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.