The Small Worlds of the Ludum Dare 38 – Complete Version


The Ludum Dare celebrated its fifteenth birthday with the thirty-eigthth edition! Over 2.900 games were created from April 21st to 24th in the year 2017, all under the same theme: “A Small World”. While we already recommended a bunch of submissions in the last few weeks, Sebastian Standke wrote a report about the event with a focus on the different approaches to the theme. The first part of our close-up series starts with small planets and the limitation of the player’s view.

Small planets

Small Planets

Very often the participants thought of small worlds in a sense of small planets, so that many games with a setting located in the outer space were created. Some of those entries were heavily relying on physics-based mechanics, for example “Techium Eclipse” and “In Good Hands”. In both games, you have to protect your planet from falling meteorites and you do that by rotating the whole planet itself.

The ‘anti-shooter’ “SLINGSHOOT” also is a representative of this kind of games, but it works in quite another way: By moving your planet close to the bullets or celestial bodies, that your enemies throw at you, you can manipulate their movement, so that they destroy themselves eventually. Another good example for the “Protect the planet” target is the defense shooter “Tiny Defense Planet”, where you have to fight against space dolphin aliens with your laser beams.

Close-Up, Part 1, Image 1

But violence, action and protection are not the only core motifs in those jam submissions that used planets as their playing field. Actually, there is a whole bunch of planet games which are simply relaxing. Take “Blomst 🌻” for example: Here you have to terraform heavenly bodies by planting different flowers on them. The atmospheric “Floraison” even lets you vitalize deserted wasteland planets just with the help of your character’s movements.

Another wonderful category of planet games were based on rhythm and music. For instance, in “Planetone” and “Orchardstra” you plant different kinds of seeds on your world and by doing so you ‘compose’ your own melodies. I find that kind of interaction exciting, because you have to learn about the functionalities, dependencies and structures of your environment to create something beautiful. But if you are rather up for some silly fun, I highly recommend you a round of “Interplanetary Billiards”. There your billiard balls are tiny planets, which have to get sucked in by a black hole, while your own figure must not vanish.

Big world, limited view

Big world, limited view

But as we all know, planets are traditionally displayed as huge worlds, offering us many places to explore. With that thought in mind, some teams actually used big planets, but transformed them into small worlds by limiting the player’s view on them. A great example for that strategy are the puzzle exploration games “Bunosphere” and “Pip Sweep”. In both submissions, the players can just see a tiny part of the whole environment, so that they have to remember specific locations and the way back to them to solve the several puzzles.

The linear shooter “Monolith” implements this idea in a whole other way. Here, each encounter with a hostile fighter unit is so well-wrought, that the view of the player simply has to be focused on foes – literally, as you cannot shoot them down without looking in their direction for some moments.

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Limiting the player’s view can also be done by offering them interaction possibilities with the game environment only via an interface. For example, in “The Deep” you have to complete different tasks like mining minerals and chasing away dangerous leviathans in a submarine. The vehicle itself is a poky place, where each room has an explicit function: There is a navigation room, in another room you control the hatches et cetera. By following such a design, the player’s possibilities to interact with the game world are split, allowing the game to create an illusion of a small world, while it is actually a huge one.

Another well-done interface can be found in “Pod2000”. Here, the players control a rover robot with the help of a console. By executing different commands, the robot will be told to go to different locations of the unknown planet. Whenever the apparatus arrives in a new place, it can explore it for a while. Afterwards it sends pictures and audio files that represent the environment in an atmospheric manner. Just by hearing and seeing what it recorded and photographed, we can build a connection to the planet and the machine.

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Some participants chose to hide the world and reveal its whole grace only bit by bit. Most games with dungeon settings like the roguelike role-playing game “Paisley Princess” did exactly that. Each new and truly tiny room of the dungeon can be only explored by getting deeper into it. Thereby, each floor means a whole new environment with different kinds of monsters and rooms to explore. The game itself may be just some pixels wide and high, but the game world itself is surprisingly big.

The ambient puzzle platformer “The Shifting Catacombs of Mu’ralagh” shows off its ability of hiding the world in an even more spectacular way. Here, the character never moves from one screen into another. Instead, by solving switch puzzles and succeeding in reaction challenges the player can explore new rooms of the catacombs.

Sim World 2017 – Create it yourself

Sim World 2017 – Create it yourself

Many entries tried to focus on the creation of a planet. For example, in “A Small World: Planet Creator” you have to gather dust, rocks and water to give birth to a new luminary. Meanwhile you have to deal with an already existing Earth in “Your World: A Delicious Earth Caring Simulator!”, which you have to ‘feed’ like a virtual pet with various resources, so that it becomes habitable.

In such games we get the small fundament for a world that will grow massively, and we help it transforming into a wonderful place for many creatures. However, not always everything goes like planned. In “Genesis Planet Kit”, the player is in control of a planet generating machine, which builds small worlds by combining items like toy cars, a cup of coffee or iron bars. If one is not careful enough, a black hole gets created which will absorb anything in its reach.

Other games give you the opportunity to redesign an already existing planet. For instance, in the lovely weird digital toy “Balance” you can add so many rosa elephants, naked humans, cacti and flowers as you wish to your landscape, which might disturb the fragile balance of the place, but it is fun either way. Or take the drawing game “WORLD Paint”, where you can choose between several background images and place several items including cheeseburgers as decoration.

Many developers created building simulations, and of the most polished ones might be “Little Lands”. By building several structures like windmills, farms and houses to keep your population happy, they will work for you. That helps you in your quest to gather enough resources to build a flying vehicle, with which you then can escape from your floating island. Usually such simulation games are to difficult to make in the short timespan of only two to three days, but it seems that with the help of a theme like “A Small World” it actually is possible, simply because you do not have to invent too many building and interaction types anymore, as they would not fit in a tiny game environment either way.

Generally spoken it means that having a smaller game world in mind can lead to creating smaller, but still remarkable game experiences, because you can focus on the essentials. In this sense, “Our little island” was very minimalistic too, but still effective. Here you have nothing else to do but to collect the branches and plants that your brother fished out of the sea. By putting the branches together, you create their new home. This simple goal and gameplay makes it a heartwarming jam submission.

Stacking to the top

Stacking to the top

Another very interesting trend can be found in the game mechanics. Some entries tried to stick with a horizontally fixed game world which could be expanded vertically by stacking stuff. Some of them follow a pretty simple concept, like the physics game “STACK”. Here you want to reach the forbidden floating islands in the sky, so you stack objects like cardboard boxes, furniture and tables. In the puzzle metroidvania “TINY” you play as a super strong creature, which can even stack complete buildings reach new unknown areas and puzzles.

Some of those games can be very tricky; one of them is “Therrain”. In this jam entry you must defend your island and the structures on it from acid rain. Whenever you fight off a specific amount of rain drops, you are able to build new structures to get nearer to the cloud. When you are near enough to it, you can slap it with your umbrella, which will make it go higher.

Another great stacking game is “Path of the Rabbit”, where the players have a fixed five to five tiles big board in front of them. Each turn they are forced to stack a new tile on one already existing field. This way they can alter the path of the animal, leading it either to oases or new enemies. The concept may sound easy, but the players will have to face two challenges. First of all, it is not possible to stack as many tiles as you want to on a field. When the maximum amount of tiles on a field is reached, it becomes useless. The second problem is the fact that players cannot change the tile they have to place, making it sometimes very difficult to create new working paths.

A tale of snow globes and jars

a tale of snow globes and jars

Many participants also thought of completely bordered worlds and how they could be the center of an interesting jam entry. Especially snow globes seem to carry a magical aura with them, as they were often used. They allow to tell stories which are just possible in such a scenario, and thereby many story-driven games and toys were created around them. For instance, “Glass Houses” tells the short story of the uprising of a violent religion, right after a crack in the globe happened. Meanwhile a little girl finds comfort in a snow globe in “Snowed In”, after she was jinxed into it.

Some entries want to evoke the players imagination more actively. They do not tell one single story, instead they give away many narrative fragments of different plots. In “Globe” you have to click mysterious buttons to get to see something, while in “Scenes in a Globe” you have to rotate the container to get involved in the atmosphere of a farm, a desert or even the whole universe.

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But snow globes were not the only choice, of course. “Tiny Worlds in Flasks” allows the players to build their own worlds inside of petri dishes and bottles, while “Bon Voyage” invites to several trips in a one single suitcase. Another famous kind of container was the cardboard box. That is why in “[BOXAVERSE]” you can find a magical box, which is the home for tiny humans. The adorable puzzle game “A World in a Jar” wants its players to mix several kinds of soil and seeds with each other, so that new plants get created.

Shrinking, growing and modifying

Shrinking, growing and modifying

An important question for many of the participants of the thirty-eighth Ludum Dare was how they could evoke a feeling of smallness without reducing the interaction possibilities for the players. One common approach was to shrink the character, while they were in a normal-sized world. A perfect example for this strategy can be found in “Uncharted Dreams – Fate of the Miniatures”. In this platformer the cord of some ear buds became a grappling hook and the usually short distance between a bedside cabinet and a window got transformed into an enormous chasm. However, shrinking the world did not have to be a singular event. For instance, the planet displayed in the arcade game “Retro Rabbit” shrunk steadily if the players did not do anything against it.

We could say that the key to understand the excitement in those games was to create a game world, which transforms itself instead of being a static one. The feeling of a changing environment was provided by implementing several concepts. Take the puzzle game “The Witless” for example: Here portals got used to connect two perspectives of the same world with each other. In the one ‘dimension’ the players are giants, in the other they became miniature versions of themselves.

In the meantime “Skylands” presented a core mechanic, which forces the players to shrink and grow the environment at the same time: Whenever you build a path in their world, you use two resources, but when you destruct one path, you just get one resource back. This way you may progress in a level, but you also steal at least one resource per turn from the whole world, which vice versa reduces your interaction possibilities as a player.

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In the shooter “Cell Division” you can grow your cell environment whenever you killed enough enemies, but they also try to reduce your space at the same time. A pretty similar approach can be found in “Echo Lands”: As soon as you destroy a vase with a heart in it and collect it, your little island grows, but when a monster hits you, the island shrinks again. To be successful in those games, you have to show off an amazing capacity of reaction.

The puzzle game “Obelisk” provided another challenging concept in that matter, as your only goal in here is to reach the upper tile of a three to three tiles big field. Some of the nine tiles are fixed, others can change their position with other free ones. Also, some of the tiles are connected with each other by a gear. Whenever you interact with a gear, it will rotate the connected tile, which can open up new paths for you. This way of modifying a world is simply stunning in my eyes, as the size is fixed, but the environment still transforms over and over again.

On the other hand, the platformer “U-Turn” proves that a game does not have to give the players any control over the modifiability of the world. You just have to run between the two ends of a small island to collect a flag, but whenever you get one, something about the landscape changes. It get can bigger, new enemy types can appear, the water rises et cetera.

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Of course, shrinking is only one way to modify a world. Other games concentrated on implementing a growing mechanic, and plants often were the favored objects for them. While you have to water obscure plants and merge them together in the formidably looking “GardenGarden”, you have to find a balance between eating flowers and water them with your tears in the platformer “Dwelling”.

“A Growing Adventure” wants the players to explore its world step by step. While you may start on a very tiny island in the middle of the galaxy, you will find out how huge its whole world is by reaching its edges. The virtual pet adventure “Flurpies” works kind of the same way, as you evolve the cute pet over time. It can get bigger as well as stronger, and by doing so it will be also able to explore unknown areas of its environment.

Change of perspective

Change of perspective

Some games just skipped the whole growing aspect and turned their characters straight into giants in a world of dwarfs. While you go out on a rhythmic rampage trip as a basketball playing kaijū in “Super Kaiju Dunk City”, you just try to get to work without harming anyone in “Regular Monday”. The puzzle platformer “Super Collapse Guy” also played with this change of perspective, but approached it differently. The character in this game can collapse a three-dimensional world into its two-dimensional version and back. With that mechanic it is easy to overcome big gaps between the platforms, but it also requires a good understanding of the level design.

Game jams make the world go around

Gamejams make the world go around

Another interesting trend was to implement ’round’ or ‘circular’ game worlds of any kinds. In the role-playing game roguelike “6-Sided Sojourn”, the small planets are shaped as six-sided dice. Anyway, they are not rotatable, so the player can only move their character into one of two directions. Whenever the cat knight jumps on a new field, the whole world moves with it. Another interesting world design concept can be found in “Annulus”, where the whole world is designed like a cross section of a pipe.

Nonetheless, there are also many rotatable circular worlds to be found, just like the marble maze platformer “World en abyme”, where you have to guide a little orb to a door by tilting the world. The platformer shooter “Noizy” also features such a world concept and makes a great usage of a minimalistic color palette, which consists of black, grey, white and red. All the enemies and dangerous level elements are painted in red, but they can only be perceived when they are placed in the front.

About curiosity, obsession and isolation

About curiosity, obsession and isolation

Whenever we play a game, we become a bit more ‘isolated’ of our usual world for a short amount of time. That does not mean automatically something bad, because a game can provoke our imagination and it can lead us to a completely new, fantastic world. The cute puzzle adventure “Candy Cave Story” is about this kind of positive isolation: A little girl imagines her small child’s room as some kind of dangerous dungeon, where the wardrobe is not the place for the coathanger anymore, but for a speaking skeleton, while her little cat acts as a mean spider.

But we all know that isolation is often something bad for people. Whenever we get totally obsessed by something, we tend to cut off our important connections. We end up alone, just like the protagonists in “Becky’s very very Small and TOTALLY not mundane World” and “Darts Are Everything”. In the last named game the character is so much in love with his favorite sports, that he even handles everyday life tasks with his dart arrows. His partner and friends cannot take it any longer and outcast him.

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Other submissions for the thirty-eighth Ludum Dare are about another kind of isolation and their effects: Forced isolation. For example, in the rampage game “Den” a monstrous creature breaks out of its cage to seek for revenge, while in “eiland” the character awakes on an island and tries to escape it somehow. None of both games explain how exactly it comes to these circumstances: Things just happened, now you are isolated and you want your freedom back. Only the effects of this forced isolation get displayed. “Alchemist’s Prison”, a game where you have to mix up several potions for your customers, tells you a bit more of its background story. Some witch caught you and now you have to work for her.

However, there is one very special game, which is very close to my heart, that does not just put your character into such a scenario, but will let you feel a strong, empathetic connection with it: “A Mind Is A Small Place”. This altgame shows you the effects of a depression by putting you in a bizarre ‘dreamscape’, which is actually a living nightmare for many people. In each room you have to answer a call from someone you love or at least loved once. These messages are acting as a mirror for the actual stage of your depression.

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Forced isolation can also be found in “OUTWORN INSTINCT”, where some time-related magic trapped the character into his own flat, and in “To do list”, where we have to fulfill several tasks like lawn mowing or repairing the roof each day. What is remarkable about the last entry is that we as players become witnesses or rather voyeurs. With each passed day the protagonist reveals his own madness a bit more thanks to the forced isolation. He lives on a small island in the middle of the galaxy, all alone. Some day he starts to speak to a self-made scarecrow, he raves on gigantic maggots and also he reveals his darkest secrets.

Some games also thought about the importance of curiosity in that manner. In “Daily Routine: the smallest worlds are the ones we get stuck in” you will not complete the game when you are not curious about trying things in a different way; when you just follow the instructions, you will lose. However, incautious curiosity can be dangerous as “Until Tomorrow” shows. In this game, the hero wants to explore the world behind his own home, because everything and everyone in his village is boring. This decision will make him just more alone.

Society as a small world

Society as a small world

But what happens if game characters cannot be alone at all, regardless if they do not want to be alone (like in “Six Degrees of Separation Between Me and the Party”, where two people want to find out which person in their expanded circle of acquaintances could help them to join a party) or if they are not allowed to be? This question is the center of many games about social interactions.

Small worlds are often just small spaces, so that you cannot have much free space for yourself. Such a ‘breathing room’ must be found in “Awkward Party”, where you just want to get out of the whole situation. Nearly the same scenario can be found in “Fancy meeting you here”, but here you also try to be polite by doing some small talk with your encounters. The whole constellation can be reversed though: In “Party in Buntingville”, you are not the guest, but the host, and naturally you want everybody to have some nice and friendly conversations and not raging discussions about politics and other contentious topics, even if you have to use some violence to guarantee that.

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Other submissions were also about conversations, but on a much more abstract level, and thereby they are showing different elements of communication itself. For example, you have to morse correctly letters in “Go Morse Go!” under time pressure. By doing so, you are in the role of a medium in general, because only thanks to you and your transmission skills people are able to communicate. Same can be said about the idle game “Talk Isn’t Cheap”, where you have to connect places with each other with the most up-to-date communication technology, when you have enough money to do so. In both games you connect small worlds with each other, so that they can stay in touch. You act as a go-between or rather a mediator.

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Same can be said about the puzzle game “Smalltrek”, where you have to place different aliens of several species on one tiny planet. The problem is that some of them dislike each other or that they have other very particular preferences about their surroundings.

Another attempt to use the concept of society as a small world can be found in the online drawing game “IN CHARACTER”. It acts as a perfect summary of the creative aspects of fan cultures. You can create little comic figures in there, create fan art for characters other players have drawn, you might get some feedback for your work and of course you can also write comments for your most beloved fan art. But of course there are more serious games as well, like the mini game marathon “S.A.V.E.🐣”. It shows the impact of human activities regarding climate change and animal rights in a drastical, but also deceiving cute way.

Feeling of oppression

Feeling of oppression

Arena shooters like “tinyarena” and “SUPER Space Barrel” also were often submitted. Both games are crowded with enemies, which always provides a feeling of oppression for the players, as the action space is fairly limited and they have to react quickly to succeed.

The concept of the ingenious platformer “Dungeon In a Bottle” also leads to such a feeling, but it is realized by transforming the whole level itself to the enemy. The two walls of a room are moving to each other constantly and the only hope of the character to escape out of his misery is to push one wall away, while finding the precise timing to jump to the exit.

Microcosms: It’s not a feature, it’s a bug!

Microcosms: It’s not a feature, it’s a bug!

Game jam entries tend to get an inspiration from life itself to find an appropriate setting for a specific theme. So it is absolutely understandable that many participants of the thirty-eighth Ludum Dare thought of small worlds in our everyday world, and voilà, the first ones that may have come to mind are the habitats of insects. Some of these game follow a comedic approach like the hilarious “Ant Detective”, where you have to solve a murder mystery, while you also find out about a huge conspiration. It is just like your stereotypical detective game, but with ants as characters as well as sometimes subtle, sometimes over-the-top insect-related jokes.

The metroidvania “Bugyard” is also a bit more unrealistic thanks to the built-in abilities like the larva shooter, but it is adorable and funny at the same time. In both games the microcosms of insects act as an appropriate, but kind of replaceable reference for their game worlds. The games would work easily with any other context and their worlds do not feel really small at all.

That is something that is different about the platformer “Lovebug”, where the cute insect tries to paddle over an enormous lake to get to its partner, but sometimes the dragonflies come by to bully him. The little lad cannot do much besides paddling and spraying out some toxic, with which he can banish them for a short amount of time. The protagonist here is not some mighty, strong or witty character, but just a tiny part of its own microcosm, which makes the game feel much more reliable to the actual theme. Same can be said about “Holy Shit! A Spider !!!”, where you have to control a hungry arachnid to protect it from being slaughtered by a newspaper, a human’s finger tip or nasty bug spray.

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Other game makers imagined their own macrocosms, like the ones behind “Flovala”, a game in which the players control an unknown species, which has to eat smaller creatures while trying to hide from the bigger counterparts. Just the plants in the background imply that these creatures are super tiny. Meanwhile you can find a fantasy setting in “Fast & Faeries”, where you control one of four little cricket-like faeries in a race that they hold in their own magical forest.

Woodlands seem to be an important inspiration for this kind of games, as the puzzle platformer “Last day of the woods” proves. It features beautiful platformer like the fungi, that can run and shoot spores. Whenever they get hit by one of their specimen, they run away in the shooting direction, which led to some very interesting and challenging level design decisions. Chain reactions of mushrooms were also the core mechanic in “Song of Fungus”, where players have to turn all of them into their own color in a limited number of turns.

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Some entries dug even deeper for the concepts of their game environment, right into the spheres of the nearly invisible. In “Inside Inc.”, the players control a microscopically small spaceship, which has to shoot away dangerous viruses, so that those cannot hurt the immune system of an already sick person even more. Meanwhile the wonderfully strange puzzle platformer “Quantum Frustum” showed off its splendor by taking advantage of the quantum theory. In this bizarre world some platforms just appear when you do not look at them and might even change.

Inside technological worlds

Inside technological worlds

But Mother Nature was not the only source of inspiration, as many developers chose technological ones as their paragon. For example, in “Signal?” you are trapped inside a dangerous video cassette recorder, but whenever you get killed there, you can just rewind to a better instant of time. Other entries like “Brainstorm 38” and “Arcade Planet” addressed game development itself. While the first one is about the level design of a platformer before it gets coded, the second one shows the core elements of five popular arcade games and how they can work with only one single world.

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The last games in this article series went absolutely crazy on the meta level. While you could assume at the first glance that “The Treachery of Game Dev” is just some random “Snake” clone or maybe a little puzzle platformer, it actually gives the players the option to code inside of it. Here, you have to delve into the structure of your beloved media to progress with the help of a wonderful little code editor.

The amazing meta game “DONATA”, which offers multiple endings, also wants the players to take a closer look at it. Not only does it demand patience, the capability to read carefully anything that is being said as well as the skill to decrypt visual hints, but it also forces the ones interacting with it to think outside the box, or rather inside the directories. You have to go to the actual files of this game to understand everything. And if you do so, you will be rewarded with some thoughts you may have already known: That a video game itself can be a very small world, which was created just for you.