Call to Arms entry 10: Bumbershoot

Dan Bruno, maintainer of the blog Cruise Elroy, submits a Call to Arms concept which subverts the expectations of playing a platformer, and encourages the player to seek out the game's hidden agenda.

Summary: A puzzle game disguised as a platformer, Bumbershoot uses player expectations to disguise its true mechanic. It’s my hope that the subversion of a familiar genre will address the conflict between convention and innovation, while the “metagame” of figuring out how to play will evoke a unique sense of discovery and accomplishment in the player.

Play: Bumbershoot looks like a simple 2D platformer. There are critters to jump on, coins to collect, and obstacles to overcome as the character progresses through each level. The game offers no instructions beyond explaining the controls, so an experienced player will treat it like a Mario game.

However, the feedback and reward mechanisms that are typically found in platformers are absent in Bumbershoot. Jumping on critters doesn’t yield any powerups or bonuses (and isn’t necessary anyway, as they aren’t actually dangerous); collecting coins doesn’t make a “pling” noise, count towards an extra life, or otherwise give any indication of being useful; getting to the end a level doesn’t cue victory music or a cutscene, but just dumps the player unceremoniously at the beginning of the next one. In short, the player can complete the game “normally” by moving from left to right through each level, but the game will give no particular indication that she’s doing anything right. If all goes well, such a victory will be hollow and unrewarding.

During play a score is displayed prominently at the top of the screen, but typical platformer actions like the ones described above have little or no effect on it. Meanwhile, seemingly random actions will send the score through the roof, and the game makes a big deal out of those events. Right now I’m thinking of the score-tallying beeps at the end of a level in Super Mario Bros. or the extra life fanfare in Sonic the Hedgehog, but there may be better signals.

The point of the game is to first realize that typical platformer behaviors are not rewarded, and then figure out what behaviors are rewarded instead.

The plan is for each level to have a different hidden task. One might require the player to perform some action in time with the background music, like the Koopas in New Super Mario Bros.; another might be to jump on all objects of a particular color, or to touch all the floating platforms. Ideally they would be simple enough that the player could find them and unusual enough that she won’t do well at the game without trying to. If necessary, there could be clues embedded in the environment — the colored objects could catch the light and sparkle to attract attention, for example. Completing these tasks will increase the player’s score, trigger sound effects, earn extra lives, and feature all the other reward mechanisms that gamers have come to expect.

At the end there will be a high score chart and a catchy song, because after Portal, You Have to Burn the Rope, and On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness I’m convinced that every game needs to end with a catchy song.


  • Designing the hidden tasks would be difficult. At least a couple of them will need to be obvious enough that an average player will stumble upon them so that the meat of the game isn’t missed completely. Ideally I’d like to see someone play it like a standard platformer, accidently earn a ton of points for something that seems insignificant, and then think “what the hell did I just do?”
  • Using a mysterious game mechanic to evoke a feeling of discovery may not be enough to make the game hold together. Hopefully combining that idea with the genre subversion is enough to keep a player interested. If necessary, the score could be replaced or combined with some other kind of feedback.
  • Since the real impact is the initial discovery about the nature of the game and not in the subsequent puzzle elements, the game needs to be pretty short. As with Jason Rohrer’s games, I actually think Bumbershoot will make its point rather quickly — perhaps five Super Mario Bros. 3-length levels would do the trick.
-Dan Bruno


Steve gaynor said...

It sounds like an interesting prospect-- a platformer with one unifying setting and visual aesthetic, but a different internal logic on each level. The challenge, like you said, would be to give the elements of the world different, interesting properties each level... the new methods of scoring or progression would have to 'make sense' in relation to one another.

Maybe the solution is to literally have the player replay the same level multiple times. On the first go, question mark blocks act just like they do in Mario; on the second go, maybe hitting them dislodges them and you can kick them around like turtle shells, or what have you. Maintaining a consistent frame could emphasize that only the underlying rules are changing, and the player is challenged to decipher them each time.

I'm not sure if this would necessarily convey the joy of discovery in a meaningful way. There is some element of discovery involved in puzzling out the internal logic of any new rule system one encounters, and this design emphasizes that well, but it's a sensation common to lots of different video games.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, your last point was the real stumbling block for me in coming up with this concept. The mental distinction I made is that instead of deciphering a rule system that's already obvious, I want the player to discover a rule system. As you rightly point out, we are often asked to figure out a game's internal logic, but I think it's rare that the entire mechanic acts as a red herring.

In practice, though, I'm not sure if that conveys the joy of discovery any better than a regular puzzle game -- the distinction may not matter. (I suppose I should learn how to program so I can find out!) At worst, I'd hope the game would be an interesting meditation on the expectations of genre.

Ben Abraham said...

One thing that I thought could be really cool about the game (and would maybe strengthen the 'joy of discovery' mechanic) could be making unimportant stuff like 'background' animations important.

For example, you set one level (say level 2 or 3) where all the 'points' are contained within the background animations. Pass in front of the dancing flower animations and get points for it. The player may really not realise what's going on at first, but if it happens a second time, then they've 'discovered' that the seemingly unimportant background has become point scoring.

Got potential, you think?

Anonymous said...

Sounds great, Ben -- that's exactly the sort of unexpected task I had in mind. As I said in the submission, it was hard for me to come up with examples of what I wanted; maybe you have a knack for it!

Sparky said...

I really love the subversion of expectations you've suggested here. I would think at least one puzzle should directly address those expectations. For instance, one solution could be to get to the end without killing anything, then run the level in reverse, killing all the enemies (in order) as they are encountered in that direction. Naturally, anyone who kills the final enemy in the level (practically everyone on the first playthrough) will receive a huge number of points. The fun would be that most of them would mistake the meaning of the points as a boss reward, even if the final enemy is pathetic. Thus, you create a relatively simple puzzle that is difficult to discover precisely because of the player's expectations.

Danielle said...

I'd enjoy playing a game like this.

The idea of using genre traditions to undermine/surprise the viewer reminds me of some of the Interactive Fiction games, like 9:05, and I greatly enjoy the sort of M. Night OH MY WORD!!! feeling I get upon discovering that things aren't quite what I thought they were.

I'm wondering if the blogosphere's tendency spoiler surprise-games like this would undercut it somewhat, though...It seems like walkthroughs pop up immediately after a game's release, in any genre.

Anonymous said...

Why have any kind of hidden scoring mechanism? Make the scoring completely arbitrary, and at random intervals. Make it an online game, and record the actions of individuals repeating nonsensical movements in a vain attempt to get points.