entire facade is stripped bare, and everything turns into raw collision boxes, color coded — a clean, pure visual language.
There are only three types of hazard in the game: patrolling robots, which traverse horizontally and are deadly to touch but never react to your presence in any other way; “drip guns”, which shoot deadly pellets that you must duck, jump, or otherwise avoid with good timing, and electrical fields which don’t move and must be avoided.
For all its simplicity, the game provides an engaging challenge to find your way through the complex, maze-like alien world, and collect all 27 diamonds.
One thing I love about REDDER is that there are no locks. You start out with all your powers, and apart from the switch platforms that are the only real puzzles blocking your progress, there’s nothing preventing you from doing anything, going anywhere that you can go in the game, from start to finish.
What I love about this is that this forces the design to challenge you in ways other than “oh if you get the item, you can get past this”. This comes down to understanding the map — the twisting, interconnected pathways connecting the grid of screens that comprise the world of REDDER, how platforms and switches relate to one another, flipping switches in the correct order to allow passage, and having a modest desgree of skill to master the timing and agility needed to make the jumps and avoid the dangers.
It’s a casual play — I would call the vibe relaxing. The music is soothing and evokes a spirit of exploration and puzzle solving. The game provides a fun challenge without relying on fear, anxiety, or frustration. Toward the end of the game, as the graphics and background music become increasingly glitch-ified, the game does start to produce a bit of anxiety. If you’re playing the game late at night, it can almost feel like your lack of sleep is to blame for the game’s breaking down. I really like this. To me it is the “something extra” that gives the game a memorable mystery, a question left unanswered, which both frees and empowers the player to come up with their own explanation, should they choose to.
Additionally there are three secret hidden rooms off-map. These serve no purpose other than to delight you for finding them, and perhaps provide a clue or an auteur’s signature.
It seems there have been a few changes from the original in this version. I don’t remember these secret rooms having these messages — a web search reveals that the original REDDER had secret rooms with the words “ANNA” “TRAP” and “PART”. TRAP and PART are of course pairs that make a palindrome, and ANNA is a palindrome, and REDDER is a palindrome. There’s something up with palindromes in this game.
But I don’t know what ROB? OWOR and BORR mean. It makes me wonder what else may have changed, and why the changes were made.
After about a year of not feeling like doing anything related to game development, last night I felt like making something.
So I stayed up all night and made a simple Snake clone that I call Tangle.
There’s nothing special about this project, it’s just a bare bones, no frills clone of the classic snake game, but I think for a few hours work it’s decently well done, and it plays well.
I think it took about 2-4 hours to build, and would have taken about a quarter that if it wasn’t for the fact that I haven’t done anything with GameMaker in a long time, and have never felt comfortable using GMS2’s revamped IDE. It’s minimalist, so don’t expect a whole lot, is what I’m trying to say. But enjoy it for what it is.
Donkey Kong is the foundation of a modern business empire, a cultural cornerstone, the genesis story of the Marioverse. Not liking Donkey Kong is something akin to blasphemy. I gave it a shot. I wanted to like it. But I just never liked it.
I first played Donkey Kong when it was new, in the Arcade, on Atari, and ColecoVision, and I never considered it one of my favorites. It was a smash hit when it came out, sold tens of thousands of arcade cabinets, swallowed hundreds of millions of quarters, sold millions of cartridges on home consoles, and been ported to just about every console of its generation and the next few after. It was groundbreaking, both technically and in terms of game mechanics and narrative.
I recognize all of that, and I still don’t care for the game. I respect it for its accomplishments, but yet I don’t like it. I can’t enjoy playing it.
This isn’t merely a statement of opinion or taste; I don’t enjoy playing Donkey Kong, and I don’t find it to be a particularly well-designed game.
Let’s talk about that.
Barrels – the first screen
Donkey Kong is very difficult and unforgiving. Part of its difficulty stems from the tight window for clearing dangerous obstacles, and the narrow clearance for successful jumps. But much of it comes from design choices that tend to make the game feel unfair.
Jumping is the key mechanic around which the whole game is based. Yet, the jumping mechanic is rough. When you jump, you can’t change direction or height, so you’re committed to the path of the jump until you land. This makes jumping risky and hard. When you make a mistake, there’s no second chances. You know you’re going to die, and there’s nothing you can do but watch and wait for it.
You can’t jump very high — just the exact height to clear a barrel or fireball, and the exact distance to clear two barrels if they’re right next to each other… barely. Miss a jump by a little bit and you’re dead.
On the first screen, some of the ramps look like they might be close enough together to allow Jumpman to jump up to the next platform from the one below, but that is not permitted. You can only ascend to the next platform by climbing a ladder.
Not that you’d normally ever want to, but you can’t jump down from the edge of a ramp to the one below, either — the height is not great, but it will still kill you.
If you jump off a platform, you die if you fall just a short distance. Jumpman can’t survive falling any farther than the peak height of his jump.
You can’t get off a ladder until you get allll the way up to the top of it, or allll the way to the bottom. Very often, you’ll think you’re there, and try to move left or right, only to find that you’re still locked onto the ladder and unable to move. A better design would have been to treat horizontal joystick input as continuing Jumpman’s previous climbing direction, moving him the rest of the way up/down the ladder until he is clear.
There’s no jumping from a ladder, either. Allowing this would make the game play feel less stiff, and give the player greater control and flexibility. It seems like Jumpman should maybe be able to reach up from the lower ladder to grab the bottom rung of the upper half and climb up, or to jump off from the top of the broken ladder to get some extra distance and height out of the move. And, surely, if only he could only jump vertically from the top of the ladder, you’d be able to reach the top half and continue up. But no, he can’t do any of these things.
Some of the ladders are broken, turning the ladder into a deadly dead-end. You can climb up them, but only get part-way. Even if you’re at the very top rung of the bottom half of a broken ladder, barrels rolling by below you will still hit you and kill you, even though you’re well off the ground. It’d be nice if the game gave you a break and decided there was enough clearance that you could be safe here. And a barrel that decides to roll down from the platform above and take the ladder path will also kill you. If it does, there’s no way you have time to get out of the way in time; you’re a sitting duck You’re stuck on the broken ladder until you backtrack down and get off. If you could jump off the ladder, or jump to clear the gap where the ladder broke, you’d have one more option, open up possibilities, a chance to dodge out of the way, and it would make the game feel a little more fair. But Donkey Kong doesn’t give this to you.
The Hammer power-up allows Jumpman to fight back against the barrels and fireballs that are his bane, and earn extra points. But this comes at a cost.
Jumpman can’t climb ladders with the hammer, and cannot jump. This means he is stuck on the platform where he grabbed the hammer, for as long as the hammer persists.
The hammer is a temporary item, which runs on a timer that ends after a few seconds, but without warning. You can be right about to smash a barrel when suddenly the hammer disappears, leaving you defenseless and no time to jump out of the way. And if that happens, again you have no choice but to die. This feels unfair. To fix this problem, the game should give the player a cue to let them know that their hammer time is about to expire — blinking or an audio signal would be helpful. And maybe if the game detects that Jumpman is facing a barrel, and it is within a “close enough” distance just as time is about to expire, give the hammer enough extra frames before despawning it to allow the barrel to be busted, avoiding what would otherwise feel like an unfair death.
Since the levels are timed, and running out of time will kill you, and you can’t clear the level when you have the hammer because you can’t climb with it, getting the hammer can screw you if you grab it while the timer is running low.
As well, your remaining time gives you bonus points, so being forced by the hammer to wait before you can finish the level can actually cost you points, unless you can smash enough barrels/fireballs to make up for the lost bonus time, and make it worthwhile. It would be better if you could cancel the hammer early, or if you could still climb and jump while holding it. Or, perhaps hitting the jump button while holding the hammer could make Jumpman throw the hammer, giving you a useful way to cancel it early, and a ranged attack that could come in handy and give you one more option.
The hammer may make you seem invincible, but you can still be killed if a barrel gets past the hammer to touch Jumpman. Most players don’t realize this until, soon enough, they learn it the hard way. A barrel coming down a ladder can be hit by the hammer, but if it swings out of the way and the timing is just wrong, the barrel may hit Jumpman in the head before the hammer swings back up. Likewise, the rolling barrels may approach Jumpman from behind, or roll under the hammer while it is swinging above Jumpman’s head. The swinging of the hammer is automatic, not controlled by the player, so whether the hammer hits the barrel or the barrel gets through is somewhat random. Usually Jumpman will hit, but once in a while the barrel will get through. I would fix this design issue by making Jumpman invincible from the front while holding the hammer, but still let him take hits from above and the rear.
Barrel pathing is pernicious; whether a barrel will go down a ladder or continue down the ramp can’t be known for absolutely certain, but it seems that barrels are more likely to go down the ladder if you’re on the ladder, making using ladders especially deadly. It makes you paranoid to avoid starting up a ladder until any approaching barrels have cleared the ladder you need to climb. To some extent, you can manipulate the barrel AI by your position and direction, as the enemies will tend to take the path that is least advantageous to you. So by standing to one side or the other of a ladder, and facing the right direction, you can often influence the barrel to take the short path or the long path.
Barrel spacing is too random and can often kill you unfairly. Donkey Kong will sometimes roll two barrels at you too far apart to jump both together, and too close together to jump the first one and then immediately jump the next one.
Sometimes DK will toss a barrel that will go straight diagonally down the screen, ignoring collisions with the ramps. These move extremely fast and are unpredictable, making them all but impossible to dodge. If you happen to be in their path, at the top of the screen, you have almost no warning and no time to get out of the way.
Collisions with barrels will kill you with any overlap — even if you’re standing on the platform below, with your head poking above the next level, a barrel rolling along that level will collide with you and kill you. An if it passes below and clips your feet even a little, while you’re on a ladder, it’ll kill you as well. Collision boxes could have been made smaller, to make slight collisions forgiving, and allow for exciting “close calls” rather than cruel kills.
You clear this screen by popping all the rivets out of the girders, causing the structure to collapse. You clear the rivets by walking over them. This creates a narrow gap between the two rivets, really it’s just a crack. It looks narrow enough that you should easily be able to walk over it without inconvenience, much less danger. Yet, if you try, you find that Jumpman will fall through this narrow gap, to his death. This could have been nerfed by making you stop at the edge of these gaps rather than fall, or by allowing you to step over them unimpeded.
In later Mario games, Mario has the ability to fall any distance without injury, so long as he doesn’t fall into a bottomless pit. In Donkey Kong, though, Jumpman can’t fall any distance greater than the height he can jump. This means you have a lot less options and possibilities for moving around a level. The result is the controls feel stiff and uncomfortable.
You can grab a hammer on this level, as well, and if you do, you’ll be stuck walking back and forth on the girder you’re on, unable to walk over any gaps created by a missing rivet. This often means waiting for several seconds on one of the smaller side platforms, unable to climb up or down the ladders, and unable to cross the rivet gap. When you have the hammer, the fireball enemies that move around this level will often keep out of your reach, unless they happen to already be on that platform with you, seemingly waiting for your hammer time to end, so they can swarm you the instant you’re again vulnerable. If this happens, you’re often blocked from multiple sides, or facing two consecutive fireballs spaced so that you can’t clear them with any possible jump. Again, it’s like the game is designed to punish you.
I could never clear this screen as a kid, not that I got many chances to. To get to it, you have to clear Girders, Rivets, and then Girders again, making the first Elevator screen level the fourth level in the game, and by this time I’m usually out of lives.
The jumps on this screen are very unforgiving, due to the height that Jumpman will fall if he misses the moving elevator platforms that he must land on in order to make his way to the goal. If you mis-time your jump, you may miss the platform, or simply land on it after falling too far. And you don’t have to fall very far to fall too far and trigger a death when you land.
There are bonus objects to pick up on this level, and not very many other scoring opportunities. But the bonus objects are so difficult to reach it’s not really worth it. You’ll waste too much time, or miss a jump and die.
At the end of this level, there’s a bouncing spring that moves horizontally very quickly, bouncing at you before falling down the right side of the screen. This makes any approach up the level involving movement through the right side of the screen especially deadly. It takes pixel perfect timing to avoid this final obstacle, and it’s probably the hardest single challenge to negotiate in the entire game. Apparently (I say, because I’ve never done it) the way to clear this final obstacle is to wait patiently, and time your move so that you can pass through the danger zone between one spring launching and the next. Move at the wrong time, and you’re screwed. It’s possible stand in a specific spot where the spring will bounce over Mario harmlessly. I don’t think it’s possible to jump over the spring; if you can it’s almost certainly not worth the risk.
Pie Factory Screen
This screen is also known as the cement factory, or the conveyor belt screen. I don’t remember ever playing it, so I don’t really have complaints here. To get here, you need to clear 7 screens, and since I could never get past the Elevator screen in level 4, making it to the Pie Factory was far beyond my ability. It’s also the level that is often omitted from home console ports. I don’t even know what you need to do to clear this screen.
I watched some videos of people playing this level, and it looks like it might one of the more enjoyable levels. A few of the platforms are conveyor belts, which affect Jumpman’s horizontal speed when running on them, depending on which direction you’re facing, they’ll make you slower or faster. This doesn’t seem to affect your jumping ability much, though, because any other objects on these platforms are also affected by the conveyor belt speed.
At the top of the screen are two extension ladders which slide up and down according to a timed pattern. To clear the level, you have to wait for the ladders to extend up, then climb to the top-most platform. This doesn’t seem terribly difficult, although you’ll be at the mercy of the timing if there happen to be any fireball enemies nearby, you may not be able to get past them due to the timing of the ladders.
It’s hard to say without having played it, but all-in-all I think the Pie Factory might actually be one of the easier levels in the game. Which makes it seem strange/questionable that it is the last to be introduced to the player.
Lose a life and start over
On any level, if you lose a life, you start over from the start of the level you’re on. No progress is saved, no checkpoints. In order to clear the level, you have to do it perfectly, not making any lethal mistakes. This makes clearing any level which you have difficulty with especially difficult.
In a modernization, I imagine that there would be a waypoint system to allow you to keep some of the progress you make in a level. On the Rivets screen, this would be a simple matter of remembering the rivets you’ve popped. On the Elevator screen, starting Jumpman on the last platform he safely touched before dying would be helpful. On the Barrels screen, resuming exactly where you died would be nice, but if not, then at least start over on the last platform touched.
Why did Donkey Kong succeed?
Donkey Kong was one of the most successful arcade games ever, and even today it is a favorite of many gamers who appreciate the games of this period.
In 1981, arcade videogames were still quite new and had grown almost unimaginably popular after about a decade of market growth and technical development, with great interest in any new title that came out. It was a time we now look at as a golden age for the video arcade, after several years of ascendancy through the 70’s black and white era that gave way to the mega-popular blockbusters that dominated the early 80’s, games like Asteroids, Berzerk, Defender, Pac Man, Dig Dug, Joust, Galaga, and Moon Patrol. Out of all of them, only Pac Man made more money than Donkey Kong. What made it such an attraction?
Donkey Kong had the benefit of being unlike anything that had come before it, in terms of play style and technology, yet it had instant familiarity all at once, in the way it echoed the familiar King Kong story from classic cinema. It had colorful cartoon-like graphics. Its sound effects and music were charming. The game play was novel, yet intuitive, despite the brutal difficulty level. And for an arcade game, being extremely difficult was actually a good thing, since it resulted in shorter games, more credits per hour, and thus higher revenue. The challenged appealed to many gamers of the time. And there were not yet other games similar enough to compare against it, so the rough edges in the mechanics weren’t very obvious.
As one of the earliest platformer games, it broke ground and innovated, and for the time that was enough. Despite the shortcomings, rough edges, and unforgiving difficulty, it captured the minds of the public and gave them entertainment.
For all that, though, it just wasn’t for me, and I’ve come to accept that. For my quarter, Ms. Pac Man or Zookeeper is a far better play.
I bought a Nintendo Switch last spring, two years after launch, when Super Mario Maker 2 was announced, and I bought my obligatory copy of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the same day. And then didn’t play it until a global pandemic swept through the country and forced everyone into becoming homebodies.
I guess that’s weird, right? You should see my backlog of Steam games I have purchased but never played.
So, I’ve read reviews and know a bit about the game ahead of playing it, but I’m trying to experience this game as much as I can by figuring it out on my own, and not going to walkthrough sites and reading how to win the game. I think this is the best way to enjoy the game, because it seems like the designers meant for it to be a journey of discovery, and I want to experience it that way, and not as a list of tasks that I need to complete in order to say I’ve experienced the game.
So far, I’m liking the game. I think my response to the experience of playing BOTW is more interesting and nuanced than gushing fanboy praise. Zelda games are Top Shelf, and typically get high 90% reviews. And while they’re clearly lavish, and intended to be special, I think I’m enjoying being critical of it as well, perhaps more than I would enjoy the game if I felt nothing but awestruck by the whole thing.
I’m playing it handheld, and I wonder if maybe the small screen contributes to my feeling this way. There’s no denying the graphics are beautiful, but maybe they’d be much more impressive on a 40+” screen rather than on a 7″ or however big the Switch’s screen is.
At any rate, I started posting my progress and impressions on Facebook, and as I’ve gotten into it more, I think it’s more fun to post this sort of thing on the website too.
I haven’t done something like this before, but I think what I’ll do is continue posting to Facebook, journaling my progress in the game, and then re-publish them, cleaned up, here, later. The Facebook posts aren’t public, but these articles are. They’ll be published on a delay, so commenters won’t be able to spoil the experience for me. Hopefully this will be interesting and worthwhile for people to read along.
I get that these days the hip thing to do is stream and talk, and that’s where the monetization is (or was, for a while), but I’m a bit more old school than that, so it’ll be text, and occasionally images. Assuming I can remember to take screen caps, and then post them. While pictures are great, I’m not really here to sell the game, but to talk to my experience of it and my reflections on those experiences. And I’m not sure that images are all that necessary for this. If you’ve played the game, you know what I’m talking about.
And it’s been out almost 3 year snow, so if you haven’t, well, you should have already. What’s wrong with you?
Oh, and it goes without saying, I’m not worried about posting spoilers. The game’s been out.