There aren't many game design competitions that I feel a man of my total lack of game-design skills could possibly have entered, but TIGSource's Assemblee is one. I curse myself for not submitting something - though in fairness I was moving house at the time, so drawing sprites in Photoshop on my laptop whilst sat in a removal van would doubtless only have resulted in nightmarish ineptitude. The super-clever concept is this: a little while back, any passing artists and musicians created and submitted a ton of original creations, with no specific game or aim in mind. In other words, they had no idea what their creations would be used for, or who by.
In stage 2, any interested programmers helped themselves to this cheery mountain of weird and wonderful assets, and mashed them into working games. Some of the results are astonishing.
So, rather than someone having a game idea then sending their artists off to make characters for it, here games were made to fit the characters and landscapes, at least as the programmers perceived them. I'm gradually working my way through a bunch of the entries, and there's some amazing stuff coming out of it: doing things backwards, as it were, has definitely resulted in games I can't quite imagine arising otherwise.
There's also some absolute, lunatic nonsense, but in a way I'm just as glad to play those too - the less successful games here do reveal the inverted design process of the experiment in a way that the slicker ones don't. You can tell someone's tried to forcibly add a game to some artwork and has perhaps struggled. With the better games, the art and the mechanics seem so perfectly in tandem that you'd never think they were created so seperately.
Here's what I've tried so far:
Cosmic Unleasher is some kind of action platformer, starring a ninja monkey, a lizardman and a woman wearing a skinned wolf on her head. This is a good thing. Alas, the game itself is pretty much unfathomable. Then again it's only a demo at the moment - it's going somewhere, but I'd be lying if I said I knew where.
In retrospect I should have guessed that 6Nine would be naughty, given the name. It turns out to be about murderous penises and something to do with Derek Yu. It also crashes my PC, so I've little idea what's involved beyond looking at penises. I'd steer clear of this one if I were you, though a browse of the folder does reveal that a penis wearing Warhammer 40,000 Dreadnought armour turns up at some point. I want to show that to you, but it would be disgraceful of me to simply post it in this story in its full horrible, wonderful glory. Instead, I'll warn you that it's totally NSFW and link to it. Seriously: don't click through if you don't like looking at hand-drawn penises, penis fans!
Onto the good stuff. Bitworld is lovely. It's Dwarf Fortress meets Bioshock meets Diablo: a hacky-slashy trawl of a labyrinthine dwarven lair after its glory days have passed, leaving it ruined monster-filled. The Zelda-esque combat is cute, but it's the arrestingly pretty presentation that really makes it: essentially, NES-era graphics made 3D. Like so...
But you really need to see it in action to appreciate how gorgeous it is. Successful combat at the later levels requires rotating the screen by 90 degrees, as, being a retro wee thing, your defiantly 2D sprite can only attack left or right, not up or down. When enemies mob you from all directions, you need to frantically rotate the world so you can nobble them all in time. Definitely take a look at this one. Also, it includes the line "have you ever wrestled a bear? I have."
Then there's Backworld, the game pictured at the top of this post. Backworld is... well, Backworld is great. Really, truly, great. Yeah, it's a little.... rustic in its current form, but if this doesn't get expanded into something bigger, glossier and award-winningier, I'll be sad bunny. (That's a clever thing to say because it stars a bunny. I am very smart). It's a puzzle platformer based around the concept of colour inversion/negativity, but not in the 'and now you shall be sent to mirrorworld!" kinda way we've seen a few times over the years. Instead, you paint the white world black, creating new paths and platforms in the process, with intermittent physics inversion to boot.
It's one of those games that are so simple, so obviously appealing in concept that it's baffling it's not been done quite that way before. That's the real mark of cleverness in game design - when something feels totally natural as well as fresh. The inversion paintbrush possibly needs a little finetuning or an option to change its size and there's a little too much arbitrary rule-changing, but if this gets polished up it could and should be an enormous hit. Plus, its interface is ideal for iPhone porting, which is currently an excellent way for amateur devs to get their big break. Excellent work, Juha Kangas and Anders "Saint" Ekermo - can't wait to see where you take this next.
And there are over 70 more Assemblee games; I'm quite sure there's a slew of diamonds in this ever-fascinating rough. I'll hopefully by rifling through a few more of them tomorrow.
Thanks to Michael Cook for nodding us in the direction of Assemblee.