The Small Worlds of the Ludum Dare 38 – Complete Version


The Ludum Dare celebrated its 15th birthday with the 38th edition! Over 2.900 games were created from April 21st to 24th, all under the same theme: “A Small World”. While we already recommended a bunch of entries the last few weeks, Sebastian Standke wrote an articles series about the several different approachs to the theme. So come on and join us in discovering the various representations of “A Small World”! The first part of our little close-up series starts with small planets and the limitation of the players view.

Small planets

Small Planets

Very often the participants of the 38th Ludum Dare thought of small worlds in a sense of small planets, so that many games with a space setting were created. I mean, that’s quite an obvious idea, right? Anyway, some of those planet games were heavily relying on physics-based game mechanics, for example “Techium Eclipse” and “In Good Hands”. In both games you have the same goal: You have to protect your planet from falling meteors and you do that by rotating the whole planet itself.

The little physics ‘anti-shooter’ “SLINGSHOOT” also is a part of the physics-planet-games, but it’s working in quite another way. Here aliens are trying to shoot you and also there are a bunch of asteroids, but by moving your planet close to the bullets or celestial bodies, you can manipulate their way, so that they destroy themselves eventually. As you can see, the goal of protecting a planet was a pretty common one. Another good example for that is the entry “Tiny Defense Planet”. It’s a simple defense-shooter with a bunch of laser weapons and shields and other stuff, where you have to fight against space-dolphin-alien-things in best retro fashion.

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But violence, action and protection aren’t the only core motifs of those games. Actually, there’s a bunch of planet games which were kind of relaxing. In “Blomst 🌻” you have to terraform different heavenly bodies by planting different flowers on them and in the atmospheric “Floraison” you even vitalize barren environments just by your movement!

But what I really loved were the little rhythm and music games about planets. 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 kinds of interaction exciting, because you have to learn about the functionalities, dependencies and structure of your little world to create something beautiful. But hey, if you’d rather like some silly planet fun, why don’t you try out a round of “Interplanetary Billards”? There your billard balls are – who would have guessed – tiny planets, who have get sucked in by a black hole. But take care that you don’t vanish…

Big world, limited view

Big world, limited view

But as we all know, planets are originally big worlds in general. We could wander on our Earth and explore it for years. With that thought in mind, some developers tried to use big planets as small worlds by limiting the players view on them. A great example for that are the puzzle exploration games “Bunosphere” and “Pip Sweep”. In both the players can just see a tiny part of the whole environment, so that they have to remember specific locations and the way to them to solve the several puzzles successfully.

The linear shooter “Monolith” also allows its players just one only way to triumph over the enemies. Each encounter is well planned, the view has to be focused on the hostile units – literally, because you can’t shoot on them without looking in their direction for a longer time.

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Another way of limiting the players view of the game world is by letting them interact with it via an interface. For example, in “The Deep” you have to complete different tasks (like mining minerals and chasing away dangerous leviathans) for your employer 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 have the control over the hatches, et cetera. So your possibilities to interact with the external environment are splitted, which allows the game to generate an illusion of a small world, while it’s actually huge.

An additional interface an be found in “Pod2000”: Here the players have the full control over 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 arrives on a new place, he can explore it for a bit – then he will send pictures and audio files, which create an excellent atmosphere. Just by hearing and seeing what he hears and sees, we can build a connection to the planet and him. We always just get tiny parts of the whole world, but they still mean something.

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How else can game makers limit the view of their audience? Correct, they can hide the game world and reveal its whole grace bit by bit. Most games with dungeon settings like the roguelike RPG “Paisley Princess” do exactly that. Each new (and truly tiny) room of its dungeon can be just explored by getting deeper and deeper into it. Each floor means a whole new environment with different kinds of monsters and rooms to explore. The game 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 its ability of hiding the world off in an even more spectacular way. The character here never moves from one screen into another, but by solving little switch puzzles and succeeding in reaction challenges the player can explore new rooms of the catacombs. A wonderful experience.

Sim World 2017 – Create it yourself

Sim World 2017 – Create it yourself

While I already pointed out the importance of planets as environments and characters in the first part of this article series, I want to show another usage of planets in the entries for the 38th Ludum Dare: They can be the whole motivation of a game. There’s a bunch of games where you have to take care of a new world.

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 planet. Meanwhile you have to deal with an existing Earth in “Your World: A Delicious Earth Caring Simulator!”. By ‘feeding’ it humans, science, plants and other stuff, it becomes habitable. In such games we get a small part of a later bigger world and help it transforming into a wonderful place for any lifeforms. But not always those things go well. In the simulation “Genesis Planet Kit”  we are in power of a planet-generating machine, which builds small worlds by combining items like toy cars and a cup coffee and iron bars. But if you aren’t cautious, you could also create a tiny black hole in your room. Whoopsy-daisy!

Other games give you the oppurtunity to redesign an existing tiny planet. In the lovely weird 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’s fun either way. Or take the drawing game “WORLD Paint”: You can choose between several background images and place items in there, to create an absurde world. Want a cheeseburger under the sea in the near of a cute fish? No problem. Your imagination brings it to life.

Many developers also tried to create a building simulation; the most polished one of them might be “Little Lands”. Here you have to build several structures like windmills, farms, houses and others to keep your population happy and to gather enough resources to build a ‘space ship’ to escape of your little floating islands. Usually such simulators take too much time to make in two or three days, but it seems that with the help of a theme like “A Small World” it’s possible, simply because you don’t have to invent too many building and interaction types anymore.

Generally spoken it means that having a smaller game world in mind can lead to creating a smaller, but still remarkable game experience, just because you can focus on the essentials. In this sense, “Our little island” was very minimalistic, but still effective. Here you have nothing else to do but to collect the branches and plants that your cute ‘monster’ brother fished out of the sea. By putting the branches together, you create your own little world, your new home.

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 stuff like cardboard boxes, sofas, doors and tables on each other. The puzzle metroidvania “TINY” makes a cleverer usage of the stacking mechanics. Here you play as a super strong creature, which can stack whole buildings on each other to reach new unknown areas and puzzles.

Some of those games can be very tricky. Take “Therrain” as an example: In this game you have to defend your island and the structures from some kind of ‘acid’ rain. Whenever you fought 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”. Here the players have a fixed 5×5-tiled playground. Each turn they are forced to stack a new tile on one already existing field. This way can alter the path of the rabbit to lead it to oases or to new enemies. There are two basic problems, though: First of all, you can’t stack as many tiles as you want to on a field, which can make the whole area useless. The second problem is you can’t change the tile you have to place, which can make it very hard to create a working path.

A tale of snow globes and jars

a tale of snow globes and jars

But what happens with a game world, if it’s completely bordered? Many Ludum Dare participants thought of exactly such a world: A world in a container, especially snow globes. It seems like globes carry a magical aura with them. They allow to tell stories which are just possible in such a scenario, and that way many narration-based games and toys were created.

“Glass Houses” for example 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”, (which has a masterfully executed voice-over, by the way!) after she was jinxed into it.

But some of those games want to evoke the players imagination. They don’t tell one story, but they give narrative splitters to a bunch of them! In “Globe” you have to click mysterious buttons to get to see something, while in “Scenes in a Globe” you just have to rotate the tiny audiovisual toy to get involved in the atmosphere of a farm, a desert or even the whole universe. It’s amazing.

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But snow globes weren’t the only choice, of course. In “Tiny Worlds in Flasks” you are allowed to build your own world in petri dishes and bottles, while “Bon Voyage” invites you to several trips in a little suitcase, where you have to collect stickers so you can adhere them to it.

Another kind of container was a cardboard box: In “[BOXAVERSE]” you find a small magical box where tiny humans live in it, but they are evolving much faster as we do. The first day they are in the Stone Age, the second day they live in the Middles Ages and the day after they live in the future. Each scenario is filled with new puzzles, so that you can help them out.

I also adored the puzzle game “A World in a Jar”: Here you have to mix several kinds of soil and seeds with each other to create new plants. It made me thinking about all the possibilities and potentials of such a small space, of all the things that can be created in it.

Shrinking, growing and modifying

Shrinking, growing and modifying

There was an important question for many of the game developers of the Ludum Dare 38 entries: How could they evoke a feeling of smallness for the players without reducing their interaction possibilities with their game? One possibility was to shrink the character, while he was in a normal sized world; that’s exactly what happened in “Uncharted Dreams – Fate of the Miniatures”. That way the cord of the ear buds could become a grappling hook and the small passage between the nightstand and the window becomes a enormous chasm. Others thought of shrinking the world over time, just like in the arcade game “Retro Rabbit”, where the character has to pull out some dangerous space weed, which takes the size out of the planet.

We could say that the key to understand the excitement in those games was to create a game world, which transforms itself somehow, instead of a static one. That feeling of a changing world can be provided by implementing several concepts. The puzzle game “The Witless” for example used portals to connect a ‘big’ and a ‘small’ world with each other, which always changes the perception of each of them. However the core mechanic of “Skylands” forced the players to shrink and grow the world at the same time: Whenever you build a normal 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 reduces your action space.

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It’s hard work for a game maker to find a fine balance between such shrinking and growing mechanics. 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 – and whenever a huge wave comes to eliminate you, you will find yourself nearly helpless. A pretty similar approach can be found in the ‘are(n)a’ fighting game “Echo Lands”: As soon as you destroy a vase with a heart in it and collect it, your little island grows, but when an enemy hits you, it shrinks. To be successful in those games you have to show off an amazing capacity of reaction.

An interesting and challenging concept provided “Obelisk”. Your only goal in here is to reach the upper tile of a 3×3 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 may open new paths for you. This way of modifying a world is simply stunning in my eyes. But the platformer “U-Turn” proves that a game doesn’t have to give the players the control over the modifiability of the world. Here 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 environment changes. It get can bigger, new enemy types can appear, the water rises, et cetera – and all that happens under time pressure for you.

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The concepts of other games were focused on the aspect of growing the world itself or the elements in it. In the formidably looking “GardenGarden” you have to water obscure plants and to merge them with their fellow species to get new ones, while you have to find a balance between eating flowers and to water them with your tears (I’m not kidding) in the platformer “Dwelling”.

“A Growing Adventure” however 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 Tamagotchiesque adventure “Flurpies” works kind of the same way: By evolving the cute little fella over time, it can get bigger and stronger and by doing so it will be also able to explore unknown areas of its environment.

Change of perspective

Change of perspective

Some other games just skipped the whole growing aspect and turned their characters into giants in a world of dwarfs. While you go out on a rhythmic rampage trip as a basketball playing Godzilla clone in “Super Kaiju Dunk City” (well, why not?), you just try to get to work without harming anyone in“Regular Monday”. The puzzle platformer “Super Collapse Boy” also played with the change of perspective, but in another way. The character in this game can collapse a 3D world into its 2D version and vice versa. With that mechanic it’s easy to overcome big gaps between the platforms, but it also requires a good understanding of the level design.

Gamejams make the world go around

Gamejams make the world go around

Another interesting trend was to implement circular game worlds of any kinds. In the RPG roguelike “6-Sided Sojourn” the small planets are shaped as six sided dice. Anyway, these aren’t rotatable, so that the player can just move its character into one of two directions (downer left and downer right). Whenever the kitty knight jumps to a new tile, the whole world moves with it. Another interesting world design concept can be found in “Annulus”, where the whole world reminds of a cross section of a pipe.

Of course you can find many other rotatable circular worlds as well. like the ‘marble maze’ platformer “World en abyme”. Here you have to move a little orb to a door by tilting the world. Another rotatable world can be found in the platformer shooter “Noizy”, for which the developer chose a very minimalistic color palette (black, grey, white and red). All the enemies and dangerous level elements are painted in red, but they can be just seen when they are placed in the frontal part of the world – a quite clever usage of such a world design!

About curiosity, obsession and isolation

About curiosity, obsession and isolation

Whenever we play a game, we become a bit more ‘isolated’ of our normal world. That doesn’t mean automatically something bad, because a game can provoke our imagination and it can lead us to a completely new, literally fantastic world. The cute puzzle adventure “Candy Cave Story” is about exactly that kind of positive isolation: A little girl imagines her small child’s room as some kind of dangerous dungeon, where the wardrobe isn’t the place for the coathanger anymore, but for a speaking skeleton – and her little kitty plays the role of its life as a mean spider. In that case, isolation can make something more exciting.

But as we all know, isolation is pretty often something bad. 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” (spoiler: it is totally mundane, because Becky just works all day long) and “Darts Are Everything”. In the last named game the character is so much in love with his favorite sports, that he even does everyday life activities with his darts. His girfriend and friends can’t take it anymore and outcast him, so that he will take his own life in the end.

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Many entries of the Ludum Dare 38 dealt with another kind of isolation and their effects: Forced isolation. 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. “Alchemist’s Prison”, a game where you have to make several potions for your customers, tells you a bit of a background story: Some witch caught you and now you have to work for her. Oddly enough, you can’t even try to escape your new small world – you always just go with it and follow the instructions.

But then there’s another special game, which doesn’t 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 ‘dream’ land. In each room you have to answer a call from someone you love(d?). These messages are like a mirror for the actual stage of your depression. It’s hard to explain, just play it yourself, it’s one of the best entries of the whole Ludum Dare.

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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 for each day (like lawn mowing, repairing the roof et cetera). What’s remarkable about the last named entry is that we as players become witnesses: With each passed day our protagonist reveals his own madness 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 self-made scarecrow, he raves on gigantic maggots and also he reveals some dark 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 won’t win the game when you aren’t curious about trying things in a different way; when you just follow the instructions, you’ll lose. But incautious curiosity can be dangerous like “Until Tomorrow” proves: Here our hero wants to explore the world behind his own home, because everything and everyone in his village is boring. But that decision will make him just more alone.

Society as a small world

Society as a small world

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

Small worlds are often just small spaces, so that you can’t 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 don’t play the role of a guest, but of the host – and here you want everybody to have some nice and friendly conversations and not raging discussions about politics and stuff, even if you have to use some violence to guarantee that.

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Other games are also about conversations, but on a much more abstract level. 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 of you 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 way of communication, when you have enough money to do so. In both games you can connect small worlds with each other, so that they can stay in touch. You act as a go-between, so to say: As a mediator.

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Same can be said about the puzzle game “Smalltrek”, where you have to place different aliens of several races on a tiny planet. The problem is that some of them dislike other races or that they have preferences where to stand. You have to figure out the best order for all of them.

But there are also a bunch of other attempts to use the society as a small world like the one that can be experienced by playing the amazing online drawing game “IN CHARACTER”: It’s a perfect summary of the creative aspects of fan cultures. You get the task to create little (comic) figures and to create fan art for figures drawn by other players. And hey, you can even get and write comments for your most beloved fan art! It’s a wonderful little toy to feel almost instantly joyful. But of course there are more serious games as well, like the mini games series “S.A.V.E.🐣”, which shows off the impact of human activities in the matter of climate change and animal rights in a drastical, but also kind of cute way.

Feeling of oppression

Feeling of oppression

I already stated, that small worlds often equal small places. By following that thought it’s a logical conclusion that are(n)a shooters like “tinyarena” and “SUPER Space Barrel” had to be created. Both games are crowded with enemies and that way they are providing a feeling of oppression for the players: 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 feeling, but it’s realized by transforming the whole level itself as the enemy. The walls 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 and way to jump to the exit of each room. That’s far more difficult as you might think now – and it’s brilliant.

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 our normal life to find an appropriate setting for a specific theme. So it’s absolutely understandable that many participants of the 38th Ludum Dare thought of small worlds in our everyday world, and voilà, the first ones that may 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 conspiration. It’s just like your stereotypical detective game, but with ants as characters as well as sometimes subtle and sometimes over-the-top jokes (many of them related to ants, d’oh). The metroidvania “Bugyard” is also a bit more unrealistic thanks to the abilities the developers built in (like the Larva Shooter), but it’s cute and funny at the same time. In both games the microcosms of insects are just an appropriate, but kind of ‘replaceable’ reference for their game worlds. The games would work easily with another context and their worlds don’t feel really small at all.

That’s something that’s different about the platformer “Lovebug”: Here 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 can’t do much besides paddling and spraying out some beetle toxic, with which he can banish them for a short time. The figure here isn’t some mighty, strong or witty character, but just a tiny part of its own microcosm – and that feels much more reliable to the jams theme. Same can be said about “Holy Shit! A Spider !!!”, where you have to control a hungry spider to protect it from being slayed by a newspaper, a humans finger tip as well as bug spray.

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Some game makers imagined their own macrocosms: In “Flovala” the players have to control an unknown species, which has to eat small enemies while trying to hide from the bigger counterparts. Just the plants in the background imply that these creatures are pretty tiny. Meanwhile you can find a fantasy setting in “Fast & Faeries”, where you control one of four little (cricket-like?) faeries in a ‘racing’ contest in their own magical forest.

Woodlands seem to be a fascination for those games in general, like the puzzle platformer “Last day of the woods” proves. One of its most beautiful game mechanics are the ‘shooting’ and running fungi. 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 very limited number of turns.

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Some entries digged even deeper for their world concepts, right into the spheres of the nearly invisible. The players take the role of a tiny ship in the immune system of a sick person in “Inside Inc.”, which has to shoot dangerous viruses away. Meanwhile the wonderfully weird puzzle platformer “Quantum Frustum” showed off its splendor by taking advantage of the quantum theory – in a bizarre, Escheresque world some platforms just appear when you don’t look at them, and they change as well. That may feel too random for some of you, but I think you should absolutely give it a try.

Inside technological worlds

Inside technological worlds

But Mother Nature wasn’t the only model for small worlds in the 38th Ludum Dare – many developers chose technological worlds of different kinds as their paragon. But in which sense are technological worlds small ones, you might ask? One answer to that is by taking a specific point of view of the stuff that’s going on inside of an apparatus. For example,

in “Signal?” you are trapped inside a dangerous VCR, but whenever you get killed there, you can just rewind to a better instant of time.

Other entries addressed game development itself. Both, “Brainstorm 38” and “Arcade Planet”, were about the creative processes of developing a game for a limited space. While the first one is about the level design of a platformer before it gets coded, the second entry shows the core elements of five popular arcade games and how they can work with the same environment.

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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 “Snake” clone or maybe a little puzzle platformer, it actually gives you as the player the possibility to code a bit inside of it. You have to delve into the structure of your beloved media to progress there with the help of a wonderful little code editor.

The amazing meta game “DONATA”, which offers several endings, also wants its players to take a closer look at it. It doesn’t just demand the players patience, their capability to read carefully anything what’s being said and their skill to decrypt visual hints, but it needs them to think outside the box or better inside the directories. You have to go to the file level of the 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 just created for you.