Here’s a concept I picked up from my room mates over the summer who interned at Pandemic Studios. Every week, one member of the team would pick a game and give a presentation on its strengths and weaknesses. There’s a lot to be learned about design by paying attention to the details that many players may overlook at first glance.
As a personal experiment, I’m challenging myself to do one “game decon” every month for the next year. It’s one way I think I can work to make myself a better designer while providing some interesting reading material. I’ll try to not just pick “good” games, but this week I’ll start with one of my recent favorites…
Developer: Twisted Pixel
Price: 800 Microsoft Moon Dollars ($10 USD)
Length: 4-10 hours
‘Splosion Man was conceived by Twisted Pixel’s lead designer, Sean Riley, as a game about “a guy who splodes in a world only made of glass.” The team started production in the middle of developing The Maw, their first original title. The game puts the player in control of a strange man-creature who “splodes” all the time without explanation. The game is controlled with the joystick and one button (which makes the character explode). The game’s plot is nearly non-existent, but the little story it offers is derived from its setting in the labs of the evil “Big Science” corporation.
I’ve always been a sucker for good XBLA games, but ‘Splosion Man might be the best yet. I’ve told a few people that I think it’s the best game since Portal. After finishing up the single player game and getting about halfway through the co-op, I still feel like it’s at least the most satisfying gameplay experience since exploring Aperture Science. Both games take place in laboratories, and both games showcase cake as the ultimate object of desire. Twisted Pixel makes the homage obvious.
‘Splosion Man features 50 single player levels, 50 co-op levels, and 3 boss battles. The core goal of the game is to use timing and skill to cross obstacles and reach the safe room at the end of each level. Puzzle elements rely almost exclusively on wall jumping and using exploding barrels for propulsion, but it’s the player’s timing of those elements that adds complexity to the game as it progresses.
The puzzle design in ‘Splosion Man is significantly better than any platformer I’ve played in the past decade and every bit as good as the test chambers of Portal. Solutions are creative and often brilliant, yet usually obvious. I never found myself blaming the game when I failed a level – I always knew exactly what I did wrong, and although it was occasionally frustrating, the sense of accomplishment when I finally had a successful attempt was well worth it.
The co-op gameplay in particular is wonderfully fresh. It’s impossible to progress through a level without working with your teammate(s), and there’s no advantage to doing “better” than the other players. For the most part, it’s easy to pick up and play with a friend because of the intuitive one button mechanic, but the complexity of the puzzles begins to rivals those in the single player version towards the end.
The boss battles are a nice change of pace, but unlike the rest of the game, they are beaten largely by trial-and-error. I felt like I had to die before I even had a chance at getting it right, and as a result they were my least favorite part of the experience. Fortunately, though, there are only three of them!
Especially after listening to accessibility complaints about my games, I have a great deal of respect for developers who make intuitive tutorials. My respect for Twisted Pixel is even greater, because they managed to make a game that doesn’t need a tutorial. As shown in this video of the first level, they throw the player into the action with no backstory and no explanation whatsoever.
How did they do this? The intro cutscene is just 11 seconds long, yet it explains everything you need to know about the game. You are a crazy man who explodes. Scientists are scared of you. When you splode out of your cell, you kill a scientist and look happily onward at the other one who runs for his life. Then you have control. Because it’s funny to see yourself explode, you do it. And pressing any of the face buttons will do just that. Twisted Pixel assumes that the player has a brain – after all, they were able to purchase the game off Xbox Live Arcade – and therefore makes the assumption that they will be willing to experiment with the gameplay rather than forcing a step-by-step tutorial.
Affordances of the 2.5D Camera
‘Splosion Man is controlled entirely in a 2D plane, but the developer’s use of unconventional camera angles captured my interest. Playing the game with co-workers at EA, I noticed some players were annoyed with the camera and blamed it for their deaths. Others didn’t mention it, but talked about how the game made them feel awesome.
There are some areas where the camera goes a little bit crazy and that can be annoying – particularly when you backtrack and the game doesn’t expect it. At the same time, it creates immersion in a 2D world. Subtle tilts that focus on the character’s expressions are common and feel so natural that they go unnoticed after a while, but the camera quickly pans around while zooming in and out during certain sequences to create a layer of chaos on top of the exploding man. Leaving the camera with a pure 2D view simply wouldn’t have been as effective in supporting the game’s mood.
Sense of Humor
‘Splosion Man’s charm is also rather Portal-esque. Scientists explode into steaks, shattering glass creates heavenly bell tones, and a finding the hidden cake in every level results in a triumph of childish joy. There’s something inherently funny about a character who runs around and explodes “just because,” but Twisted Pixel’s ability to express so much emotion through him in absence of plot is remarkable. Destructoid’s Ashley Davis wrote a great article about game’s use of idle animations – a touch that is often overlooked in modern games. ‘Splosion Man will run around with his arms stretched out making airplane noises, giggle and laugh at every turn, make pop culture references without being cheesy, and use fat donut-eating scientists as shields for laser turrets along his way out of the Big Science facility.
The game’s marketing campaign further illustrates the developer’s excellent sense of humor. Check out this viral video in the style of a really bad 80’s inspirational ballad, featuring a live-action rendition of the character:
When you ‘splode it lifts me higher
as I soar on wings on fire
You’re the bro that I have chosen
’cause you’re the ‘splode beneath my ‘splosion
‘Splosion Man‘s music is jazzy and upbeat all the way through. The developer has released the entire soundtrack for free on their website if you care to give it a listen. It suits the mood of the game quite well. In-game, it makes subtle use of procedural music alteration. When you’re running around at a leisurely pace, you hear trumpets and pianos twiddling along with the melody. When you’re exploding, they change into a grungy electric guitar. It’s something most players probably won’t even notice, but it added another layer of depth to the game for me. The change in music makes the game feel more intense while you fly through the air, timing jumps from wall to wall and barrel to barrel. But when you’re standing around or running and laughing at the character’s animations, the music goes right back to being happy. It serves to reinforce the other aspect’s of the game’s presentation.
Twisted Pixel just announced their third original title, “Comic Jumper,” at the Penny Arcade Expo. It appears to be a side scrolling platformer/shooter and maintains the comedic tone of The Maw and ‘Splosion Man.
The Good: Easy to learn, hard to master. Hilariously wacky. Great value for ten bucks. Decent replayability. High production values. Excellent music.
The Bad: Occasionally frustrating levels. Huge difficulty spikes. Questionable UI design.
That’s it for this decon. I hope you enjoyed it, and please share your thoughts on the game below!