In 2010, I felt that 2D shooters were done. With plenty of free stuff kicking around, there was no need to buy a shooter that I'd already seen 20 years earlier. I'd dabbled in some of Jeff Minter's more recent efforts like Gridrunner Revolution and Space Giraffe but hadn't been persuaded that any of this was worth the effort. I had beautiful memories of Scramble painted in primary colours but the boy who experienced that first-hand had grown into the adult of Torment and Thief.
Then I played an off-the-beaten-track title called Leave Home.
You already know where I'm going with this. Readers of this site are smart people. But how is this relevant to qrth-phyl?
Back in the day, I was still scrabbling around for the right tone for Electron Dance. Few of you are probably aware that I experimented with writing in third-person, eventually abandoned because it projected the wrong personality. Nonetheless, I was always thinking about how I might distinguish myself.
The rise of Rock Paper Shotgun had opened my eyes to all sorts of nicheware, games I didn't even realise existed, and I began exploring games that I would normally have walked away from. A vibrant shooter called Leave Home, developed by hermitgames, fell onto my lap and I wrote a review.
But Leave Home was more important to me than the review reveals. Just as Darwinia had persuaded me that the RTS genre could be fun, Leave Home made me realise the 2D shooter bloodline had not reached a dead-end; interesting and innovative things could still be done. It nudged Electron Dance in a different direction.
Let's take another look at it.
What did Leave Home do?
Abstract shooter with dynamic difficulty and metaphorical explosions. Fixed length game session. Score points. Increase difficulty. Split shots. Leave Home...
Leave Home is a game that I have an intense fascination for. It has never been archived off my drive into some nether-storage. It was cruel to me and still is and upgrading from mouse/keyboard to a gamepad has confirmed that I am not suited to the game's hardcore brand of difficulty.
I have never defeated both “mofa” bosses. My highest score is 105,156 which is 44,844 points short of the only score achievement that Leave Home tracks.
What hits you first is the buzzing and pulsating environment, the world seen through the eyes of a caffeine-high insomniac. It is difficult to capture in a screenshot. Virtually everything is built from simple shapes that drift about as if their natural inclination is to fly apart, awaiting entropy to be delivered from the barrel of your gun.
But shallow aesthetics are much like narrative. A particular look may get heads turned and people through the door but it is not why they stay. Aesthetics often get old, the wonder replaced with familiarity. It is the way of things.
Leave Home employs procedural-generation but uses it wisely; it knows the limits of current techniques and establishes them as strengths. Instead of constantly churning out random variations that gradually become stale through recognition, Leave Home restricts play to five minutes in length and segments it into different stages.
Every twitch is different because no two games are the same. Leave Home resists muscle memory, demanding response from the player. While the five minute stretch of Leave Home will soon become familiar, it cannot be learned.
The game also devises a shootscape to match your skill and the difficulty is determined by the number of blue chips the player picks up. Note that the player occasionally has explicit control of the difficulty level, such as during the initial flight from home which is littered with blue chips but offers no opponents.
The game only stops when the five minutes are up and there is no limit to the number of times the player can die. So what's the point in a fixed-length game with infinite lives? Performance. The higher the difficulty, the higher the score multiplier, and every death causes the difficulty to tumble. Low scores are easy; if you want to have a score which is something to Write Home about, you need to keep the crazy up.
My original review wrapped up with this:
The game has lodged itself in my brain, between two synapses where something important should be. You might discard it as just a little tech demo, a fragment of an experience that an indie developer couldn't be arsed to complete, but you'd be wrong. This is a tight, minimalist game that is both energetic and relaxing in equal measure; a lot of work has gone into this.
Most of what I've explained can be found in the blurb accompanying the game but Leave Home abstains when it comes to explaining every detail. What is the ring in the upper right corner of the screen? What does the “hell/hull release” graph mean? Why do you sometimes get a bonus when the game finishes? These are not difficult questions to answer, but makes playing the game a mechanical exploration.
Alright, so, metaphorical explosions? Right, well, the whole thing is a metaphor for a teenager leaving home, departing the nest. The game opens with the player breaking away from two “parent” entities and the final boss fight is a confrontation with them.
I interpret the meat of the game as the trials of living away, with your parents coming back to “help” at the end. If you can defeat their arguments, you've established you can stand on your own two feet. The game goes further, labelling the difficulty level as "rage" which means every defeat in the game knocks the player back, reducing rage. Leave Home considers anger to be the default state of your average teenager, a force that compels us to be independent. Life, however, is sobering. The angrier we get, the harder life becomes.
The score seems incongruous as the player is rewarded for causing as much mayhem as possible. Perhaps it betrays a skewed mindset, that during our angry years we actually think the number of people we piss off and best in social situations is actually a plus. The real winner is someone with a low score.
Honestly, how far you are willing to take this metaphor is up to you. I'd argue it has one major shortcoming; the words that accompany the game and the title itself are required to provide context. The abstract visuals themselves do not sell the story.
For me, Leave Home was instrumental in determining a trajectory for Electron Dance, to put aside genre prejudice and embrace the individuality of each game. However, being so special, I had high expectations for the game's successor. Will Minecraft players think Scrolls is even awesomer?
So two years on, with hermitgames only releasing the odd, cryptic screenshot during that time... the balloon went up. The next game was coming. A game called qrth-phyl.
Okay, about the title. I still don't know why it is called that. The unreadability should be no surprise to veterans of Leave Home, because that game applied names like “w-range” and “kernowek/kenwyn” to each stage.
Let's move onto the trailer from June.
And this is when you find your fanhood tested. I was expecting another shooter because hermitgames' previous works were also shooty. But it is, well, fucking Snake. It looked gorgeous but I struggled to maintain my enthusiasm about this secret project after it was no longer secret. I've played a number of similar games over the last ten years and always put them down after five minutes. This was the promise of Leave Home?
And if I'd written that at the time, I'd have been eating my words right now, with a double helping of shot-self-in-foot salad.
Next Week: Fucking Snake