Ludum Dare, for those who don’t know it, is a competition that challenges people to code games on a specific theme, 'Escape' this time around, within 48 hours. I could probably spend 48 years trying to make a game, but it would end well. As a boy, I once programmed a Commodore 64 to draw some flags but I copied the code from a magazine. That's what we did instead of modding in the Eighties. It was radical. Here in 2011 I have spent slightly less time than these games took to make playing through a bunch and bringing you my pick of the crop, below.
First up is Stratus by RichMakeGame. It doesn’t take very long to play from start to finish. About ten minutes. Unless, like me, you become confused by the very first goal you’re set and continually quit out of the game to recheck the controls, thinking something is becoming confused between intent and action.
It begins as you awake on a ship, face down in a pool of blood…
…and then you run up and down the ship, taking in the details and trying to interact with everything in sight. Except the one thing you’re supposed to interact with. I thought I had the controls wrong so I pressed escape to find a menu. My desktop was revealed, glaring at me, unimpressed. I had accidentally quit.
Back in I went, remembering this time to read the instructions on the opening screen. Left mouse button to use. I awoke on a ship, face down in a pool of blood…
…and I’d like to say I did it right that time, but I didn’t. I ran up and down the ship, clicking the left mouse button on everything interesting, and then assumed the game was bugged and pressed escape to seek help on the designer’s forum.
Turns out you can only use things when they are the correct thing to use. It’s as if you awoke this morning, hopefully not in a pool of blood, and tried to put on your trousers before your underwear. You simply wouldn’t be able to utilise the trousers.
The game does guide you but without the use of text. Once I passed that first minor hurdle I did speed through the rest of it though.
It’s certainly attractive, both in its design and technically. There are no real surprises but I enjoyed some of the imagery. The ending is abrupt and I’m not sure if I gave it a greater meaning than was intended. I’d be interested to know what the last item people ‘used’ was. I don’t think it’ll change what you see at the end but it might well change what you perceive.
Next up is a celebrity entry: Prelude of the Chambered. Y’see, it was made by Notch who also made, or rather is making, a little thing called Minecraft. With an ongoing project of that size, it’s amazing that he found the time for Ludum Dare and it’s even more amazing that his entry is one of the most complete experiences here. There are shades of Wolfenstein, particularly the opening cell, and the sound when you collect a trinket is an echo from that game, but the actual setting is more Dungeon Master than Colditz.
You start in a prison and must escape. This involves punching through walls and punching through bats. Despite such ultraviolence it’s a puzzle game with an adventure surface, I reckon, particularly once you start sliding around on ice. At that point I was reminded of a first person Chip’s Challenge, which is no bad thing. Definitely worth a look, particularly if you’re at all fond of being Chambered. Two warnings before you go off and try it. First of all, even though the game's only about half an hour long, there is quite a lot of backtracking. That fits with the Metroidvania style of collecting new items, which are really powers. The other warning is about death. Yes, it comes to us all, but it also sends you right back to the beginning of this game so look after yourselves, gosh darn it.
Then there's Hotel Escape by pgil, which contains spikes. I’m going to assume spikes are now a genre. Also, that if I ever have to escape from somewhere, spikes are almost certainly going to be between me and the exit. It seems to be their thing.
In this game, the player character is a bellboy with a red cap, which is instantly pleasing. He runs and jumps and dies. Mostly he dies. This time round it’s not me being rubbish, it’s the game being cruel. I won’t spoil anything because I like where the game goes, but stick with it and remember the theme of the competition. All will make sense. When you finally understand my declaration that the sound design is the most impressive part of the design, you’re on the right path.
Finally, three honourable mentions, the first of which goes to AWOL simply because it oozes style. The tank is a little too floaty for my liking but, damn, that is some pretty rain. Plus, you can load it in your browser provided you’re packing Unity, so not only is it free, you don’t even have to download it.
Another fun if momentary diversion is Flee Buster. It’s three games in one and they’re all one game. Whichever you think sounds better. Though be warned, that’s the kind of distinction that has caused schisms in major religions. I doubt Flee Buster will cause any such bother, it’s too endearing and slight. Give it a go.
Last but not least, Poltergeist. It’s an attractive design and it involves fleeing from ghosts, which is in the finest and most ancient videogaming traditions. I’m genuinely impressed by the skill involved in avoiding the bad guys here. Something about the looseness of control over the player when sprinting mixed with the monster’s turning circles makes close scrapes happen an unnerving amount. And the sound effects, though not subtle, are suitably distressing.
If you’ve seen anything exciting, do share. There’s plenty more to discover, I’m sure.