The Swindle and Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime Critiques, Analysis, and Review
One of the coolest things about our fabulous future-driven technology is that it has freed the hands of independent developers to adjust the knobs of their focus. Procedurally generated stages let math take the reigns of level design, creating a breadth of replayability and content in a single game. It’s surely not as easy as it sounds (how could it be?), and generated levels will never have the finesse of a Super Mario Galaxy (2007) stage, but there is still something incredible happening here. By investing in procedurally generated levels, developers can narrow their focuses, play to their strengths, buckle down, and work smart.
It goes beyond the re-popularization of the roguelike and the jaw-dropping scope of Minecraft (2011) or aspirations of No Man’s Sky. In 2015, both The Swindle and Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime use procedurally generated level design to their own unique ends.
The Swindle —a steampunk heist game built around saving up and upgrading your abilities in anticipation of one big score— uses procedurally generated stages to emphasize preparation and anticipation over the rote memorization typical of the stealth genre. It’s key to stress that, unlike a roguelike, The Swindle isn’t emphasizing dexterity to deal with its random effects, but preparation. The core push and pull of its progression is tied up in the risk/reward of its upgrade paths; as a player your choice is either to save up for blueprints leading to areas with more handsome rewards, or character boosts that make retrieving said goodies more feasible. At the heart of all this decision making is the game’s structure: The Swindle gives players 100 days —either a death or successful heist— to earn enough currency to engage in the game’s final mission.
The mechanics of The Swindle’s level design are geared to emphasize slow methodical heists and frantic thievery exits as you uncover a stage’s layout. But how does it make up for not having hand crafted levels? To begin with, The Swindle has a very committed aesthetic; it’s hues and visual style don’t break for user-interface touches. Moreover, you can really feel the hand of its creators painting character into the world. Hacking a vault, for instance, is done by following a series of quick-time events, but these sequences cannot be failed. Instead, the game zooms in on the wildly shaking prompts that exclaim, “LEFT, RIGHT, UP!” as a way of illustrating the tension of the action. These are the best moments of The Swindle, where you can feel the director guiding your experience inside of procedurally generated level. However, this doesn’t always work.
The Swindle trades a smooth difficulty arc for hard plateaus in challenge so that each of the game’s stages can have a chance offering the biting tension of playing it for the first time. It’s all very thoughtfully designed, but I can’t shake the feeling that all the game’s pre-production work doesn’t translate perfectly into the game. The goal here is to instill a sense of vulnerability, to really drill down into the ‘feeling’ of performing a sneaky heist, but sometimes the game’s structure breaks its own modus operandi. For example, you can literally show up unprepared, “oops! Didn’t upgrade the right tools — there goes a day!” You can also get yourself trapped, or even just be blocked outright from realistically making your way to the target. Individually, each of these gripes is frustrating, but coupled with legitimate failure, they start to encourage more brash play, as your 100-day challenge slips further and further away from you. The result is that The Swindle —with its clever design-doc— starts to feel haphazard and frivolous.
Ultimately, The Swindle’s procedurally generated stages help it to enforce a sense of trepidation in its play, that is undone by its own sometimes infuriating auto-generated design. It’s by no means bad, but it can be frustrating, and the game doesn’t anticipate this aggravation. Even something like Dark Souls (2011), with much more fine-tuned mechanics, includes a corpse-run to alleviate the annoyance of dying when you weren’t prepared for a challenge going in. This kind of band-aid solution would have gone a long way here, but it's indicative of some deeper rooted issues that crop up on account of its level design.
On the flip-side is a game called Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime.
Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is designed as a cooperative experience, where two players launch themselves into space to save adorable, imprisoned rabbits. The catch is that the partners are forced to coordinate their actions to manage all eight pillars of the ship’s offensive and defensive abilities. In this case, the game’s procedurally generated levels serve a more atypical kind of use: to keep you on your toes. What’s noticeably different about Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime compared to a traditional roguelike is its commitment to a very specific difficulty ramp. Lovers doesn’t aggressively mix and match its components; all stages have one frame —a rectangle— and the game moves treasure, rabbits, and land masses inside of it. The important changes in these procedurally generated stages are the order in which you arrive at obstacles, not the obstacles themselves. What all of this accomplishes for Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is to consistently alter the flow of play, without hamstringing any individual play sessions.
What makes this predictably random design so brilliant is that it highlights that your partner is, in fact, the least predictable element at play. There’s no telling if your teammate's reflexes will be the same on repeated attempts — or if they’ll have the intuition to finagle the ship’s shields as well as they did the last time you came face to face with a giant killer space beetle. And since there’s no way to genuinely anticipate where specific elements will show up, the game is liable to play plenty tricks on you or your significant other.
In all of this we see a game whose design strives to create manageable cooperative chaos. And it’s quite successful. Most situations —if managed by two synchronized players— can be dealt with, but there’s an innate instinct to try and deal with obstacles quickly, which often leads to reckless play. If you’re being attacked from the top and bottom, responsible players will split up and shield one side, while attacking from the other, but this requires communication. As the difficulty ramps up it’s easy to let yourself go on auto-pilot, which usually leads to both teammates dashing for the same offensive station. Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime emphasis team-play, all the while drumming up systems that tempt you toward lone-wolf tendencies, which leads to misdirected blame and yelling — ohmygosh so much yelling. I can hear it now, “Just drive, please. I'll leave the shield in one place since you seem to be doing it anyway. JUST DRIVE.”
It’s awfully impressive how successful Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is at being a challenging game that has players blaming each other for the frustration of loss rather than the game itself. With Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, procedurally generated levels let stages become background to the mechanics and banter that are the heart of the experience. They emphasize the core tenants of the gameplay experience, as opposed to being the adventure themselves.
I’m a big level-design guy. I could champion From Software and Nintendo’s Tokyo Studios all everyday, but I love the notion of developers using new tools to solve problems in new ways. At the end of the day it’s no surprise that new technologies would empower designers to find and explore different means of stirring emotion, but what’s so exciting here is that this allows them to focus on their intent — to drill straight into the heart of their game’s core. Exciting times are ahead.
**This essay had a different thesis at first. Here's a look into our process.
Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime
- One thing I didn't touch on is how great some of the music is.
- The look, feel, and loop reminds me of a more involved Steamworld Dig (2013).
- The difficult is definitely 'off' some runs you'll get rich-rich, and other times you just get dealt a bad hand.
- This gets in way of you have having a perfect run. I think a lot of players will restart the game over and over again try to get a good start — which makes as much sense as refreshing your solitaire page.
- The Swindle is adorable.
- Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is also adorable.
- The difficulty is just right, the game ends one world before it would have become too much for us.
- That being said it is a tad short.
- My favourite ship is the one that spins on itself, forcing you to play upside down.
- I gave this to a 5 and 8 year old, and they also exhibited "ohmygosh" yelling fits at one another, but they had fun.
- It's a very cool game. It's just a great premise, and it works. It's a multiplayer treat.
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