How to make a game backwards

How to make a game backwards
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

March 11th 2014 at 3:39PM

Danish indie Megafuzz discusses Spoiler Alert, a love letter to classic platformers that you play in reverse

Video games have been around for so long that its history is now rich enough to warrant more than a fuel hilarious send-ups.

From the retro references packed into the opening hour of Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph to Nintendo’s quirky Wii U mash-up NES Remix, plenty of companies have given gaming and its tropes a good roasting – and now Danish indie Megafuzz is having a go with its new title Spoiler Alert.

A 2D platformer not unlike the early Mario games, the title sees players going through the usual motions of collecting coins, leaping bottomless chasms, and bopping enemies on the head. The twist is, the game is played backwards.

The main character runs full pelt backwards and gamers must rely on quick instinct to reach the end – which is actually the beginning – of the level. With us so far?

Along the way, they must undo all of the hero’s actions from his previous run. If they come across an dead enemy, they need to jump on them to bring them back to life. Coins hanging in the air must be avoided, while the faded shadow of coins must be passed through to replace the coin that was originally there. Failure to match the previous run causes a time paradox and ends the game.

A little confused? Don’t be – one look at the trailer and Spoiler Alert’s gameplay becomes clear.

So where did Megafuzz come up with the idea for this?

“The game was initially conceived at the 48-hour IndieTAW gamejam in Viborg, Denmark, and the theme was ‘resistance’,” Megafuzz founder Jeff Jensen (pictured) tells Develop.

“While most people were thinking in friction-based games, for some strange reason I was toying with ‘resistance of mainstream in videogaming’. And just about the most mainstream videogaming thing I could think of was that you had to complete the game. I would much rather UNcomplete it. Then it kind of got going from there.”

You would think that creating a game for players to ‘uncomplete’ would be simple. Predicting where players will go in today’s open-ended games causes all manner of logistical issues, but guiding them down a pre-set path should be much more straightforward, particularly in a basic genre like 2D platforming.

Not so, says Jensen.

“Actually, doing game design in reverse turned out to be more confusing than we initially thought, because the ‘left-to-right’ path is so engrained in our minds that we don't even think about it anymore.

“I remember designing an entire boss fight, showing it to my colleague Martin who was satisfied, and that was it... Until it dawned upon us both that I had, without thinking about it, designed the entire thing playing as a ‘normal’ game – which meant that the fireballs were being shot instead of swallowed, the boss was actually being killed one life at a time instead of being resurrected, and so on.

“So there we were, two developers who had been looking at the same thing, acknowledging it and liking it – and only then realising it wasn't in reverse. That just goes to show how engrained it is – at least in us – so it did take a while to wrap our minds properly around doing completely reverse-logic game design. I think that was the biggest challenge.”

STRIKE THAT, REVERSE IT

And the challenges increased when the team began thinking about individual game aspects. Spoiler Alert is styled as a parody of classic platformers – particularly the Super Mario Bros series – so Megafuzz wanted to flip as many of the genre’s clichés on their head: fireballs, bouncy hammers, gold coins, enemies that die when jumped on. Some of the basic functions and behaviours of these items were harder to reverse than others.

“We have the falling spikes that you usually run past, and they presented a unique design challenge,” Jensen says. “For a while we had them acting in one of two different ways; either you just ran towards them which would trigger them to fall back up into place, or you had to jump over them while they were falling upwards.

“This didn't really make much sense and it also wasn't very intuitive to the player, so we ended up having them just fall upwards as if the player had run underneath them, and then to make sure they would still pose a challenge to the player, we mixed them in with regular spikes, which looks exactly the same, only vertically flipped. This forces the player to be observant on where to jump and where to just continue running.

“This is one example of a classic platformer element that, at least to us, was a bit tricky to make work in reverse-fashion. Also, while we do have a good number of elements in right now, there's still a bunch more classic platformer elements we would like to include in future content updates.”

Doing game design in reverse turned out to be more confusing than we initially thought, because the ‘left-to-right’ path is so engrained in our minds that we don't even think about it anymore.

Jeff Jensen, Megafuzz

The references to Nintendo’s series are both numerous and obvious, but there’s another, comparatively more recent title that inspired the direction of Spoiler Alert.

“Braid has always been a big inspiration to me, with its unique out-of-the-box innovative gameplay,” admits Jensen. “Ever since playing that back in the day, I really got inspired in general to try and think more out of the box, and so with Spoiler Alert, we really also want to give a nod of respect to Braid.”

2D platformers have been two-a-penny since the rise of digital downloads and pioneering titles like Braid, particularly in the indie scene. But while there are plenty of titles out there with similar tropes and elements, Jensen hopes Spoiler Alert’s unique twist on this much-loved gameplay formula will ensure the game’s success.

“On one hand, it's supposed to be one of the most familiar gameplay experiences of all, something you have played a million times before. But on the other hand, I think it will be the first game many will uncomplete, which is kind of different.”