The Origins of In Extremis – Part One

An wise person somewhere in the internet once said that “beginning is often a good place to start”. So before I start rambling incoherently about the bullet pattern coding, hidden metameanings or why the shoot’em up genre is going to save the video game industry forever, perhaps I should give some context on what exactly is this project, and how it started.

It took me a while to start developing some games, even as small experiments; though I was a fervent observer of indie games for quite some time (I remember browsing Indie Games Weblog as early as 2007), I only dabbled in using simple tools every once in a while, never learning or achieving anything remarkable. As I result of that, I ended with a lot of unused ideas floating around in my head for while, resting on the sedimentary rocks of the subconscious.

In 2010, I took a class of game developing in college, and it was instrumental for my change of perspective. Dedicating myself to a project with the much-needed kick-in-the-pants college obligations give finally sharpened my coding skills, and then, I started transforming those ideas in small prototypes of my own, through the trusty Game Maker engine (before it started sucking, btw).

One of these ideas was one of a shmup, that I had in a time in which I was absolutely infatuated with the genre; being exposed to the avalanche of high-quality, freeware stuff the indie gaming community produced in the tail ends of last decade informed a lot of my critical design thinking, as well as helping to think a bit outside of the box. But most importantly, it showed me the breadth of possible genres games could had. That lead me to points in which I was positively obsessed with one genre, and played (freeware, obvs) games of that type a lot. there was the stage of the roguelike, the puzzle-plaform, the point-and-click adventure, and, of course, the shoot’em up.

But unlike those others genres, shoot’em ups became a fixture for me, almost a preferred genre. The purity of the experience and thrills it generated possibly spoke to greatly, especially in a time in which i did not have much game design maturity.

(And it may come as a surprise to many that my formative experiences came from indie games, – like Varia, Grid Wars, Cho Ren Sha, Cactus old stuff, and many others which are lost in the mists of time and memory -, and not from the arcade or the 8/16 bit consoles.)

Ikaruga

Also, around that time, I also bumped on the Treasure classic Ikaruga, in its Gamecube version, which, to this day, is still one my favorite games (and possibly, the best designed game ever made – #loftystatements). The refinement and sophistication of what, essentially a simple concept left a impression on Young Me, but of course it wasn’t just that.

See, Ikaruga has a deep use of buddhist iconography and themes, but the brilliance it is not in the Evangelion-like cultural borrowing-for-the-sake-of it, but in how the games mechanics relate to that. Changing polarities, absorbing and releasing – it’s a powerful statement about personal balance and equilibrium, and the relativity (and banality) of seeing the world through a binary moral of good and evil, black and white.

Passage

Another important thing: in my early indie discoveries, I also bumped on a small game named Passage and… let’s say that game made a number on me. By now, possibly everyone played Jason Rohrer’s little masterpiece, and is familiar with how it applies its concepts directly into the ruleset and gameplay. But when i first played it, it pretty much blew my mind. I always was pretty appreciative of games as a storytelling medium, and never needed any convincing of the potential of games as art (oh, remember those debates? those were fun). But in that moment, I opened my eyes to the untold potential of interactivity as means of expression of meaning. The tools to express that, of course, would only appear further down the road.

Said potential is still something that, though omnipresent in every game, good and bad, is still unrecognized. There is still a fetishistic view of games only being artistic by their audiovisual aspects, or by the quality of their texts and plots, not to mention the dreaded obsession of some devs with the “cinematic experience” (seriously? fuck that. Mario jump physics are as art as every shot in Goodfellas, and if you can’t agree with that, fuck you too  please do rethink your opinions.)

Ok, rant out of the way, the idea came of doing a shmup; but one in which stages and weapons would be metaphors. The initial idea would be that each stage would represent one “negative” emotion, such as sadness, fear or anger, and you would have available weapons based on “positive” emotions, such as joy, love and peace. Each stage would be structured in a way that it would be easily beaten by picking the “right” emotion (peace beats anger, joy beats sadness, courage beats fear) and such.

Yup, that’s corny as hell, but luckily the idea had some time to maturate. Five years to be precise. My first Notepads of The Last Sector (In Extremis mindname for a long time) date from 2008, but I kept pushing it forwards, never writing a single line of code, until it was time for my Conclusion Project at my University, last year, though I probably decided way early this game would be my final academic salvo.

In those five years, a lot changed; not only myself, my ambitions and ideas, but also the indie scene; no more cool freeware, smallish pixely stuff. Now indie was a viable career path, at the cost of it becoming increasingly a meaningless word, lost in the noise of the mobile autorunners and zombie shooters. Elitism aside, that shows how more open the market has become to more people, and, yeah, perhaps i might have a chance at that.

The Indie revolution of the ’00 made a job of recuperating several dormant genres, such as the platformers, adventures, text adventures, and roguelikes (hell, nowadays you can’t drop a needle without it falling in some procedurally generated pixel art dungeon crawler). But what about the humble shoot’em up? Except a few outliers here and there (like Jamestown and Sine Mora, both games I really enjoyed, despite their flaws in getting to the core of what makes the genre tick), and of course the doujin games have the follower (despite japanese developers like Cave and ZUN essentially making the same game over and over), the shmup failed to gain the same traction.

Which is a damn shame, because, after all, they are the purest, most immediate experience someone could have with a videogame. Its the positioning and spatial reasoning that gave birth to almost every game imaginable, and yet, it remains a rich font of experimentation, not to mention a exciting testbed of possibilities.

So yeah, i decided to make a shmup; but not any shmup, a experimental, mindmelting, totes crazy one, that would play with the conventions of the genre without losing sight of its origins.

How that turned out to be? Well I don’t know yet because the game is a bit far from finished, but do come back next week, and I will tell the tale of how the game took its current shape, the wonderful world of virtual sensation, and why academia sucks.

 

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