The History of A-J Games: Part Two

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To catch up on the story to date, you can read part one here.

The bulk of my Game-Maker career involved a backwards design process whereby I would think up a character, then write a story, then decide how to incorporate it all into a game. I built levels with little thought to the characters’ abilities or the game’s broader themes. I had that amateur notion that games were a battle of wills between the player and designer, so my games tended to be unfairly difficult. It was a mess.

Further confusing the issue was my process for choosing my characters. Life with my parents was like tap dancing in a mine field. Most of my energy was devoted to avoiding random triggers, which amounted to a sort of high-stakes guessing game. To keep in good graces, and thereby to be left to my ways, it was wise to run my activities past my mother and to leak details very slowly.

I recall that all of my pitches involved specific things, facts, that I thought would distract her. If nothing went click, and those gears failed to turn, it was safe to progress. Once, scrambling for an idea, I suggested a bear riding on a seahorse. I think that got a pass, but I couldn’t figure out how to spin a game out of it.

I had spun my first game from my comic, Andrew-Jonathan; that had been a success, both creatively and domestically, so for a while I kept returning to that mine. There was certainly enough to draw from. The world of my strip barely touched the page. It spanned a junkyard of irrelevant whimsies, from Easter toys to Apple Jacks prizes, wound together with half-remembered snatches of Susan Cooper novels.

One of the larger recurring themes is Cousin Zoom, a timid librarian with a prophetic name. For reasons unclear, Andrew-Jonathan’s grandfather is a wizard. Some wires crossed, his cousin found himself in the wrong place at the right time, and that cousin became a superhero.

Although Zoom gets the disguise right — he not only drops the Clark Kent spectacles; he dons a Zorro style mask — he keeps the same name in both guises. He also becomes a hazard to friend and foe alike.

Inspired by Taito’s Superman arcade game, I chose to do something a little different with RSD’s engine. I alternated side-scrolling action levels with overhead shooting segments, and I ramped the difficulty way down to make the game accessible.

The lower difficulty worked together with some new concepts to gloss over some of my earlier awkwardness. Flight removed the logical problems of platform mechanics, and a bulky sprite with full player control improved collision in the shooter levels. The engine was still awkward, but the game worked within its box.

Zoom cohered well enough that people seemed to actually play it. Although I have no metric, it looks like the most widely distributed of my games. Often listings would describe it as a children’s game, presumably because of the bear. That always confused me, as even with its lowered difficulty the game is still pretty tough.

Around the turn of the millennium Zoom turned up on a few major download sites. I recall that ZDnet gave it three stars out of five, which although unremarkable made me rather proud. By that point the game was five years old, running in a weird engine, and far from my best work — but someone who reviewed this stuff for a living still found it adequate. So, hey.

Some of the spin-offs are less obvious. Ralph, for instance, only made a single bizarre appearance in the comic, and in the game his backstory is very different to what I imagined elsewhere.

Ralph is an orphaned chicken-duck who dallies as a consulting detective. What complicates this task is that the only word he seems to speak is his own name. For the game I transplanted him to a world where all life forms are powered by precious green crystals, and gave him a range of surreal terrain to navigate in his search for a portal to Earth. Since Ralph was a detective, the mechanics were based around searching for objects and using a magnifying glass to focus beams of light at enemies.

Of all my Game-Maker games, Fluffy Ralph is probably closest to RSD’s intended use for its game engine. It’s a top-down, vaguely Zelda-like action adventure. There’s nothing complicated or subversive in the mechanics. Ralph was just a simple game to develop. I even borrowed many of the graphical elements from Zoom. Perhaps this lack of a struggle shows in the design, as compared to some of my other games very little feels out-of-place.

I’m unsure how far the game traveled, but I have received comments. It seems that people remember Fluffy Ralph, and remember it favorably. As usual the later levels become needlessly difficult, but presumably only a few have known that torment.

This next spin-off is a little harder to explain. Remember Wacky WallWalkers? I used to collect the things. To prevent them from drying out, I would preserve them in clear film canisters filled with dishwashing liquid. Somehow this turned into a running joke.

They were never exactly characters in the comic; more like a recurring concept. Yet I always felt empathy for the WallWalkers. They seemed sincere, with their huge eyes and startled expressions. The film tubes weren’t just a grotesquerie; I wanted to protect the Walkers from decay. This, I suppose, plays into the scenario of Octolris.

The game describes the titular hero as the last of the slime octopi; to avoid becoming soup, he embarks on a treacherous journey back to the sea. The levels he navigates make very little sense. He travels from an ambiguous green and purple area to the seashore, then to a disco. Between standard levels, Octolris explores tight mazes — storm drains, air ducts, plumbing.

The character can walk, leap in three directions, and climb up or down certain walls. The mechanics here are sort of unusual. Jumping is an all-or-nothing thing; when you press the key, you travel in a specific arc and land in a specific place. I wanted to address the weirdness of jumping in earlier games like A-J’s Quest, which encourages the player to spam the controls in order to glitch into higher and farther jumps. The mechanic works well; it’s just that I often fail to account for it in the level design, which makes some areas harder than necessary.

The other oddity is the wall-climbing. To reflect the way that Wacky WallWalkers lose their stickiness and slowly dry out, I chose to mete out the octopus slime. One problem with this idea is that, guess what, I failed to account for it in the level design — so if you run out of slime, you’re stuck. There is no other way to complete most levels. The other problem is that Game-Maker does not provide a display for special counters, and so the player has no way of understanding how much slime is left. I got around these problems by overwhelming the player with slime refills. Instead I should have just ditched the limit.

If you will, Octolris seemed to have more legs than many of my games. I see it pop up here and there, and I have gotten some positive feedback.

Despite their origins, all of these games pulled together fairly well — at least, by my standards of the time. Their designs did reflect key aspects of their concepts, and those concepts served to humanize the mechanics.

Probably their greatest asset is the shared background. Although by necessity I entered the design process through the wrong door, I had already thought about the characters and scenarios enough that there was at least a sense that I knew what I was doing. The result is that the games are a little more holistic than by rights they should be. The result of that is that they stick in the mind a little, and that people seem to have reacted fairly well.

The story continues in Part Three