This is the second part of The Shooting Gallery trilogy. In the first part, Shooting Spirit, developers of 2D shooters described their interest in the form.
I adore Iain McLeod’s giddy shooter Spheres of Chaos 2012. The game is a reworking of McLeod’s original Spheres of Chaos, which debuted on the Acorn Archimedes computer in 1992. It shares genetic ancestry with Asteroids (Atari, 1979) although that association is misleading. The key strategy in Asteroids is to stay in the centre of the screen, whereas this is not recommended in Spheres of Chaos 2012.
It’s an echo of the arcade shooters from three decades ago, even sporting an attract mode showing a breakdown of the enemies and their point values. Most of the game’s muffled audio seems to have emerged from an old, broken arcade cabinet and when the player rattles the pointy powerups with a stream of bullets, it sounds like the program is out of tune.
The game often overpowers the player’s senses with vibrant patterns of colour rippling out from every explosion. But my favourite moment is when the player’s craft is destroyed and spinning orange shrapnel explodes across the playfield, blotting everything out. Eugene Jarvis, the developer of Defender (Williams Electronics, 1980), commented in the Chicago Tribune that the explosion of the player’s ship in Defender is the biggest because “no one wants to play a game where they slip and hit their head in their driveway and die”.
Recall that the 2D shooter was the dominant game design in the 1980s and it came in all shapes and sizes. But as the years went on, home gaming took over the arcades and big publishers took over from bedroom programmers, which meant more concern for playability and wider appeal. Frustrated players wouldn’t recommend a game to their friends so games were made more friendly and clarity became the order of the day.
See how striking the characters are in both Flashback (Delphine Software, 1992) and Gunstar Heroes (Treasure, 1993) even with the increased graphical fidelity available compared to earlier works such as Asteroids, Defender and Robotron: 2084 (Williams Electronics, 1982).
Developers of 2D shooters largely played it safe, preferring to tweak an existing formula. Vectorman (Blue Sky Software, 1995), for example, was given a pass because of the protagonist’s unique animation style, but essentially it was just another shooter with powerups and bosses. Then the 3D shooter came in and changed everything; consoles needed some time to catch up but, once they did, the industry didn’t look back. Early games such as DOOM (id Software, 1993) took their presentation cues from the 2D shooter world, where background, objects and enemies could all be easily identified.
3D games have a more formidable learning curve than their 2D predecessors and, as no one ever reads the manuals, it soon became the norm to pack a tutorial into the game to keep things simple. Worlds retained their colour and readability for many years – look at Half-Life (Valve, 1998), The Operative: No One Lives Forever (Monolith, 2000) and Halo (Bungie, 2001) for example.
While the mainstream did all it could to broaden the audience of every title – few frustrations, continuous in-game direction, quicktime events instead of button combos – the 2D shooter dug in: scoring systems became complicated and bosses more sophisticated. The rise of the “bullet hell” subgenre, where the entire arena is often awash with patterns of bullets, perfectly demonstrates the niche that the 2D shooter carved out in the wake of its fall from mainstream grace. Developers went after hardcore consumers in the long tail.
Bullet hell is as much about obfuscation as it is reactions; players often have to feel their way through the bullet noise than react. It’s chaos as game design and the player, overloaded with information, must develop new instincts to survive.
Then there’s Jeff Minter’s Space Giraffe (Llamasoft, 2007), a 2D shooter featuring a psychedelic background. The game dresses itself like arcade legend Tempest (Atari, 1981) but cannot be played the same way; for example, it features an unusual mechanic where players can charge or “bull” through enemies rather than shooting them. The game becomes increasingly complicated, fraught and visually incomprehensible as it presses on. However, the game is not meant to be read on a visual level as a normal shooter but, rather, played through audio cues.
Space Giraffe received a mauling from some reviewers with Dan Amrich awarding the game just 2/10 on OXM because “you’ll frequently die because you couldn’t pick out the pulsing assassin from the warped playfield floating over the throbbing LSD nightmare that is the background”.
Minter regarded Space Giraffe as his magnum opus but it sold poorly. The effect on Minter was profound:
A game whose production left us pretty much completely skint, in a situation where we can no longer engage in much that is experimental or in fact do anything much at all except run frantically on the iOS treadmill, and as a result left me prone to bouts of abject depression that mean I haven’t listened to any music for five years, find it difficult to connect with my family and am out of touch with my old mates from back in the day, even though I’d actually quite like to see them again one day.
Space Giraffe is a game that demands attention, patience and experimentation. It does not reward players immediately and, frankly, can feel like a mess because it throws everything at you in one go – overpowering visuals and lots of new mechanics. Jeff Minter put out a game that Jonathan Blow hoped would “raise the bar for game criticism” and pondered whether it was the Ulysses of videogames.
Shall I just come out and say it? Space Giraffe was Starseed Pilgrim six years ago.
The game’s supporters demanded that new players persist with it. In Rock Paper Shotgun, Kieron Gillen wrote, “You should try the demo, and realise that if you don’t like it, you could be wrong.” In possibly the best analysis of the game, Stuart Campbell described Space Giraffe as a game “where you have to feel danger rather than see it.”
But Space Giraffe is the natural result of developers digging and experimenting in a form that had been considered to be a commercial dead-end. It was the only way to survive; once a genre loses favour with the mainstream, it has to go after its experienced, educated players who want more and wish to be tested. They want the grit. They want the anger.
Amrich later justified his low score in OXM by explaining that “Space Giraffe is unique, which is to be applauded, but hostile to the player, which is not.” But there’s such a hunger for design hostility these days. Years of spoon feeding and handholding have taken their toll.
Whereas Space Giraffe was panned, Shaun McGrath’s tube racer Dyad has received critical plaudits, even though “a few too many times, the game’s challenge comes from how it obscures the screen with so much speed and color that you can’t always tell what’s going on”.
3D shooters are still in the mainstream eye and so, just like when 2D shooters fell into a rut, developers prefer to tweak an existing formula. But players are getting jittery and maybe the next Call of Duty isn’t going to be enough. We’re increasingly seeing 3D experiences that dispense with clarity.
Ezra Hanson-White’s recently released prototype of Memory of a Broken Dimension caused a stir with its glitchy 3D environment that plunges the player into an environment of white noise. Its mechanics are, at this point, straightforward, but the game is strangely terrifying on first pass.
Slave of God (Increpare, 2012) is a nightclub simulator that plays with visuals and mechanics to make a surreal play experience that is unique and occasionally frustrating.
These are recent works but a desire for obfuscated 3D worlds goes back further if you look – Mondo Agency (Cactus, 2007) comes to mind. But difficult experiences are now commercially viable. Just as 2D shooters lurched into player-abusive territory, there’s now Dark Souls, Dwarf Fortress, Cart Life and Starseed Pilgrim, games that build in failure and expect players to keep hammering away until they get it.
The evolution of 2D shooters demonstrates that we can sometimes have a bit too much perfection and polish, and crave a little entropy. After a while, we want something coarse, something noisy, perhaps even something that doesn’t seem good for us.
Next: Léon Loves Tetris
- The “close-range attack” from Scoregasm (Charlie Knight, 2011) echoes Space Giraffe’s “bulling” although the differences are significant.
- In the race for 3D photorealism, contrasting colours have been dropped in favour of “realistic” beige worlds in which players are unable to distinguish object, foe and background. Split Screen cleverly lampooned this recently in a piece on “ReVision Goggles” – visual downgrades that keep appearing in games as player upgrades to revert beige worlds to high contrasting environments.
- Jeff Minter has said that Space Giraffe is meant to be a “restful experience”.