Gaming has its trends, and in recent times one has been the procedurally generated or “roguelike” indie game.
You could go back over decades picking out examples of this design technique, but the big inspiration for this modern flowering is the success of Spelunky. A 2D platformer that married Nintendo-quality controls with brilliant enemies and ever-changing environments, it’s not only a classic but shows why the technique is so attractive to small teams. A procedurally generated game can, if you get it right, keep surprising players for years and even decades to come.
The Swindle is firmly in this lineage, a treasure-focused platformer with an emphasis on stealth and an overarching structure that gives each individual “run” its own importance. Playing as a succession of thieves in a world of steampunk Victoriana, your goal is to filch enough cash to upgrade your thieves’ capabilities, access new areas, and steal a new crime-busting invention from Scotland Yard before 100 days are up. Each heist takes one day, and if you die then that’s that – the cash is lost, the day is wasted, and you move on to the next thief (they have great names: a particular favourite was the short-lived Pleasant Undercarriage.)
The best thing about The Swindle, around which everything pivots, is the tension between greed and safety. Anything will kill you in one hit and so every day’s level is an exercise in seeing just how far you can push your luck – when you have enough cash to get your next upgrade, but are looking at a heavily-defended room with a cash-stuffed computer inside, it’s a real decision. Personally I’m a YOLO kind of thief, which is why I have an achievement for dying while in possession of 100% of a level’s money.
Your cash is used to buy upgrades like double-jumps, the ability to hack more effectively, bombs, vision-obscuring steam, and so on. By the latter stages you’re able to take over robots, teleport through walls, stick to any surface, remotely disable security systems, and all manner of other tricks – a far cry from your lowly hopping origins.
The upgrades go hand-in-hand with the larger structure, that drive to rob richer locations and steal the ultimate prize before time runs out. Unfortunately, there are major reasons why this didn’t work for me. The biggest is that roguelikes depend on experimentation and discovery through death. The Swindle clearly believes this too, because it gives a new player absolutely no concessions – you’re thrown in without a tutorial or any explanation of how it works, and the only way to find out is to try things. This is why death, in a good roguelike, is the core of the experience – every time, you come back stronger.
In The Swindle’s case, however, the structure makes death purely punitive – not only do you lose a day, but also that character’s XP bonus (the longer they live, the more cash you can heist.) And when you finally start to get a real handle on the game, you’ve got (in my case) 30 days left on that save file. So your reward for finally starting to progress is to go back to the start where, theoretically, you should be much more efficient and race back through.
To put this in a nutshell, Spelunky is a skill game: you may end up with lots of fancy gadgets, but you don’t need them to progress, or for simply playing it to feel good. The Swindle is not about skill, but about how upgraded your character is. This is really driven home when you reset to day one for the first time, lose all upgrades, and it’s absolutely awful. Your new game’s character feels pathetically underpowered, because they are, and you’re faced with grinding through the first worlds again multiple times in order to sloooowly get your skills back. The idea of giving a roguelike a more long-term structure is a good one, but The Swindle’s execution doesn’t work for me at all.
Over time you also notice issues with The Swindle’s procedural generation. The game doesn’t have the subtlety to know how upgraded the player is, so instead relies on drawing stark divisions between the locations which depend on your owning certain upgrades. If you haven’t got them? Tough. The warehouse district is an early culprit, sometimes offering up buildings that simply cannot be accessed without certain upgrades – so you have to write off a day.
This problem infects other areas, because it means the upgrades are priced in severe increments that make it clear which one you should buy next. Which invites the question – why let the player have the choice at all? Without the upgrade system as it is, the cash wouldn’t be important, and without that the game wouldn’t work at all – so a tangle of priorities results in a system that occasionally fails its players.
Sadly it gets worse. The game’s internal logic seems arbitrary: why can enemies swing their cosh through windows, but you can’t do the same without knocking out the glass first? Why does a particular robot stop at edges every time, but one time in a hundred will fall off? Why will an exploding mine sometimes leave the same robot alive and sometimes kill it?
These oddities are married to technical failings. The suspect collision detection leads to enemies sometimes passing through the visual sweep of your cosh unharmed, intended blows next to smashed windows will instead ‘tap’ the pane above your head, and so on. Then there are outright bugs: a few times my thief has fallen on spikes (normally instant death) and landed safely in them. Hacking a mine next to an open door will see your character simultaneously close the door, while opening doors through the security system still leaves them hackable – a nightmare if a mine’s nearby, because the door’s prompt will take priority over the mine. Such things may happen rarely but, in a precision game where you’re planning moves in advance, to die when the game doesn’t behave ‘properly’ is almost unforgivably frustrating.
Precision is a particular problem with The Swindle’s controls, which by default feel sluggish. You can tweak the deadzone (ie how sensitive the analogue stick is) but it can only be increased from the default value. Add this to the miniscule delay between pressing jump and your character jumping, and it’s enough to drive any control freak crazy. This is a precision platformer where the controls at key moments lack precision, and in the hands that is just as infuriating as it sounds.
Everything adds up to a game with good ideas that is sorely lacking in refinement – the punitive flaws of The Swindle’s meta-structure and procedural generation could have been ameliorated with minor tweaks. This feels 80% of the way to a great game, but that missing 20% soon comes to dominate the rest. With a little more fine-tuning who knows how The Swindle may have turned out but, as things stand, it feels a little like being short-changed.
This article was written by Rich Stanton, for theguardian.com on Friday 31st July 2015 12.11 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010