I recently completed a time-consuming project that was close to my heart, before which other endeavors took a back seat. Once done, though, I returned to my labyrinth of text files, PSDs and design documents, all now bearing a thick layer of psychic dust.
The joy of rediscovery soon lifted, though, replaced by a familiar weight: the burden of all the half-baked ideas locked in the basements of creation, waiting to be made real.
Kazu Kibuishi and Jessica Abel call it Idea Debt: the psychological power of work planned but left unexecuted, a lurking to-do list slowly compounding existential interest.
"Trapped ideas waste away," adds John Sexton. "I always kept things neatly organized in notebooks and folders, so their physical and digital footprint was minimal. Their mental and emotional footprint, however, became enormous."
Some ideas can be saved; others need to be recognized as things of an earlier creative and aspirational moment, a "now" that has passed. Sexton posted an obituary for all the ideas he owed realization to. I'm gonna do likewise, starting with game ideas.
This isn't an exhaustive dump of every dumb game idea I've ever set to pixel; just the ones where work began in earnest; where some needful part of me kept whispering: "eventually you will finish this."
Nope. Ideas are cheap. If you want one, take it. I'll cheer from a safe distance!
A simple game in the vein of Atari's Rampart and Bullfrog's Dungeon Keeper, Fortriss involves carving out space underground with randomly-issued tetrominos. The catch: the shapes can only be laid contiguously with your existing dungeon, and the earth would be full of dangerous or undiggable squares to contend with.
After the digging phase, the player places special rooms within the cleared space—monster generators, traps, barracks, chapels of doom, that sort of thing—whose effectiveness at attracting armies of monsters would depend on how neatly they were enclosed. Eventually, you'd carve a path to enemy dungeons and invade. (Particularly epic dungeons could be exported to Dwarf Fortress or Minecraft for refurbishment)
Too Many Heroes!
A straight-up computer RPG, but instead of the player being the chosen one, the center of the game's universe and its driving force, there are dozens of NPC heroes out to do the same and a limited supply of quests. See more details and a very rough prototype.
Into The Wild but you're being watched
The haunting story of adventurer Chris McCandless grips the imagination. Trapped in the wilds of Alaska, he starved while camping in an abandoned bus, a terrifying death perhaps hastened by something poisonous. This game is interactive fiction with procedurally-generated locations and descriptions but an unerringly definite central narrative: what if, instead of being imprisoned miles from anywhere by misfortune and self-doubt, you slowly realize that you are being watched, stalked and stymied by something that knows exactly what you are?
A turn-based government sim with a twist: In Comrade Prometheus, you play as an unwell V.I. Lenin after his stroke in 1922, nominally in charge of Russia but unable to work more than 20 minutes a day. You have one job: stop Stalin taking power when you croak. A game of negotiation, compromise, manipulation, threats and other political shenanigans, it's played out in the fear, friendship and political inclinations of those who will decide after you die. It would look and play very much like the Amiga-era classic Floor 13.
Here's a playlist of music sketched out for the game.
Here's a short design outline, including an unfun engine prototype of the underlying popularity contest, how it would ebb and flow according to each sparkling personality.
TinySaga / Wanderfar
A variation of my successfully completed (yay!) game TinyHack with very lite colony-sim elements: sail (or wander) forth and visit places in a brutally minimalist 48×12 pixel playfield. In the Flash prototype below, all you can do is hit space to skip each option (press enter to accept the name "incognito"), and wander around with the arrow keys. You're the red pixel; towns are gold.
The Return of the Evil Leafhound and His Terrible Vengeance
A pixel tribute to the mawkish adolescent sentimentality behind genre fantasy antiheroes (from Elric of Melnibone to Raistlin Majere), Leafhound is the village's banished offspring returning to show them all. A twist would be in all that epic framing collapsing into bathos, of one kind or another; a reconciliation, maybe, or surreal deconstruction of trope. This was about 50% done, but as such basic Flash trash a couple of GIFs will be more fun to see.
TinyHack put a game in a 9×9 pixel grid; I was apprently one of the first to inflict this sort of thing on the world! TinyHack HD would have radically increased the playfield to a CPU-melting 16×16 pixels. This would allow an inventory screen, among other wonders!
The prototype of Too Many Heroes is similar stuff, but the mockup here shows off the idea much better.
After a successful quest to dethrone a tyrant, you return to your village to find that your parents are missing. "Vale" is a game of homecoming, where the hero finds that the return to normality is the true journey. Old friendships and relationships are strained, resentments burn, and dark secrets boil to the surface. Here's the picturebook intro for it I made almost a decade ago:
Vale is, technically speaking, a simple NES-style adventure RPG fed by a random "mysterious village" generator, complete with inhabitants, strange locales in the surrounding countryside, and mysteries to unravel.
There's a Flash thinger that generates sketches of meadows for an idea of the roughly-sketched look Vale would have had. Below is the village generator; the game wouldn't have looked like this, but would have been fed by it. Reload for another map. And there's a version which shows NPCs.
This one's hard to let go of, imagined a long time ago and driving me to learn to code in the first place. But its conceits—ironic treatment of fantasy tropes, the pencil-sketch artwork, pervasive procedural generation—are now well-trodden fare in indie gaming.
A very simple graphic adventure game, where each location is accessed by traveling around a fantastical subway map. Imagined as something that could have run on an 8-bit, the image here uses the Amstrad CPC's pallette limitations.
Minimalist Dungeon Crawler
Like Dungeon Master or Eye of the Beholder, but again with 4-color pallette limitations and a stark, minimalist vibe. I'm particularly happy with the implied UI here: check that minimap and navigation rosette! Never reached playable form. If I revisited this, I'd limit it to a party of two—a buddy team that cannot be parted—then part them, ruthlessly, just when the player least expects it.
Text-only, multigenerational RPGs
In games such as Skyrim, I'm often struck by the feeling of being in a theme park full of robots: the mechanics of rendering a realistic CGI world mean the game itself can't really do more than push mannequins around and let you trigger their scripts. So picture the opposite: a text-only game that modeled social behavior in some depth, with factions and agendas and relationships that matter, and where humble looks allow the player to use their imagination. Take the old life sim Alter Ego but make the story procedurally-generated based upon a largely hidden model of a society, and you have the gist of it. One planned twist—that the game switches to one of your children upon your death—has now been done well by others.
An arcade-style puzzle game themed on DNA editing. The structure slowly spirals up to the top of the screen, and the game ends if an unrepaired strand reaches the top. The player must manipulate the "chemicals" in the lattice, as represented by colored blocks, to succeed.
The game is presented as the interface used by a medical professional at the titular, euphemistically-named institute, whose task is to repair a patient's genetic flaws. You'd progress from noble work–repairing severe defects in utero, preventing or curing illnesses–but applications would become increasingly sinister.
A clinical, white, dehumanized tone; slow, sweeping analog synths, hospital noises. Disinfected electronic melodies, like this one:
The game's narrative would not punish or reward you for continuing to the end, for passing the levels where you turn all the black blocks white, or the pink ones blue. Where you stop is up to you.
Select an adorable generative beastie, then guide it through its 1-hour lifespan, helping it make important life decisions: what profession to pursue, what love, what dreams? Its age would be represented by the screen slowly fading, until the immanent darkness consumes everything.
Then you are mailed a plushie of your electric friend with a framed obituary.
One life. No saves. No restarts.
Super Blog Nightmare
A cow-clicker-cum-rythym game: but instead of a fretboard, it's the content column of a goddamned blog relentlessly scrolling down. A short click would dump a (randomly generated) short post at the top; hold down the button to power up a "feature."
The aim is to increase traffic, attract advertisers, and make mo money by dumping content according to various mysterious and inscrutable patterns uncovered by trial, error and instruction. Certain combinations of post types yield bonuses, and nailing particular lengths attracts certain types of readers. Run out of advertisers in the right-hand rail, and it's game over.
A lot of flashy, gambling-machine style activity — bonuses, bells, accumulators, blog comments and the like — would rattle on around the core activity: clicking, sometimes vigorously.
A model of cultural spread and exchange using cellular automata, this would have been used as a (hopefully) convincing world generation system underpinning proper games.
A cell, representing a family, or a clan or tribe, would Move, Stop or Reproduce depending upon proximity to other things. Each cell would have one or more numbers as an abstract representation of culture (RGB values, perhaps), and from this all hell would break loose as they come into contact with one another. It would generate pretty animations, and haikus, and Turing-complete death marches.
You are trapped in a chaotic blend of classic subgames that should have known better.
Change between 10 different simple games at whim. The magic: each subgame's detritus remains after a switch, with unpredictable interactions resulting, allowing progress that would otherwise be impossible.
Another tetromino strategy game: Each turn, a player receives a random tetronimo shape. The shape may be placed on the outside edge of their territory, thereby expanding the territory. The shape's placement may not intersect with existing territory or impassable landscape squares. The more territory, the more cool stuff in your empire, the more badass trash gets automatically sent out to nail their empire. It would be quite hands-off apart from the tetronimo placement: think the original Populous.
OutRun Nights is a hack of the original, or should play as if it were: Sega System 16 hardware, a mess of sprites scaled like crazy over a 320×224 display.
• No stage takes place during daytime; the first is dusk, the last is dawn.
• The setting is moved from daytime SoCal to Miami by night. Your Ferrari Testarossa Convertible is traded in for a Lamborghini Countach. There's no time limit. Speedruns only!
More details right here.
It'd work, but it'd be crazy as all hell.
Gradius but with generative weapons and loot
A meat-and-potatoes 2D bullet-hell shoot-em-up but with randomly-generated upgrades, weapons and loot. Fun, and perhaps the most obvious Kickstarter fodder of the lot. But surely done.
You're lost in the snow; monochrome, blinding whiteness, and unsettlingly realistic sound of feet punching through frost. Daniel Linssen's excellent Sandstorm is very much like what I had in mind, but in a different desert.
A sailing game set on an Earth whose north pole moves suddenly to the midatlantic; escape from the Baltics as the resulting ice age takes over, traversing the European coastline unnervingly north, amid refugees, war and chaos as glaciers close in. Will you make past Spain to warmer climes? Imagined as a baroque 16-bit Amiga adventure in the quirky tradition of Silmarils, not as a didactic meditation.