Testing the Waters: Five Games from the Molydeux Jam
By now you’ve probably heard of What Would Molydeux?, the 48-hour game jam inspired by the tweets of Peter Molyneux impersonator @PeterMolydeux. The concept is brilliant enough to deserve repeating: in late 2009, an anonymous game developer formed the @PeterMolydeux account as an act of whimsy. After a series of tweets riffing on Project Milo, he struck on the idea of coming up with the same sort of insanely ambitious high-concept game ideas that the real Molyneux is (in)famous for. Over two years later, the majority of his approximately 700 tweets are novel game concepts, such as “Game in which you control a waterfall and must travel the world hiding outdoor passages from adventurers,” or “Imagine a platformer where upon landing on the floor you create earthquakes destroying tribes of little people. Would you still jump?”
This past weekend, the impossible happened: these tweets became a reality, with nearly 300 games produced by globally-dispersed teams over the course of a 48-hour game jam. And while there’s been much coverage of the event itself (and even the development process) the jury is still out on the actual product. So, using a random number generator to make my selections, I waded into the archive and came back with thoughts on these five games:
#283: Good Night Molly
The tweet: “What if the pause button was a weapon? Until developers think outside the box we’re going downhill.”
The Premise: “In Goodnight Molly you play as a little girl confronting her nightmares in the middle of the night. While her eyes are closed Molly’s imagination runs wild and her nightmares multiply. If Molly is feeling brave enough she can open her eyes and confront her fears, causing the nightmares to collapse upon one another.”
The Play: Molly has a rather strange imagination. She conjures up fantastic monsters – really, the art is great – but there are only three varieties: a small, Cthuluified version of Mr. Potato Head; a disturbing, bucktoothed cross between Sackboy and Barney the Dinosaur; and the requisite flaming demon dog heads. The first two shamble along the ground, and upon touching Molly the game will be lost. Molly doesn’t have any weapons, and her jump is meager. But she can, of course, pause time. The trick is that this doesn’t affect the demon dogs (demon dogs live outside of time, donchaknow) who immediately come tumbling down, hopefully crushing the other nightmares.
The developers get points for executing the concept in a playable manner, but – perhaps inevitably for a game produced in so short a time – it doesn’t have much lasting value. The game’s constructed in an arcade style, where more monsters appear as you rack up nightmare eliminations, but Molly’s mobility is so limited that there quickly becomes a point where there’s not much the player can do other than stand in a corner and repeatedly press the pause button, hoping the demon dogs properly reset over the next batch of monsters before you’re toast.
But the concept fundamentally works, and could be easily expanded to all manner of levels involving pausing and falling objects (though, of course, Braid has already toyed with this). The developers seem to have originally planned this as an iOS game, and with a little polish this could make a great commute companion.
The Tweet: “Romantic parkour game in which you and the love of your life must hold hands and jump around a city evading death and injury.”
The Premise: “Imagine yourself underwater, drowning desperately. The only way to make you able to breathe and survive there is to get close to your loved one and hug him/her with a passion.”
The Play: Woah. While Good Night Molly took the most literal possible mechanical implementation and spruced it up with some snazzy art, Lover developer Su Zhang apparently felt that Molydeux’s tweet wasn’t out there enough and made the game take place underwater…and added an entirely new mechanic. The obvious thing would be to have the player control the couple as a single character (think the Ice Climbers in Super Smash Bros.), but Zhang opted to have the player control them via separate input methods. The boy moves in the direction pressed on the arrow keys, while the girl simply moves towards the location of the mouse cursor.
Their breath bars are constantly going down, and placing the kids in close proximity only slows the decline a bit. Eventually, I realized that they really did have to hug – using the dual controls, the player must push them against each other (really, it’s not as dirty as it sounds!) and hold the hug for as long as possible before being forced to flee the giant squids.
Interestingly, the game doesn’t end if one partner dies; but there is no way to refill the breath meter at that point, leaving the remaining partner a few more seconds of life (and scoring potential) before succumbing to the deep. It’s a lovely little game which fills me with the warm fuzzies before I remember that it’s a tragedy and that the protagonists are doomed to die from drowning/hypochondria/tentacle-lashings.
The Tweet: “Imagine a constant rumble in a pad throughout the game, your heartbeat. Then at the end, you die and it just stops. Physical emotion.”
The Premise: “Escape the desert. Press A to beat heart faster. Avoid death.”
The Play: Remember when rumble was new and exciting? And then became passé? And then the PS3 didn’t come with rumble and everyone complained? Rumble is like a tactile subwoofer; it doesn’t usually call attention to itself, but you’ll notice once it’s taken away. HeartBeat, on the other hand, demands that you focus all your attention on the rumble and use its whirring motors to guide you. It’s novel enough to justify the play.
You play as some dude stuck in a desert, making a desperate march to civilization. You have to manage your pace by pressing A, and your heart rate is reflected through synchronized heartbeat sounds and gamepad vibrations. There’s something really unnerving about having your heartbeat reflected back to you so overtly, and the feedback is so tangible that I quickly forgot that the pulse wasn’t actually mine. This made it all the more alarming when my character EXPLODED after having made it through only 70 meters of desert. Now I’m sad. Mission accomplished?
#259: Shake, Rattle and Glow
The Tweet: “Imagine carrying a radioactive baby in a pitch black environment, your baby would act as a torch. Rocking the baby intensifies the glow etc”
The Premise: “You have to progress thru the level, using radiation to open doors, find secrets, and kill enemies.”
The Play: “You have foolishly chosen to bring your child to work on ‘bring your child to work day’ at the lab,” the opening text explains. “A terrible accident has made your baby radioactive.” Damn! I hate it when that happens!
I run through the level, shaking my baby like there’s no tomorrow. And there isn’t, for the baby. “A dingo ate your baby!” declares an Australian voice apparently unaware that that joke is 20 years past its prime. You see, you can only shake your baby 7 times before it dies.
The game is, in fact, one small in-joke. Damage to the player is communicated via the Wilhelm Scream, and there’s a secret where you get sent to clown school. And, uh, that’s it. The game isn’t actually finished: damage to the player does nothing, and there is no “next level” to proceed to despite the end-level message insisting there is. I can’t even figure out what shaking the baby *does*. This is par for the course for these game jams, and the ability to see unfinished concepts (dead babies, if you will) is part of their charm. But only for a little while. Next game!
The Tweet: “Game where you are a coin being passed around. Must travel as far as possible, placing yourself in ideal places to be picked up and transported.”
The Premise: “More of a programming exercise than a game: You use the arrow keys to “travel” the grid, and your score is based on how many squares you uncover. Various randomized tiles can give you lots of points at once, or even reset and re-randomize your map to continue scoring more points!”
The Play: I fear programming, but I gave it a shot anyway. I am immediately awarded with an a capella backing track. Sorry, Lover, this is now my favorite.
It’s sort of like minesweeper: roll around, try to find white spaces (good) and birds (also good) and avoid holes (game over). Unlike minesweeper, there is no way to predict where the game-ending holes are. Given that most of my games start with me finding a hole first thing, this makes it decidedly Not Fun. But I like the music.
This representative sampling (which wasn’t even that representative given the sample size!) was a mixed bag at best. It’s also entirely missing the point of this jam. I imagine there are some games in here that fit mainstream definitions of a “good” game, and hopefully these will be dug up by the legions of the internet. But there’s something exciting about even playing the broken ones; I felt like the developer was paying me a compliment by sharing their unfinished work, the interactive doodad they poured caffeinated sweat into over the course of 48 hours. There’s something delightfully democratic about the whole affair, and if I wasn’t such a lazy bugger it would inspire me to make one of my own. And, at a cost of free and an average length of three minutes, it’s not like the barrier of entry is very high. So go on. Try one. You’ll learn something. And probably get some catchy background music stuck in your head while you’re at it.