If we’re intent on having ungames and notgames, then we need the opposite category to classify those which seem especially comfortable in their own gameyness. These gamegames, supergames, hypergames might normally be called arcadey, but they’re not retro. They’re as modern as Call of Duty, as vital and current and new as Rust or DayZ, and Towerfall: Ascension could be the genre’s fig. 1.
Here is a long descriptive sentence. Towerfall: Ascension is a single-screen competitive and co-operative local-only multiplayer game for 1-4 people in which every player is armed with a bow and arrow, and in which your objective is to kill everyone else before they kill you by whittling down their lives or, in the new Quest mode, to work with your friends to kill waves of enemies across a series of increasingly difficult levels.
Conceptually, it’s unremarkable and easily described. In execution, it’s exquisite and has me chuffing on about ubergames, ultrogames, megagames. This is wot I think.
A lot of games aim to expand the vocabulary of videogames, stretching what the medium is capable of to find new experiences. Towerfall embraces the existing, most traditional vocabulary of videogames, with all its particular weirdness. It has screen wrap: enemies spawn in fixed locations and if you’re fighting the computer-controlled waves, begin to trickle down the screen, wrapping bottom to top like a persistent waterfall. It has gamey physics: you can wall jump and push against surfaces to slow your slide down them, and you have a significant amount of air control while falling. You can also use the dash maneuver to not only dodge, but to pluck fired arrows out of the air.
From these basic elements, a thousand little details spring forth.
If you fire an arrow and hit a flying eyeball, then the arrow lodges in that eyeball, the wings drop away, and the skewered meatball falls to the ground. If you fire an arrow and hit an enemy made of flame, the enemy vanishes and the arrow falls to ground, now on fire. These animations make the world feel physical and alive. They also introduce tactical considerations: if you fire at a flame enemy directly above you, there’s nothing for your arrow to embed inside and so when it falls back to earth, it’ll skewer you if you haven’t moved out of the way.
The quantity of animations in here is absurd. If you’re just on the periphery of an explosion, there’ll be a tail of fire clinging to the rim of your clothes. You only ever have one hit point and so if you’re alive, no real interaction has happened between you and the flames, but the animation helps sell the dramatic close call you just experienced.
I can even wax lyrical about the jumping animation.
When you leap in the air, your character’s shape elongates, giving the impression of momentum. There’s a kick of dust from the surface you just left and when you land again your character is briefly squashed, selling the solidity of the geometry. Everything in this world feels tactile and fun to touch. Like me. Every part of it has been lavished with attention.
My friend Marsh Davies lauded the game’s quality based on the “Vlambeeriness of its feels,” and that puts it perfectly. Movies can be identified by their camera angles and lighting, their theme and mood, revealing themselves as recognisably Hitchcockian or Lynchian. Videogames can be similarly recognised based on the feels of their jump animation. Towerfall is Vlambeerian and that’s a high compliment. It’s a game in which you can relish every button press.
The second reason I can’t help but think Towerfall revels in its gameyness – its status as a plusgame, jumbogame, hungergame – is that from these elements and details players are able to pull tremendous finesse.
If you’re playing against three other people, it’s frantic and thrilling. If you’re playing against just one other person, it’ll initially seem slow, but eventually comes to feel deliberate and skilled. It’s the dash maneuver that best exemplifies this.
This GIF covers four seconds of time. The red enemy I’m fighting operates similarly to the player-controlled characters, in that he has a bow and arrow. In this situation, he begins without any arrows to fire at me. I fire one at him, which he catches.
He fires it back at me as I dash for the bottom right exit of the level, and I catch that same arrow back. I fall from the top of the screen, and my enemy doesn’t follow as he’s trying to reach two other arrows embedded in the ground. He sees me coming, turns to flee, and I pop him in the back.
Four seconds. One arrow. Three shots. This isn’t a particularly impressive set-up; it’s an early enemy, some basic skills, and you’ll be doing this within twenty minutes of playing the game. I need to stress, I’m not very good at Towerfall. But this incident still required quick timing to catch the arrows and spatial awareness to make use of the screen wrap. It still felt brilliant. You’ll do things cooler than this once a minute. You’ll do it against friends in the normal competitive mode and you’ll do it with friends while passing controllers around in the 1-2 player cooperative quest mode.
Towerfall wants you to be great, so it helps you out as much as you can. The last detail I’m in love with is the way your arrows home in on targets, just a little. Not so much that you lose a sense of responsibility for your shots, but enough that the quick eight-directional aiming still has you hitting more than missing. Enough that focus moves to positioning, dodging and out-smarting, instead of being forced to use the slower, more precise hold-to-aim shots. Given your finite supply of arrows – they’re persistent and can be collected and re-used – the game’s mechanics coalesce to prompt you to become simultaneously rapid and efficient.
I know this all sounds like hyper-specific wanking. Towerfall is a traditional pleasure, and it’s easy to see why it’s fun with friends or against the computer, because we’ve all played games like it before and can remember that they were fun. But there’s an extra level of beauty and elegance in Towerfall’s animations and mechanics, and it’s those that make Towerfall special.
Towerfall: Ascension is out March 11th and is available through Steam.