From big to small, AAA to indie, behind the screen is a person that makes the games you play. Developer Spotlight is a chance for our Goomba Stomp writers to take an in-depth look at game designers, their bodies of work, and what makes them tick.
Here at Goomba Stomp, we spend a lot of time writing about the game industry’s heaviest gorillas. But a lot of the most innovative, thoughtful, captivating games come from small studios less in the throes of shareholders and diehard fans. Some of those smaller studios are still sizable, consisting of dozens of individuals, each specializing in a specific aspect of game design so that the final product still remains a collective effort.
Then there are the occasional devs who toil away on passion projects by their lonesome. These include developers like Eric Barone of Stardew Valley, Thomas Happ of Axiom Verge, Daisuke ‘Pixel’ Amaya of Cave Story, and Alexey Patjinov of Tetris; developers who put their hearts into making irreplicable games defined by strong personality and a singular vision. fluffy is one of those devs.
The Seattle-based fluffy is about as secretive as a modern day indie developer can be in a gaming landscape where attending game jams and self-publicizing are all in a day’s work. A self-proclaimed “reformed software engineer” who makes “little games,” fluffy is a zealous talent with diverse aptitudes and ambitions.
Dev of All Trades
fluffy’s past output was mostly in collaboration with other indie devs, primarily contributing music to games like z0lly’s Haggle Waggle: Duck & Doge, Spectronaut’s Spooky Sushi, and Beechbone’s Elevate. Recently, though, fluffy has been chipping away on an ambitious solo project titled Refactor.
Refactor is what fluffy refers to as “an album of games.” And they’re not using this phrase to be facetious or pretentious — they’re just telling it like it is. Originally, Refactor was a musical album released by fluffy’s band Sockpuppet (a name the group openly acknowledges as meaning “about one person pretending to be several people”). As an album, Refactor is a strong musical release on its own merit, in the power-synth vein of other highly-regarded recent gaming soundtracks like those of Hyper Light Drifter and Transistor.
Now fluffy is developing games to accompany each of the album’s thirteen sterling musical tracks, streamed for free on Spotify or downloaded from Bandcamp. Currently only three of these games are complete, but each provides a small but memorable gaming experience that feels distinct from the other games but thematically united. The first of these games accompanies Track 1, Little Bouncing Ball.
Game 1: Little Bouncing Ball
Little Bouncing Ball is a rhythmic arthouse interpretation of the classic block-breaking game Breakout. While things start out as simple, the action quickly ramps up, and what initially seemed like a glorified version of Pong becomes a synesthetic roller coaster. Coming in at a little over five minutes, it is the longest of the three games but also the most driving.
Action on-screen constantly evolves, adding and subtracting various components before looping back into itself in a manner that feels like a five minute crescendo. On one hand it feels like Breakout’s version of Pac-Man: Championship Edition, but on the other it is more focused on spectacle and sensory experience than meaningful interactivity. Colors, shapes, and sounds swirl in new patterns and combinations, and the player soon realizes they aren’t directing this rave, but partaking in it — a theme throughout fluffy’s oeuvre.
Game 2: Strangers
Strangers, meanwhile, is a lax slice of JRPG malaise. Like Little Bouncing Ball, it starts out on familiar footing in a popular genre, this time a homey space of innocence reminiscent of the hearth and home of numerous JRP protagonists. But an unnerving border hints at an underlying disorder. To a lighthearted catchy tune, a dialogue plays out between two characters, one unsure of who the other person is, the other asserting they have built their lives together.
Part Memento, part Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” the ensuing narrative continues this specific path of questioning while begging larger thematic questions about the past, memory, and epistemology. But despite its opaque narrative, Strangers remains firmly rooted in real-time storytelling in which the player can ask and answer questions within the game’s brief three-ish minutes. Of the three games, this was my personal favorite.
Game 3: Flight
Finally, Refactor’s third game is Flight, a curious experiment that might be described as an endless faller. Like Strangers and Little Bouncing Ball, Flight lasts only as long as its song and is partially defined by its unique twist on a popular game genre. This time the player controls a falling bodhisattva whose face momentarily morphs into various creatures in time with musical cues.
While the player can collect gems and coins that spring upward from the bottom of the screen, the limited responsiveness of the avatar and consistent falling speed make for a mostly meditative experience occasionally punctuated by a run-in with a wall. Like the other two games, Flight conveys an idea that evolves and unfolds over a few minutes — it’s up to you whether or not to partake.
Expression through Game Dev
Though it might initially seem this trio of games couldn’t be more different, they share several common motifs. Their short run time, limited interaction, and lack of concern with endings or reward systems crafts short experiences focused on sublime subversive experiences that play like snippets of games from an alternate otherworldly timeline. And this limited interactivity in all three games seems to convey a sense of a universe unfolding regardless of what we do — our actions not the centerpiece, nor totally devoid of meaning.
These games are experiences that submerge the player in a way of being without luring them along teleologically. They’re subversive, taking a time-honored game genre and turning it on its ear in a way that seems humorous, exciting, and even unsettling, all at once. They feel like celebrations of as well as reflections on what games and music can do, especially in conjunction with each other. Sometimes this results in rave-like synesthesia, other times contemplation on agency in the human condition. Like an eclectic debut album, Refactor conveys who fluffy is without spelling it out, dabbling in styles and communicative modes in rejuvenating fashion.
For those interested in checking out fluffy’s work, I encourage you to visit their itch profile here. Along with the games discussed above, be sure to check out Sockpuppet’s music, fluffy’s charming busybee comics, and miscellaneous projects like a sex-positive interactive coloring book.
If you’re a designer/developer and would be interested in collaborating with Goomba Stomp, shoot us a message at email@example.com!