THE YEAR IN SQUAREBLIND: July – December 2020

By Neil Merrett

The second, and mercifully final part of our look back at 2020 via the myopic view of a self-indulgent videogame blog begins with yet another look at a football game, or rather an anti-football game.

Behold the Kickmen was developed by Dan Marshall as an attempt to build a game from the perspective of someone very much not a fan of real-world football – either as a sport, culture or billion-pound entertainment industry. 

Yet at some point in Mr Marshall’s life as a gamer and developer, he did learn to appreciate the qualities of football videogames such as Sensible Soccer. These are games from the 1990s that brought the pace and heightened action of arcade games to the world of sports ‘simulation’.

So when it came to the challenge of building a football game from the perspective of someone that is uninterested in the real world sport, Marshall sought to evoke the mechanics of a beloved retro football game instead. Being a videogame, he could also throw out the more every day, mundane, real-world aspects of the sport that he feared would get in the way of true gaming action.

Marshall told Squareblind, “I was happy to do without the stuff that slows things down – throw-ins and excessive penalties. Anything that stops the game, I tried to kill off.”

“I was mainly interested in keeping the stuff that I remembered from Sensi on the Amiga, that sense of diddy cool, the satisfying passing, curving the ball into the back of the net. It’s about the feel of football rather than being a 1:1 recreation of it.”

The result is ‘Behold the Kickmen’, which seeks to simulate a not so beautiful game.

Mr Marshall has effectively made an anti-football game that is as much a statement about the people who follow the sport, then it is about the highly-skilled, painfully human athletes that play the game. 

This is a theme reflected not just in Behold the Kickmen’s title and tongue-in-cheek plot, but also through its gameplay, which at times feels utterly subversive in abandoning any aspects of the sport deemed dull or unnecessary.

The game takes place in a kind of parallel world where football is played on a circular pitch with invisible boundary walls that keep the ball constantly in play. Meanwhile, unmarked score zones across the pitch can allow players to get up to three points for a single goal depending how far out a shot is taken.

It is a videogame that functions equally – if not more so – as a satire of real-world football as much as it is a love letter to retro football games. The game’s key function, beyond the standard appeal of letting you build up a championship winning team and pretending to be a strategic mastermind, is to ask how and why anyone would love such a messy, corrupt and compromised sport.

Afterall, how can any true videogame football simulation not account for the sometimes ugly politics and economics that are often the accepted side of the ‘beautiful game’.

You need look no further than Behold the Kickmen’s in-game advertising boards, which at points in the game will urge fans to ‘not be racist’ – something that eerily mirrors initiatives and advertisement barriers that adorn real-world pitches.

Streets of Rogue: a very modern quest to build a complex, chaotic 2D open world

The following month we looked at another ambitious indie title that sought to build a complex, chaotic game world – albeit in a 2D retro-style.

23 years after the release of the original Grand Theft Auto title on the Playstation and homes computers, Streets of Rogue strives to use modern hardware and game development techniques to build a world where the consequences of the player’s actions play out in all manner of ways.

A basic playthrough of Streets of Rogue can flit between instigating and surviving blood splattered street battles, to ‘masterminding’ a brazen attempt to steal a safe by consuming an experimental formula that makes the player a literal in-game giant that can flatten walls and assailants.

There are mechanics from a huge number of games in here. These mechanics range from crime simulators such as GTA, to stealth adventures and twin stick shooters. 

In short, you can play the game in any number of absurd ways.  One approach is to play as an immoral anaesthetist that chloroforms their opponents and rivals.

Another option is to be as a whisky slurping, homeless brawler or an explosives expert.  With each new playthrough, vastly different weapons, tools and playable characters can be unlocked; from bent coppers that walk easily among the game world’s population, to vampires and werewolves that tend to have a harder job of blending into a wary crowd.

One of the more open-ended aspects of the game is the option to customise and create your very own type of character.

Some players may seek to recreate their own billionaire boss within the structures of the game – resulting in a figure that offsets physical frailty by having ever replenishing financial funds at the end of every level and negotiation skills to hire villains and authority figures to do their dirty work.

According to Streets of Rogue developer Matt Dabrowski, the second Grand Theft Auto was an important inspiration for what he called the “goofy top-down chaos that the game often devolves into.”  However, open ended games such as Deux Ex and the first Fallout title were equally important points of reference.

He said, “My goal was to create a 2D immersive sim that allowed you to do a bunch of town-based RPG quests using wildly varying approaches.  Spelunky and Binding of Isaac inspired the rogue-lite aspects of the game.”  

“Rogue-lites were quickly becoming a big genre when I began development, and I wanted to do something with it that no one else was attempting.  Jamming an immersive sim into a rogue-lite seemed like an interesting challenge.”

Squareblind.co.uk asked Dabrowski what had appealed to him in using a 2D approach to build a more complex open world structure that is usually associated with big budget 3D games such as GTA5 or Red Dead Redemption 2 – both from Rockstar games.

He cited programming efficiency as one of the key benefits in opting for a top down approach to gameplay and level design.

Dabrowski said, “The lack of a third dimension and the relative simplicity of art style meant that new structures could be created very quickly.” 

“The other big advantage comes in the form of readability.  A meticulously designed 3D space can be very visually overwhelming, whereas in Streets of Rogue, you can look at a 2D space and immediately understand what everything is and its purpose.  This can also make strategizing/problem-solving easier and more straightforward for the player, since the entire scene is within their view.”

Run, gun and roll

Have you ever noticed how many games these days have a dodge, aerial dive or forward role function?  In September, we looked at this modern phenomenon, such as they exist within game design and development.

The early years of gaming were perfectly encapsulated by the concept of a joystick, a peripheral that consisted of a control stick to simulate the player’s movement and a single ‘fire’ button used to perform an action such as a jump or using a weapon.

The shift over the intervening decades towards more complex controllers saw the introduction of a range of buttons and control inputs to simulate all manner of actions – from manipulating the in-game camera to reloading, switching weapons or hurling platitudes and childish taunts at rival players.

These more complex controllers, with up to at least a dozen or so buttons and multiple thumb sticks,  have become vital to support a range of more action-orientated games and the increased number of choices and actions a player is required to make.

In the year 2020, a button command to dodge or evade – usually in the form of a forward or sideward role – is as common a control option as jump and attack buttons. It is arguably a short hand for the player using guile and skill to outwit their opponents. If you can’t beat them – roll out the way,

Enter the Gungeon, a twin stick shooter first released to multiple platforms in 2016, is a prime example of trying to build a game around the mechanic of shooting and dodging.

In the game, the player can effectively roll through bullets if they perfectly time the peak of their dive. However, hitting a projectile or enemy as they touch the ground results in the player taking damage without an immediate means of returning fire.

Like any decent videogame mechanic, pull the dodge off, and it does look insanely cool – at least until you walk directly into someone else’s shot while busy admiring your sense of skill and spatial awareness.

But for a game about scrimping and striving across literal dungeons for increasingly creative firearms, bullets and modifiers to blow away enemies, perfectly timed rolls are of equal importance to the game’s shooting and aiming.

Forget run and gun games, these days titles such as Enter the Gungeon ask us to embrace the concept of run, shoot, roll and roll again for good measure.

Super Mario Bros at 35

With everything going on this year, you’d be forgiven for not paying much thought to 2020 being the 35th anniversary of the original Super Mario Bros game on the NES/Famicom system.

As well as an opportunity to cash in on its previous Super Mario titles, Nintendo decided to launch a 35-player competitive online version of the game as a free download for the Switch console.

Super Mario Bros 35 mimics a similar approach taken to repurpose the classic puzzle game Tetris into a gruelling 99 player online contest with Tetris 99 last year.

Both games require the player to do their best to play through a beloved classic and determine how best to dump their defeated foes or discarded blocks onto other players.

The choice is boiled down to four options. These relate to either selecting a random target to punish or instead go after the players that are directly attacking you. Alternatively, you could get a huge bonus of coins by being directly responsible for defeating the player deemed to be the one most struggling or most effective at that point of the game.

Part of both games’ appeal as an online multiplayer contest is deciding the best people to target at a specific point of the game and whether it is best to make yourselves known as a significant threat or antagonist to your fellow players. Doing so risks a pile-on that could overwhelm your delicate progress.

Unlike Tetris 99, and the original Super Mario Bros, progress through Mario 35 is not necessarily about getting as far into the game as possible.

The number of levels completed is less relevant when compared to the amount of time left for the player before they die. 

This time can be extended by defeating enemies in certain ways, such as bouncing on as many as possible in a series without hitting the ground, or perfectly timing the use of a power star to blast through as many foes at once – building up your time to a maximum of 400 seconds, while also dropping a tonne of defeated enemies into your opponents’ game.

Gone also is the importance of extra lives. Whereas collecting 100 coins would previously grant you an extra go at the game in Mario Bros, Mario 35 affords the player just one chance of life each game.

Coins therefore serve the process of giving a random power up to a player if they find themselves overwhelmed by multiple Bowsers, Goombas, or perhaps the cloud riding assassin Lakitu, who seeks to rain down spiny death onto a player – regardless what level they are on.  At the cost of just 20 coins, the player may able to take a second hit, gain the ability to lob fireballs, or become temporarily invincible or simply just destroy everything on screen instantly.

Coming upon a perfectly timed power star can suddenly flip a game on its head as you speed through enemies with the spiteful glee of thinking of how they may ruin your opponent’s game – it’s a joyous experience never before present in a Mario game.

This reshaped economy within the game can also suddenly give a storied Mario player the added pleasure of being rewarded for having an encyclopaedic knowledge of secrets hidden in the game’s first level. They can capitalise on their knowledge of a specific world that they may have spent endless hours of their youth literally smashing apart to uncover its treasures and hidden warp zones.

Behind the simplicity of Super Mario Bros 35, lies the classic game mechanics of risk and reward, with no one particular path being necessarily the correct one to land a coveted first place.

In essence, Mario 35 – currently expected to remain free to play for a limited period before being removed from the Switch store in 2021 – reinvents the classic gameplay of Super Mario Bros, while remaining true to the original appeal and design of a gaming icon.

Hades: understanding the appeal of a metaphysical digital soap opera

One of the most critically lauded games to be released during 2020 was Hades, developed by Supergiant Games.

The title, which was released on PC and Nintendo Switch in 2020, combines the action of an isometric brawler, with the gradual progression and steep learning curve of the Dark Souls series. These mechanics are then mashed up with Greek mythology and soap opera-style plotting to create one of the year’s most talked about games.

Hades is not the first ‘Rogue-like’ game to capture the imagination of gamers. 

Hades, Dark Souls and Slay the Spire represent a type of gaming where failure is not itself the end of the game, but the next step in learning and conquering its mechanics – trying to be better, stronger or luckier next time round.

One of Hades’ greatest innovations is to build a rich narrative around the constant repetitive grind that is shaped in both small and large ways by the actions taken by the player as Zagreus, ‘Prince of the Underworld’.

It is a game where the average player is going to die an awful lot.  So the player may as well make the most of their constant return to the start of their game world and share what they have learned with the in-game characters that serve as friends, family and foe, if not a mixture of all three.

Afterall, what is death and rebirth in Hades but another part of the day to day mundanity of the mythological underworld of Tartarus – “the infernal regions of ancient Greek mythology”.

The frustration of failing to topple a boss on their last gasp of life during your umpteenth confrontation sees your character rising from a bloody bath tub with the option to use your latest haul of currency and souls to power up your abilities and weapons for the next run.

Hades takes this mechanic and advances its story depending on your recurring interactions with its vast cast of gods, lost souls and the damned.

The first time of defeating a boss for instance will permanently transform your relationship with them and your interactions.  Others may just obstinately refuse to even acknowledge falling to the player lest the very dynamics of patriarchy be upended – a not so fantastical phenomenon.

After a punishing and fruitless run through the game’s randomly selected series of isometric dungeons – a player might still take some solace in aiding the slow and painful reconciliation of a former muse and their beloved musician/mark.

Over time, your fiercest rivals are transformed into more nuanced, complex figures that find themselves punished and tormented by the player’s gradual success.  As one of the characters points out after dozens of defeats at the hands of Zagreus, is the player a more skilful or accomplished warrior for defeating them endlessly, or the logical end-product of being rewarded with stronger abilities and powerups for their constant failures at the game?

What is so charming about the game, alongside its solid and ‘crunchy combat, is how simple and effective gameplay mechanics, clever visual and sound design, and engaging writing can all be used to revitalise stories and concepts that have been around for generations.

Fate as a gameplay mechanic

Squareblind saw out 2020 with two games that have been perennial faves at SB towers for the last few years.

Slay the Spire and Dead Cells are not new games, having been around in early access and other forms for a number of years.  They also represent very different genres. Dead Cells is a action-packed platformer and brawler hybrid that can rely on a player’s split second timing and reactions, while Slay the Spire is a deck-building title that rewards more careful thinking and forward planning before taking action.

Both require the player to carefully consider how best to use the tools and weapons a player is awarded or lumbered with during a playthrough to ensure the odds are in their favour.  In essence, both require you to stack your deck favourably, regardless of whether you are playing with cards, swords or mounted turret guns.

We do not always have a say in what life makes of us.  Somewhere through the mish mash of our lives, many of us rely on a combination of natural born talent, the kindness and nurturing of others, charity, education or just blind dumb luck in order to become our definitive selves. For better or worse, we all have to do the best we can in life to get by with what we’re given.

To simplify life using an old poker maxim, ‘You play the cards you are dealt.’  But sometimes, we all need a bit of help or luck along the way.

In both Slay the Spire and Dead Cells, this concept manifests itself in providing a player with a deck of cards, or a set of items respectively that can be upgraded or swapped out during the game to bestow abilities and statistical improvements on a player.  These can be weaponised for defensive or offensive benefits.

Dead Cells is a fast-paced 2D action platformer where you choose multiple paths through a cursed kingdom while switching out your items sand weapons, along with store-bought bonuses, in the hope of getting a perfect combination of tools to suit a particular playing-style for that run.

Once successful in your quest, or upon failing in battle, all this hard work is lost, save for ‘cells’ that can be reinvested into special bonuses or new weapons to help stack the odds in your favour by getting higher level goods and items next time round.

Slay the Spire meanwhile, is a deck building card game where the player is charged solely with collecting cards. These can be used to defeat monsters, demons and other eldritch horrors that seek to use time and other elements against you.

Each card corresponds with a specific attack or defence action, with every run starting out with a fairly limited number of options.  From there, the game doesn’t really change.

There is no focus on split second instinctive dodging or blocks, precision platforming or gruelling hand-to-hand combat.  You simply take turns to play a set of randomly distributed cards from your deck.  Some turns may give you a favourable deal that can defeat an enemy quickly and decisively, while others may leave you – in some cases – literally toothless to strike back against a foreboding foe. 

But don’t worry about a bad hand, perhaps next turn, you might get the perfect collection of cards you have painstakingly collected – maybe everything will fall into place like a player hopes.  The ultimate gamble as it were. 

That brings us to the end of this year’s retrospective. Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, we hope it is with level of comfort and safety.  Have a happy New Year and we look forward to seeing you again in 2021.

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