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[release] Roguelike Simulator

Screenshot of a monochromatic pixel-art game designed to look mostly like ASCII text

On a recent game night, glip and I stumbled upon bitsy — a tiny game maker for “games where you can walk around and talk to people and be somewhere.” It’s enough of a genre to have become a top tag on itch, so we flicked through a couple games.

What we found were tiny windows into numerous little worlds, ill-defined yet crisply rendered in chunky two-colored pixels. Indeed, all you can do is walk around and talk to people and be somewhere, but the somewheres are strangely captivating. My favorite was the last days of our castle, with a day on the town in a close second (though it cheated and extended the engine a bit), but there are several hundred of these tiny windows available. Just single, short, minimal, interactive glimpses of an idea.

I’ve been wanting to do more of that, so I gave it a shot today. The result is Roguelike Simulator, a game that condenses the NetHack experience into about ninety seconds.

[release] NEON PHASE

It all started after last year’s AGDQ, when I lamented having spent the entire week just watching speedruns instead of doing anything, and thus having lost my rhythm for days afterwards.

This year, several friends reminded me of this simultaneously, so I begrudgingly went looking for something to focus on during AGDQ. I’d already been working on Isaac’s Descent HD, so why not keep it up? Work on a video game while watching video games.

Working on a game for a week sounded an awful lot like a game jam, so I jokingly tweeted about a game jam whose express purpose was to not completely waste the week staring at a Twitch stream. Then someone suggested I make it an actual jam on itch.io. Then Mel asked to do a game with me.

And so, thanks to an almost comical sequence of events, we made NEON PHASE — a half-hour explorey platformer.

[release] Mario Maker: The Wreck

Difficulty: very easy
Quality: ★★★★☆

I was rolling a Doom random level theme generator for speedmapping purposes, and one of the prompts it gave was “The Wreckage”. I didn’t really know how to make that in Doom in only an hour, but I did know how to make it in Mario, so I did.

The additional rules were “no monsters” and “no stairs”, so neither of those things appear in this level. It’s quick and entirely atmospheric. I like it. Though it’d be slightly better if I’d correctly named it “The Wreckage”. Oh well.

[release] Inktober

Inktober is an ancient and hallowed art tradition, dating all the way back to sometime, when it was started by someone. The idea is simple: draw something in ink every day. Real ink. You know. On paper.

I tried this last year. I quit after four days. Probably because I tried to do it without pencil sketches, and I’m really not very good at drawing things correctly the first time. I’d hoped that forcing myself to do it would spark some improvement, but all it really produced was half a week of frustration and bad artwork.

This year, I was convinced to try again without unnecessarily handicapping myself, so I did that. Three weeks and more than forty ink drawings later, here are some thoughts.

[release] I entered Ludum Dare 36

Short story: I made a video game again! This time it was for Ludum Dare, a game jam with some tight rules: solo only, 48 hours to make the game and all its (non-code) assets.

(This is called the “Compo”; there’s also a 72-hour “Jam” which is much more chill, but I did hard mode. Usually there’s a ratings round, but not this time, for reasons.)

I used the PICO-8 again, so you can play it on the web as long as you have a keyboard. It’s also on Ludum Dare, and in splore, and here’s the cartridge too.

Isaac's Descent

But wait! Read on a bit first.

[release] Under Construction, our PICO-8 game

Mel and I made a game!

We’d wanted to a small game together for a while. Last month’s post about embedding Lua reminded me of the existence of the PICO-8, a “fantasy console” with 8-bit-ish limitations and built-in editing tools. Both of us have a bad habit of letting ambitions spiral way out of control, so “built-in limitations” sounded pretty good to me. I bought the console ($15, or free with the $20 Voxatron alpha) on a whim and started tinkering with it.

The result: Under Construction!

pico-8 cartridge

You can play in your very own web browser, assuming you have a keyboard. Also, that image is the actual cartridge, which you can save and play directly if you happen to have PICO-8. It’s also in the PICO-8 BBS.

(A couple people using Chrome on OS X have reported a very early crash, which seems to be a bug outside of my control. Safari works, and merely restarting Chrome has fixed it for at least one person.)

I don’t have too much to say about the game itself; hopefully, it speaks for itself. If not, there’s a little more on its Floraverse post.

I do have some things to say about making it. Also I am really, really tired, so apologies if this is even more meandering than usual.

[release] I made a Doom level

Yes, dear readers, I have a confession to make. Despite spending 29,000 words explaining why and how you should make a Doom level, I’ve yet to actually publish one myself.

I’ve been… orbiting? the ZDoom community for over a decade, but only really contributed in the form of minor wiki edits and occasional advice. I started a good few maps when I was a teenager, but I tended to get bogged down in making some complicated contraption work, and then get bored with the whole idea and lose interest.

More recently I’ve actually made a few maps that got as far as having an exit (!), but I never really finished them, and I haven’t published them anywhere.

So when the Doom Upstart Mapping Project 2 was announced, with the goal of just getting something done with the short time limit of a week, I figured I should give it a shot. And I did. I spent six straight days doing virtually nothing but working on this Doom map.

Results: pretty good! I’m pretty happy with it, and a few people have played it and enjoyed it. I put a lot of thought into it — or tried, anyway — and have a lot to say about it, so this is my developer commentary.

I’ve described the course through the map as I go, and I’ve tried to include some context for people whose knowledge of Doom is only “you shoot monsters”, so I hope it’s at least a little accessible. It’s really long, though. Again. Sorry. Not actually sorry.

[release] Mario Maker: …

Difficulty: fairly easy
Quality: ★★★★★
Secrets: —

I removed the music and only used monochrome obstacles, with very few actual enemies. No pickups, no secrets. It’s short, linear, pretty easy, entirely thematic.

The result is interesting.

[release] Mario Maker: The Works

Difficulty: fairly easy
Quality: ★★★★★
Secrets: 🍄🍄🍄🍄🍄🍄

This is great. I put a lot of effort into polishing it. I even set it aside for a while because I wasn’t happy with it, then came back and fixed it.

It’s fairly long, but doesn’t have any particularly tricky parts. Pretty atmospheric, I hope. Not all of the 1-ups are hidden, and not all of the hidden details are 1-ups.

I don’t even want to say anything more about it; I feel like I’ll ruin it. Just play it.

[release] Mario Maker: Purgatory

Difficulty: fairly easy
Quality: ★★★☆☆
Secrets: 🍄🍄🍄🍄

I had three hours left at the end of a night, and I decided to use them to speed-map a Mario level. Two hours later, I had this. It’s fairly simple and straightforward as a result, but still a fun quick romp.

The theme is fairly shallow: there’s a “heaven” overworld and a “hell” subworld, and you shift back and forth a couple times on your way through the level.

I watched someone try to speedrun it shortly after I uploaded it, and I was delighted to see that they managed to skip the hell area entirely. Seems appropriate.

[release] Mario Maker: Pipe Dream

Difficulty: easy
Quality: ★★★★☆
Secrets: 🍄🍄🍄🍄

I bumbled upon a pipe-themed level while playing 100 Mario Challenge, and decided I wanted to do one. Unfortunately I hit the warp pipe limit much earlier than I’d expected, so it’s only partially pipe-themed. Still, I’m pretty happy with it.

I keep trying to make levels that are easier, more interesting, and less linear, and I think this is the first time I really feel like I hit that mark. I only spent a few hours on it, too.

[release] Mario Maker: Mount Erebus

Difficulty: fairly easy
Quality: ★★★☆☆
Secrets: 🍄🍄A + trick to make the boss easier

There’s a story behind this.

I was bored and wanted to make a Mario level, so I asked Mel to pick a tileset. They said castle. So I made a castle level.

I didn’t say it was a very good story.

I’m a little unhappy that you can get hurt with little warning in a couple places, but I think it’s balanced out by how short the level is.

If you’re curious, this is named after a level from the original Doom, which in turn is named after the southernmost mountain on Earth.

[release] Mario Maker: Free Will

Difficulty: entirely in your hands
Quality: ★★★☆☆
Secrets: 🍄🍄

I want to call this “experimental”, but then, aren’t all of these experimental?

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is games where the plot isn’t actually necessary. The world isn’t ending, your life isn’t in danger, it’s just a fairly standard story. And the game never explains why the protagonist needs to do it. It’s just taken for granted that the protagonist wants to go through the story, because that’s how games work.

(I can’t actually think of examples of this off the top of my head, now, but I know I’ve run into it.)

Of course, players tend not to notice this, because the entire point of playing a game is to do the thing that the game offers. So sometimes that’s the only reason the protagonist wants to do it: because the player wants to do it. Because it’s a game, and if you didn’t do it, there’d be no point.


Here is a completely trivial level. You can just immediately run to the goal. The point of Mario games is to reach the goal, right? There’s nothing stopping you here.

Or is the point to enjoy the experience of traversing a level? If you do that and enjoy yourself, even though none of it got you any closer to the goal, didn’t the level still serve its purpose?

Up to you!

[release] Mario Maker: Cookie Dough

Difficulty: fairly easy
Quality: ★★★★☆
Secrets: 🍄🍄🍄🍄

Vanilla Dome has a cool aesthetic and an unusual style — you navigate up and down through caverns, rather than mostly to the right as is common in Mario. I tried to capture some of that here.

This was the first time I tried to do any real narrative things with the detailing in the level. Not some grand coherent plot; just little hints that life is happening here and it’s not necessarily centered around you. I love that in games.

There are also quite a few branching paths, which is a little difficult to cram into Mario Maker where the world can only be two screens tall. Jamming in a lot of secrets made it even harder, but I managed. See if you can find them all! No backtracking required, I think.

There’s a boss battle at the end, though the solution is unfortunately not as obvious as I’d hoped. A surprisingly tricky problem is finding ways to force the player to actually beat the boss, rather than scurry past it. (I’m not sure anyone has picked up on what the boss is, either.) It’s a real shame, because it feels clumsily tacked onto the end of what is otherwise a pretty nice level.

Overall I think this could use a little bit more cohesion, but I’m pretty happy with it.

[release] Don’t use pickle — use Camel

Don’t use pickle. Don’t use pickle. Don’t use pickle.

The problems with Python’s pickle module are extensively documented (and repeated). It’s unsafe by default: untrusted pickles can execute arbitrary Python code. Its automatic, magical behavior shackles you to the internals of your classes in non-obvious ways. You can’t even easily tell which classes are baked forever into your pickles. Once a pickle breaks, figuring out why and where and how to fix it is an utter nightmare.

Don’t use pickle.

So we keep saying. But people keep using pickle. Because we don’t offer any real alternatives. Oops.

You can fix pickle, of course, by writing a bunch of __setstate__ and __reduce_ex__ methods, and maybe using the copyreg module that you didn’t know existed, and oops that didn’t work, and it’s trial and error figuring out which types you actually need to write this code for, and all you have to do is overlook one type and all your rigor was for nothing.

What about PyYAML? Oops, same problems: it’s dangerous by default, it shackles you to your class internals, it’s possible to be rigorous but hard to enforce it.

Okay, how about that thing Alex Gaynor told me to do at PyCon, where I write custom load and dump methods on my classes that just spit out JSON? Sure, you can do that. But if you want to serialize a nested object, then you have to manually call dump on it, and it has to not do the JSON dumping itself. There’s also the slight disadvantage that all the knowledge about what the data means is locked in your application, in code — if all you have to look at is the JSON itself, there’s no metadata besides “version”. You can’t even tell if your codebase can still load a document without, well, just trying to load it. We’re really talking about rolling ad-hoc data formats here, so I think that’s a shame.

But I have good news: I have solved all of your problems.

[release] Mario Maker: Tiny–Huge Island

Difficulty: medium, has some annoying spots
Quality: ★★★☆☆
Secrets: 🍄🍄🍄🍄

I love any kind of parallel-areas gimmick, and since you can make large versions of basically any critter in Mario Maker, it was begging for this. It’s named for a world in Mario 64, which I played only briefly but found memorable anyway.

It’s surprisingly difficult to come up with puzzles that actually require large monsters, and even harder to come up with ones that require small monsters. In the end, I think all but one of the puzzles can be solved in either world, though one way is always considerably easier than the other. I like alternate solutions, and heavily dislike when game designers add obvious artificial roadblocks to seal off alternate solutions, so I’m fine with this.

There are some places that are a little harder than they ought to be, which is a shame, but it’s my most popular level nonetheless. I’m itching to make a sequel, but this was incredibly tedious to do, because you can’t actually copy anything across areas. All of it was done manually.

[release] Mario Maker: Spoopy Manor

Difficulty: slightly tricky, not in a good way
Quality: ★★★☆☆
Secrets: 🍄🍄 + “secret exit”

Boo houses are cool. Mario Maker adds a Boo house theme for the classic Mario tileset. Awesome.

I tried to make this moderately confusing and weird, as Boo houses ought to be. I think I may have overshadowed that a little bit with some annoying jumps into Boo circles, though. And unfortunately this predates checkpoints, though it direly needs one.

Still, I enjoy playing it just for the strange environment, so maybe you will too.

[release] Mario Maker: Test Flight

Difficulty: tricky, not in a good way
Quality: ★★☆☆☆
Secrets: 🍄🍄🍄

This is my first Mario level, hence the title. It… is not particularly great.

The concept was okay: you start out in what seems like a cheerful easy level, then you suddenly hit a wall. You have to go down a pipe to progress, and surprise! It’s not so cheery any more.

Unfortunately it’s a bit worse than “not cheery”; it’s cramped and kind of annoying. The original idea was actually worse than how it came out — I’d intended that you have to cross the entire second area, get a cape upgrade, and then backtrack without losing the cape. You need the cape to reach the exit, so if you lost it, you were screwed. I found out that you could actually skip all the backtracking pretty easily, and I was relieved enough that I left it in.

Suffice to say, I would do this very differently if I did it again now.