From Shooter to Shooter: The Rise of cly5m

| eric-jon

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Seiklus was a turning point for the indie scene. Even if you’ve never played it, you’ve played something influenced by cly5m’s game. Seiklus was one of the first “exploration platformers,” a nonviolent genre that could be compared to a side-scrolling Myst, and now a distinct piece of the indie style guide. A small man, nearly a stick figure, travels a flat-colored world, collecting pointless trinkets and the occasional control upgrade, to find his way back home again. There is no death, and no aggression; Seiklus is all about the journey, and the player’s relationship with the game world.

Seiklus comes off as a very personal game. Although the controls amount to little more than walking and jumping, and the presentation is nearly as minimalist, the experience feels emotionally rich. Its level geometry and sequencing trade epiphanies for careful observation and experimentation, and the sound design creates a distinct and whimsical atmosphere.

The stripped-down expression of Seiklus has helped to legitimize canned game creation systems, leading Mark Overmars’ Game Maker to become the respected behemoth it is now, and lending the indie scene an entry-level spine. There have been tributes and parodies. It’s just an important game.

For all its influence, Seiklus is kind of a one-off. For a while cly5m and Robert Lupinek teased the Internet with Velella, a sort of spiritual successor involving dream flight. Otherwise, the last eight years have passed pretty quietly. The previous eight, though – that’s a different story.

Before cly5m hit on Game Maker, he experimented with some other design packages. His ZZT and MegaZeux games have some exposure, commensurate to the popularity of those tools. Before even that phase, cly5m cut his teeth on Recreational Software Designs’ Game-Maker (unrelated to the similarly-named fore-mentioned tool from Overmars), a tool that I myself used for about five years. Until now cly5m’s work has remained obscure, for a couple of reasons. The most obvious reason is that cly5m has neglected to release it. The more basic reason is that RSD’s Game-Maker is so obscure that no one has bothered to ask.

Game-Maker first appeared twenty years ago as weird mail order ads in the back of popular computer and videogame magazines. By 1992 or ’93, RSD had fostered a healthy international development scene. Since the Web was still a few years off, communication occurred through floppy exchanges and dial-up bulletin boards. Right around the time that the Internet became a household term, Game-Maker’s main programmer went off to college, and despite a few lingering promises, RSD soon vanished. Its users moved on, and few of their games actually made it online.

RSD’s software is such a curiosity; in some ways it’s so advanced, and in others so clumsy. For years, important features went ignored while irrelevant ones received intense scrutiny. The file formats are so basic that they seem ingeniously flexible; definitions are so rough as to be mere guidelines, and even a corrupted file still runs. If you come to Game-Maker with expectations, it will dash them. If you work within its limitations, you can do some fascinating stuff.

The games I present here are all incomplete. Over the course of about two years, cly5m never finished a project. On his website he notes his frustration with RSD’s tools; although he could achieve the look he wanted, the games would rarely behave as he imagined and he was detached from the social scene that might have driven him on. Nevertheless, the brainstorming seemed to have some effect. Over the four games you can see his now-familiar style coming into focus. By 1995 his ideas seem to have come full circle, and brought him to the footstep of Seiklus.

Pipes (1993)

The first of cly5m’s designs is not a platformer or an adventure. There is little to explore. It’s not a whimsical fantasy. It doesn’t take pains to express a particular perspective or theme, or set an emotional tone. It’s just a space shooter. And I’m not talking Ikaruga; more like Zero Wing.

As discordant as that seems from cly5m’s later designs, it makes some sense. Pipes is an experiment. Not an expressive experiment, but an experiment with the tools at hand. And if you’re going to experiment, you might as well simplify your canvas. So, okay. Let’s do a shooter.

Although the genre is an elegant place to begin, in this case the choice was rather unfortunate, in that RSD’s game engine only reluctantly abides a shooter. Out of about a dozen attempts, I have only seen one total success, and that game was abandoned after two levels. Pipes reaches the same degree of completion, and indeed a similar level of success.

For cly5m’s first game, Pipes demonstrates an advanced understanding of RSD’s tools, including multi-stage monster animations, item pickups, fixed scrolling, and directional gravity. The game design also shows some effort; monsters attack in formations, levels are broken into setpieces, and the perspective varies from level to level. The visuals are simple but clear and appealing, with the occasional touch of whimsy (in particular the helicopter-headed monsters). The controls are responsive enough. Curiously, Pipes is cly5m’s only Game-Maker game to include sound effects. Again, those are simple yet effective.

Right off, cly5m shows a mastery of the tools that other users took years to achieve, if they ever did so. Had he finished his work on Pipes, it would be one of the more sophisticated games ever designed with RSD’s tools – yet due to the choice of genre, it would always be rather stilted.

Blob (1994)

A few months later, cly5m switched gears and ramped up the whimsy to tinker with an odd action game starring a perky wind-up piece of goo.

Blob is set in a chess-board world, presided over by two chess-themed boss figures. The player can move the character in four directions and hit the space bar to spit green globs at enemies. The enemies largely consist of hooded leaping men. Environmental hazards also include large rolling navel oranges.

The rules here are sort of unusual. The character begins with no health and no extra lives; one touch is fatal. Whenever the player shoots a leaping man, his head falls off and becomes flustered. Collect the severed heads to increase the character’s HP. As the player absorbs more and more heads, the character becomes more prepared for the final showdown with the oversized chess pieces.

Although Blob is still a somewhat violent concept (one that becomes more macabre the more you think about it), it demonstrates a much more coherent and fantastical vision than cly5m’s previous game. The game borrows from existing conventions yet works to its own logic that creates an original space and a consistent, if strange, set of themes.

Blob takes familiar ideas – the concept of power-ups, the pervasive use of faceless enemies – and changes their meaning, causing the player to think about the expressive use and purpose of design tropes that most games just accept as mechanical truths. I’m not saying it’s deliberate; it’s just that there’s an astute sensibility taking shape here.

Intec (1995)

After Blob, cly5m set aside RSD’s tools for about a year. When he returned, it was with another attempt at a scrolling shooter. More than cly5m’s other three games, Intec is just a concept demo. Rather than waste time designing a whole world, cly5m just threw down a few ideas, all contained more or less on a single screen.

The ideas in Intec are indeed advanced, and show some lateral thought in attempts to bypass the limitations of the engine and design tools. Since map dimensions are limited and the engine does not support auto-scrolling, cly5m chose to scroll the background around the player. The background tiles all animate to give the impression of rapid movement, and to keep the player from breaking the illusion that the player’s ship can only move slightly forward and backward.

The illusion doesn’t quite work, but it’s a good try. Also of note is a huge and destructible vertical barrier – every shot drills a little more away – and a “shoot the core” boss moment. With a little work, all of these elements could have been combined with the advanced enemy patterns in Pipes to present a game technically far outside of Game-Maker’s listed abilities. Whether the result would be worth the effort is another story.

If nothing else, it would have been stylish; the ship from Intec is much more distinctive than the Pipes vessel, and overall the game shows a developed sense of visual design. Yet cly5m’s attentions almost immediately shifted, and any elegance in Intec is dwarfed compared to cly5m’s fourth and final Game-Maker game.

Shooter (1995)

Here we come a complete circle. Despite the title, Shooter involves no shooting at all. Instead it’s a nonviolent exploration game that seems intent on establishing a sense of whimsy and calm.

Shooter involves the adventures of a small helicopter in a bright world of mountains and trees, chambers and corridors. Along the way, one collects fruit and interacts with peaceable creatures. Imagine Bangai-O without the shooting, and you’re on the right track.

The world of Shooter is riddled with secret passages, and alive with snails, bugs, and tadpoles. The clouds gently undulate. Fruit randomly and spasmodically changes form. The character’s controls include keys to make the helicopter wear a top hat, smile and wink at the player, do loop-the-loops, or lower its windshield to allow its pilot to wave at the screen.

Although most creatures abide and only slightly acknowledge the player, there is one fly that seems in a competition with the helicopter to devour all the stage’s fruit. It finds its way down and along corridors, then veers off to scoop up the treasure before I can reach it. I’m unsure how the fly is programmed, but rather than disassemble it I prefer to think that it has some intelligence of its own.

Shooter is easily the most gentle helicopter game I have played. Although the game has no sound or music, and consists of just a single incomplete level, I often boot it up just to poke around its world, interact with its denizens, and generally hang around – the same way that I play Riven or indeed Seiklus, a game where I can practically smell the sunshine. With Shooter, cly5m’s voice comes into its own and becomes recognizable.

All along, cly5m made good use of Game-Maker’s features; although he found some new techniques, there was never a question as to his skill. What developed over the course of two years was his sensibility and his voice as an author. He began his journey with a rather unambitious shooter – if well-executed, given the tools at hand – and wound up with a contemplative adventure game that ironically titles itself as the one thing that it is not. On the one side we have rote pastiche, and on the other genuine expression.

On the basis of this incomplete evidence, although cly5m’s Game-Maker era may not be his most productive, it may be his most important development period. And now here it is, for your enjoyment.

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