The Mammoth is an atmospheric little work, like a cave painting come to life: The great, tusked prehistoric beast is chalked against a tan background, searching for its herd and its children. Against a sparse soundtrack of drums, a soothing voice narrates the movements of your mammoth.
Your job is to protect your children from hunters, an impossibly steep task that I was not able to do. It seemed possible at first, but the spear-wielding figures, dark lines slashed against the world, just overwhelmed me in the end. Without her children, the game says, the mammoth is no longer a mother. Do you want revenge? Would it help? And what will the hunters become when there's nothing left to hunt for?
Jan David Hassel is one of four developers who made this game for the recent Ludum Dare 33 jam. He and his team are veterans of Yager Interactive, a studio celebrated for Spec Ops: The Line. Yager had been at work on Dead Island 2 when the team received word about two months ago that the game would be canceled (reports in the press suggest the indefinitely-delayed game has supposedly been moved to another developer).
"It didn't take us long to realize that most of us would be fired," Hassel writes to me. "So we decided to jam for Ludum Dare 33 to cope with the situation somehow… at its very core it wound up being a game about the inescapability of loss."
The Mammoth is a lovely little game, but it takes on a poignant weight when you think of it as the expression of developers who have lost a project. The work of large-scale commercial video game development is famously disillusioning, often crushing and regularly inhumane, and moreover personal expressions like anger, unhappiness and grief are often frowned upon as violations of the professional code of secrecy.
So it's sad and beautiful at once to see this team (they call themselves Inbetweengames, fittingly) do the work they love most to express the end of an era of their careers. Here's hoping that one was just prehistory, and the next era will be better. Give them an encouraging shout today if you can.