Ninety Games in Two Decades

~In which I celebrate a game-making milestone by indulging in some navel-gazing bullshit~

This website is now home to a full ninety (90) free games! The earliest game on the site dates back to September 1, 1997’s truly embarrassing ZZT game Bob: The Adventure and runs up to June 7, 2018’s Liz & Laz: Episode 1: The Control Cubes. This isn’t as interesting a number as 100 will be–I expect I’ll hit that some time next year–but if you’ll forgive me, dear reader, I’m gonna get all retrospective for a bit anyway.

Relatedly, the release of my 90th game coincides roughly with the twenty-year anniversary of the launch of my first website, Newt’s Pond, which first went up on Geocities on June 10, 1998. It was a true Geocities site, and you can see a facsimile of what it looked like at launch archived at Neocities. The site would change over the years, but it was initially home to two webpages, ZZT Planet (a place to download my (Newt’s) games) and Moo@You, a page that advocated role-playing as an obnoxious cow in random chat rooms. Before the launch of Newt’s Pond, my handful of ZZT games had been released on my cousin Glynth’s site.

Liz & Laz is a fitting milestone for a personal game-making history that starts in ZZT. I was inspired to create it when revisiting some old ZZT “engine games,” particularly platformers. Engine games were ZZT worlds that used ZZT’s standard, uneditable four-direction player character to touch other objects that would manipulate a scripted player object. Playing some other vintage platformers led me back to thinking about some of my own. This dual player mechanic is actually pretty interesting!

My first engine game was Punctuation People, made in the summer of 1998, a game that began its life as an attempt to make a Super Mario Bros. game in ZZT (all the game’s enemies are modeled on Mario enemies, a fact somewhat obscured by the ASCII character set). It was my first game that wasn’t a sloppy “comedy” adventure game. I was thinking of Punctuation People with its awkward occupation of a sizable portion of screen real estate. Like a lot of engine platformers, it surrounded the player on all sides with control objects. I was also thinking of my 1999 Lemmings clone Zem! 2 in which the player instead has indirect control over Zem, who marches forward mindlessly, but the player can have Zem perform actions by moving themselves along a row of buttons and touching them. The additional movement the main player object is required to perform impacts the rhythm of the game significantly.

 

Liz & Laz started out from this observation about a ZZT genre as something intended as a kind of intentionally frustrating homage; I thought I’d make it a brief sketch of a game that I’d tinker with for a couple nights and then release half as a joke. I was surprised at how compelling I found the mechanic to play when testing it, though. Soon I was polishing up animations and fine-tuning level design (I was also inspired visually by the glorious platformer games by Kabusoft which I’m in the middle of writing up for my new review blog Jots on Dots). I reinterpreted the ZZT command objects to a human-sized gamepad and decided I’d make it a two-tiered platformer, in which Liz in the control console jumps on gamepad buttons to make her unseeing partner Laz walk, jump, and shoot.

I’m pretty happy with how it turned out and when I counted up how many games I had on the site, I was delighted that my 90th game had so many connections to places I’d been before.

It is perhaps unsuprising that at this phase in my game-making I’m reflecting on my past work a lot. The 90 games housed here are spotty in quality and it’s sometimes a little weird to me that unfunny “comedy” games I made when I was 14 sit presented here with almost equal weight as games I’ve spent three months polishing. But I like that uncurated retrospective of my own work. And I’ve been taking surprising inspiration from it, as well as revisiting and rethinking the scenes I was a part of.

My output has been spotty, with long lulls. In 2012 alone, I released 38 games, including Caverns of Khron, which I worked on for 11 months–all while attending school full-time, working part-time, and relocating to Japan for a year of study abroad (I should note that 25 of these were made in the span of two weeks for Pirate Kart V)! This was a giddy period of experimentation and exploration, when I was getting good enough at Game Maker to make more complex games quickly, was standardizing and streamlining my bag of programming tricks, and was brimming with mechanical and aesthetic ideas I hadn’t tried yet, all drawing off the infectious creative energy at Glorious Trainwrecks. Between 2013 and 2015, I released no games for almost two full years, occupied by other interests, life events, and the beginning of grad school. Most importantly, making games didn’t sound all that fun for a little while.

My creative impulses ebb and flow. Since ending my game-making hiatus in the spring of 2015 with one of my personal favorites among my games, Shadow Wrangler (like Laz & Liz another Lemmings-inspired game that could be defined as “platforming by proxy”), I’ve been making a few games a year and tending toward larger, more polished projects. It’s harder for me to sit down and make a game in four hours like I used to six years ago; I’ve become increasingly interested in stronger game cohesion and narratives, accessible player experiences, and more careful, focused development in my practice.

I have some very exciting plans yet on the horizon in 2018, and some of it is going to involve revisiting unfinished projects and a return to old titles and ideas (a return to Zem! might even be on the table). At the same time, I’m really not sure where things go from here. Liz & Laz, like a lot of my games, started as a lark that spun into something else entirely (and a 1,000-word, self-obsessed ramble). I’m about to head deep into developing a game for the Wumpus Jam I’m hosting (please join!) and I only have a vague sense of what that’s going to look like. Thanks for playing!

(And thanks Alexis JAnson for STK!)

Jots on Dots, a New Review Blog

I’m happy to announce the launch of my blog Jots on Dots: Thoughts on Digital Games. In order to explain what the blog is about and what I hope to accomplish with it, I’ll just quote the mission statement from the site’s About page:

Purpose

Jots on Dots: Thoughts on Digital Games is a blog that seeks to offer two solutions to problems I have: one, I’d like to write about games more; and two, I’d like to see small games written about more.

There are a handful of great sites that regularly recommend (mostly) new free and indie game releases (including some personal favorites like Warp Door, hmtwvcicbid, and FreeIndieGa.me), which tend to follow the freeindiegam.es model of zero or minimal commentary. I love this work and it’s supremely valuable. These sites also post a much higher volume of games than I will be able to here.

But we are in an age where there are thousands of games released every month–tens of thousands every year!–and hardly anything gets written about any of them, save for pre-relese hype and at-release reviews for the work of larger studios and a handful of celebrity indies. As a person who values criticism and scholarship, this dearth of discussion pains me a bit. You see responses on feedback store pages and creators’ websites, but these tend to be either written primarily for the benefit of the game creator or at as a sort of advertisement to the potential customer. Feedback isn’t really commentary. There are a lot of great, small games out there in the world and I want to do my small purpose to give them the consideration I believe they are worthy of.1

Here, I’m looking to write short reflections and essays (we’ll use the sloppy term “review”) that seek to work out in words what I think these games offer. Yes, I want to recommend games I enjoy, but I also want to do a kind of work on these games to expand their seen-ness, including indie games from previous years, many of which risk getting lost to time completely as they sink further and further into the back catalog of indie game portals.

Scope

I’m not limiting myself to new releases. Nor am I necessarily limiting myself to indie games. Expect to see some write-ups of old DOS games, vintage indies, and the occasional big-name game I’ve been playing lately. I’m sensitive to the fact that small, free games especially tend to be labors of love by individuals, so I don’t expect you’ll see much negativity here.

I’m a game-maker myself (see Whatnot Games). I’m also a scholar of Japanese literature and popular culture. The games you’ll see written about here will reflect my intensely personal tastes (and may reflect whatever games I’m playing to research current projects). I’m also looking to introduce small, interesting Japanese games that will be accessible to people who don’t know Japanese.

Liz & Laz: The Control Cubes

 

When a freak accident destabilizes the stabilizer, the control cubes go missing and Liz and Laz must work together to secure them! Laz transports into a hazardous landscape and relies on directions from Liz to keep him safe.

As Liz, you’ll issue controls to Laz remotely. Liz uses a life-sized game controller to tell Laz to move, jump, and shoot. She jumps on buttons to guide Laz to the control cubes.

  • twelve control cubes across twelve stages
  • Colorful, dangerous world
  • Inventive indirect control system provides unique platforming action
  • Completely reconfigurable keyboard and gamepad controls

Features music by celestialghost8, Snabisch, Juhani Junkala, and Alex McCulloch

Initially designed to be a quickly dashed-off, intentionally frustrating game, I ended up really liking what this became. Inspired by ZZT Engine games (including my own Punctuation People), Lemmings, and the games Nanairo ringo and Kaerazu no mori by Kabusoft.

So I Heard You’re a Fish

“so i heard you’re a fish”

This is my first Bitsy game. I’ve been wanting to make something in Bitsy for a while. When I came across this Sudden Death Game Jam (as a result of talking to the wonderful wengwengweng about the game 粉色鱼鱼 Find the Pink Fish), I had my one-hour game idea. I’m looking forward to coming up with bit-sized, Bitsy-sized projects in the future.

Knight Moves

KNIGHT MOVES is a game created for Sophie Houlden’s Chess Jam on itch.io.

The game features four difficulty levels and an unlockable endless mode in which you play a knight fighting against an all-pawn computer-controlled army.

A game like this doesn’t exactly need a story, but I took the familiar conflict setting as an opportunity to contextualize the game with my first illustrated cinematics in years. And also the public debut of the dialogue/text engine that has been part of the Game Maker tool kit I developed over six years ago.

Koi Puncher MMXVIII

 

After months of EXTREME, INTENSE development, the sequel to the 2012 Pirate Kart V classic is ready for you and your friends to play! It features more than you ever could have expected you wanted from a game about punching koi.

KOI PUNCHER MMXVIII has all-new maps, eight characters, and support for up to four players, both competitive and non-competitive! Further, it has exciting new challenge game modes. Play for high scores to unlock and discover new secrets!

Additionally, KOI PUNCHER MMXVIII‘s koi have a complex system of genetics, yielding hundreds of possible variations as they spawn new generations. Use your Home Pond to maintain a permanent crop of cultivated koi for breeding and punching.

Features music by nene, Marcelo Fernandez, Oddroom, Joth, pant0don, used under creative commons licenses.

The game is fully playable in both English and Japanese.

CYANiDE

    

Set up stages by fixing the positions of balance levers. When you’re ready, touch the ELECTROPOST and convert yourself into an ELECTROBALL so you can safely roll to the GOAL.

Fifteen single-screen stages.

AND IT IS ALL CYAN.

Press X to jump. Press V to restart stage. Press R to return to title screen.

I began work on this game in February 2016, intending it to be just a weekend project, and showed an unfinished version at an Indie Game Play Test Night in Eugene, Oregon at Shoryuken League. I meant to release the game very shortly thereafter, but wanted to explore the elements further with a few more levels. The game was placed on hold as I got increasingly busy with school, teaching, and then went and got married. I dusted the files off in October 2017

Dr. Creepinscare’s Pumpkin Patch Match

  

Beloved spooky character Dr. Creepinscare is here with a special Halloween challenge just for you! Arrange the similarly-carved pumpkins into patterns as they fall to earn points and take on Dr. Creepinscare’s own high score! Get help from his pet kitty cat and disappear skulls for a big bonus!

Make 2×2, 3×2, or 3×3 (with something else in the middle) pumpkin patch shapes. The bigger shapes earn you more points!

This game features a voice performance by Boris, a most excellent cat.

I like to imagine this as a forgotten licensed game for an obscure children’s TV property.

Explobers

 

A project I worked on through most of 2017, Explobers is a unique puzzle platformer that requires you to use multiple player characters to solve difficult challenges by using their powers (and lives) to destroy terrain and build blocks that help navigate through over eighty puzzles. Along with Caverns of Khron, this is my largest game project to date.

Explobers has a trailer. It also has an official website.

Explobers is released as donationware. If you enjoy it, please consider the suggested donation of $4.00 USD by purchasing it on itch.io or GameJolt.