Electron Dance
13Nov/12Off

Returning Home, 1

qrth-phyl screenshot, snake tied in knots before big and dangerous red box

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? 

Genre crisis

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 description, hermitgames

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 It has never been archived off my drive into some nether-storage.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.

Leave Home challanges and unlocks, highlighting my failure to beat the game

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.

Leave Home screenshot

Metaphorical explosions

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.

qrth-phyl

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?

Ball sweeps through white-panelled environment

Screenshot of qrth-phyl prototype, 2010 (source: hermitgames)

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

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Posted by Joel Goodwin

Electron Dance Highlights

Comments (7) Trackbacks (0)
  1. My memory is not what is used to be. Apparently I have eliminated both parent bosses once. The first comment on Badger Commander’s Leave Home review says: “I’ve managed to kill off both parent bosses just once… but I’m not sure I did a great job at it. I remember seeing something new at the hell/hull stage, but I’m not exactly sure what that was.”

    Really? God I don’t remember that.

    Note that I also deleted a line about how one of Babylon 5’s themes was “killing your parents” which would have been called out as just another chance to get a mention of Babylon 5 in. You know, like I’ve done right now in the comments here.

  2. And we all know that Babylon 5 is is a big pile of shit.

    Was going to comment on your last post as I have enjoyed both of the last two articles. Sadly am way too bogged down at the moment.

    Great stuff, am really enjoying Qrth Phyl, we talked about it briefly on the Arcadian Rhythms podcast after seeing it at Rezzed and I downloaded it immediately on XBLIG.

  3. Don’t worry I know you are out there, BC, still fighting the good fight. Not quite finding the time to comment or even read right now, my Instapaper queue is masssssssive.

    I absolutely love qrth-phyl, as you’ll see next week. Or alternatively, check out the current site banner image, that’s my love right there.

  4. I don’t think every Minecraft fan is necessarily going to rush into Scrolls fanaticism, but I can say with 100% certainty that someone will try it that otherwise wouldn’t be interested. If anything, that’s kind of the genius of KOEI always making games about feudal China and Japan. I got sucked into Dynasty Warriors’ action and then moved on to Kessen’s action-strategy and even Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ nation building.

  5. Yeah, Sid, I expect people will rush to Scrolls but wondering if there will be a descent to reality after that and more scepticism about a subsequent project. The sophomore slump… you should see how nervous I am about whatever Richard Hofmeier’s next project turns out to be.

  6. These are the kinds of games I perennially miss. I’m not good at finding the right indie/experimental/unique/weird games, and I’m lucky to know Harbour Master because I can rely on him to guide me. Without Harbour Master I’d never have seen Yeti Hunter or Proteus, for example. And without Harbour Master I’d never have found Leave Home! He’s drawn to them, a moth to a flame and, like my canary in the coal mine, helps me sort out the wheat from the chaff so I can just mix metaphors all day long.

    I look forward to reading your thoughts on fucking snake, HM. Though the image of snakes making sweet love is now entrenched in my brain for the day.

  7. Steerpike, you should also play SCP-087 =)

    I think your gaming skills are as, er, rotten as mine, so I hope you’ll enjoy Leave Home even though it treats you like dirt.


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