Runner: a (sort of) postmortem

A little while ago, I released Runner, a game I made alongside Jonathan Holmes and Ashley Davis. In the original release post I promised I’d write a postmortem detailing the ideas and work that went into the game.

This is that postmortem. Sort of. It’s more about what I do and don’t like about the game rather than how it was made, but you get the basic idea.

If you haven’t played the game yet, you can download the game files here (Windows only, and make sure to extract everything into the same folder). The following series of unconnected ramblings doesn’t necessarily require prior knowledge of the game, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt you to have tried it.

Anyway, hit the jump if you’re at all interested in how and why Runner was made, as well as what I think it succeeded and failed at. It’s pretty long, though.

If you’re not interested in that, I’ve at least attached hi-res versions of the art Ashley Davis did for the game.

Making the game


Fuck Matt Korba.

He’s the Lead Designer of The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom, and meeting him at GDC 2008 was pretty much what caused me to want to make a game in the first place.

As GDC was more or less my first big gaming event ever, I went into it with a pretty specific, if subconscious set of expectations. I’d always wanted to secretly make games, but I also knew that game designers were either old, insane, douchey, or some combination of the three. Only one of those adjectives applied to me, and thus I felt wholly incapable of becoming a game designer.

A couple days into the conference, Chad and I talked to the Winterbottom team and found out Korba — who is only a few years older than me — had basically taught himself Flash in order to create a prototype of his head-explodingly cool time travel game. Given that he and the rest of the team were still insanely cool and friendly people to boot, Chad and I became morose.

As we stood on the escalators leading from the show floor to the street, Chad and I lamented the fact that these college kids were creating downright incredible stuff that, even if it ended up sucking, would still be something real, and artistic, and completely theirs. As game critics, we just bitch about the stuff they make — which is fun and all — while they make actual stuff, without having to sell their souls or act like dickheads to do it.

We tried to comfort ourselves by referencing the end of Ratatouille and assuring ourselves that a decent critic can defend the new and increase public awareness of great things and all that other wonderful stuff, but I still felt like I was making excuses. The Winterbottom team’s existence proved that there was really no excuse — not money, nor expertise, nor old age and experience — to not create something on your own if you really wanted to. 

After I got home, I came up with an idea for a game, worked my way through one or two quick Game Maker tutorials, and pitched my ideas to Rod Humble and Jason Rohrer. When both of them responded positively, I started programming the game with shitty, geometric shape-based prototype art (which Humble suggested I use in lieu of actual sprites, becuase he is Rod Humble). After that, one thing more or less led to another.


Stuff I like about Runner:



Unintentionally meaningful stuff found by players

One of my biggest initial irritations with Runner was that its linearity, I assumed, would not lend itself well to multiple interpretations. I was afraid Runner would either be a game you “get,” or one you don’t. It still is that, to a degree (more on that later), but a few players came up with some really cool interpretations of stuff I’d never really thought of. 

The way the papers fly backward from the typewriter, for instance, was just supposed to be a neat visual thing, but a couple of people thought of those flying white sheets as projectiles that the Runner is effectively firing at his memories to keep them at bay. Now that I think about it, I kind of wish I’d actually programmed something in to this effect.


People avoiding the New Girl

I wasn’t sure if people would actually avoid the blonde girl once she appears in front of you, but I really wanted this to be a sort of subconscious choice the player makes — like, she looks friendly, but every other woman in the game is out to hurt you, so do you choose to go out on a limb and meet her or avoid her just as you have all the rest?

I’m sure the player’s “choice” regarding whether or not to avoid her ends up being nowhere near as deep as that in the actual game — you’re scared of touching other characters and losing, so you avoid her, or you’ve already avoided her once and were surprised by the abrupt ending so you restarted and touched her just to see what else the game had to offer — but I’m still sort of pleased that the game makes you actively frightened of really friendly-looking characters like the New Girl. Sort of.


The art, and the people who made it

Individually, Ashley Davis and Jonathan Holmes are literally the two nicest people I’ve ever met. They are also remarkably good at illustrating. Working with them was pretty much the easiest, if most guilt-inducing process in the world; I’d ask them to do something for free, they’d do it, and then I’d ask them to make eighty changes. This went on for up to six months, and neither of them complained for a second. And Jon still refuses to accept any sort of payment. 

The game’s overall look was my biggest worry during the planning stages, but I’m absolutely ecstatic with how everything turned out.


It got done

For better or worse, I made a game, and I can say I made it the way I wanted to, and if anybody asks I can say that I’m technically a game designer. This makes me happy.

The most useful piece of advice I got concerning the game’s production came from Rod Humble:

“The most important bit is getting a work process you feel comfortable with and that leads to actual code being written EVERY DAY. I cannot emphasise enough how important this is. Your work process should lead to you coding every day, it can be 5 minuites, it doesnt matter just do something, move the ball a little bit more up the hill. if you dont then you will wake up 6 months from now with a game idea and still no game.”

If I hadn’t followed this rule, I’m almost positive the game would have never reached completion. I’m incredibly grateful for this suggestion.


The visual obstruction mechanic

The idea of the speech bubbles obscuring the road is literally the only original thing in all of Runner, and without it the game would be a complete waste of time. It seems to frustrate a lot of players, which I think I’m okay with, considering that’s sort of the point.

Granted, it no longer becomes the point of the game if you get so frustrated that you stop playing altogether and delete the thing off your hard drive after a few minutes of playing it (I guess that would [poorly] symbolize suicide, or something?), but the whole idea of an already-difficult task made downright unfair by the speech bubbles was pretty much the first idea I ever had with Runner, and the fact that it successfully frustrated people is, in a way, a success. It’s supposed to feel unfair, because that’s what the game is about.

The mechanic also made the less helpful critiques easy to ignore; if a player didn’t want to put forth the mental effort to understand the obfuscation mechanic but still jumped onto their soapbox to angrily decry the game, it became exceedingly easy to ignore said criticism. Considering it’s an artgame, I initially had a lot of trouble distinguishing between legitimate critique and rantings from people who just didn’t “get it.” As unimaginably douchey as I’m sure this sounds, the obfuscation mechanic ended up being the litmus test by which I’d decide how much attention I’d pay to player critique.


Stuff in Runner that I’m not sure how I feel about:


If you get good at the game, what does that mean?

When Jonathan playtested the game with some of his friends, he told me he was surprised by how “fun” it was. Initially, I thought this was great. Hey, my game is fun! Now people will actually want to replay it, which they so seldom do with artgames!

In reality, though, the idea of Runner being “fun” — of the player being so good at the game that it becomes breezy and entertaining — sort of runs counter to the point of the game. It’s not really fun to find yourself plagued by memories of past relationships, even if you’re really good at ignoring them. 

Luckily, I don’t think too many players ever ended up getting so good at the game that it became actively entertaining.


Most people didn’t enjoy it very much

I enjoy the game and it intrinsically feels like the game I wanted to make, but I may be relatively alone in that. I initially thought that so long as I was happy with the game, I’d be fine. As it turns out, though, finding that people like your game tends to make you feel good, while finding out they don’t tends to result in the opposite reaction.

Jonathan thinks the reason our game didn’t get too much press stems from the fact that since a bunch of videogame bloggers made it, other sites might not want to give their competition more hits. He may have a point, but I think the more pressing reason may be the fact that most of the people I showed the game to just didn’t like it that much. They either didn’t get it and admitted as much, or seemed to understand it but didn’t respond with anything after I sent them the link (which would imply they didn’t enjoy it and didn’t want to hurt my feelings by teling me so).

This led directly to the fact that


Nobody played the goddamned thing

Seeing my game on TIGSource was really goddamn cool, but only about three thousand people have played Runner in total. Perhaps I shouldn’t be complaining, as there are tons of quality indie games out there that don’t attract half that many players, but I was surprised to find myself bummed out when more people weren’t downloading Runner, and that after the first two days of release no other sites wanted to report on it.

I know — boo hoo, poor me, whatever. It shouldn’t bother me at all, but does, which in turn bothers me even more.


Some people didn’t know there was an ending, or when they’d reached it

Since the game tells you not to pay attention to the speech bubbles, and since the speech bubbles are pretty much the only thing that change (and thus denote progress) for the first minute and a half of the game, more than a few players thought the game just went on forever. A friend suggested that I could change up the obstacle colors every 30 seconds or so in order to show progress, but I didn’t like how this changed the metaphor and kept everything as it is. Still, the lack of visual progression can be a real problem for players who don’t have the fastest reflexes in the world, and I’m sure a hell of a lot of people didn’t end up finishing the game simply because they didn’t think it was possible. 

Even if they did reach one of the endings, I found, about half the players I talked to weren’t positive that they hadn’t experienced a game-ending bug. I initially thought the sudden cut to the credits would be a conclusive and sufficiently artsy-fartsy way to end the game, but its abruptness confused a lot of players. I should have had the game fade slowly to black.


Stuff I don’t like about Runner:


It’s insanely derivative

The gameplay is ripped straight from Battletoads, the side scrolling feels reminiscent of Passage to me for some reason, and the art style difference between the game world and the speech bubble sequences evidently reminded a lot of people of Braid. None of these little (or huge) similarities were actually intentional save for the Battletoads stuff, but about half the comments I’ve read about Runner point out that it feels as if it’s trying to be like Braid.

Even before releasing it, however, I felt weird about the fact that, apart from the obfuscation mechanic, there’s literally nothing new in Runner (and even the obfuscation thing has been played around with by Space Giraffe and Wrath of Transparentor, by that dick Matt Korba and some of his friends).

Since I know very little programming, most of my ideas seem to be borne out of games I’ve already played. I take the existing gameplay, I tweak it in my head so that it means something else, and during production I try to comfort myself by calling whatever I’m doing an “artgame recontextualization of a classic game” rather than “a complete ripoff.”

When I had the idea for Runner after GDC 08, indie artgames were a relatively new fad. Today they’re pretty much everywhere you look, made with varying degrees of competency. On an artgame mailing list, Chris Hecker stated:

I think “pixel art + pleasant folksy music” is to art games what “normal maps + real time ambient occlusion” is for AAA games.  You just sprinkle some on, and sit back and wait for the magic to happen.  It’s a lot easier than really figuring something out!”

And, really, he’s got a point. Pixel art allows the player to superimpose their own emotions and physical details onto the minimalist characters, piano music allows the designer to seem “deep” without actually having to do any work, and asking the player to wring a bunch of hamhanded metaphors from the gameplay mechanics is a sort of cowardly way of foisting all the thematic responsibility on the audience, so that the creator can blame them if they don’t end up enjoying it. I still adore Runner‘s art and music, and would not change them for the world, but my choice to use them was a fairly uninspired one.

A year ago, there wasn’t really any such thing as a derivative artgame. Today, Runner may be the best example of one.


The game is borne out of an inherent contradiction

Runner derives meaning from two main places: the metaphor of its mechanics, and the loose narrative it tells throughout its four minute running time. This would be great, if these two things hadn’t ended up being at odds with one another.

Since the game initially presents a lot of confusing stuff to the player — who are these women, what are they saying, and what is the Runner’s relationship to him? — the player is initially locked into this mode of decyphering visual and mechanical metaphors. At the end of the game, these metaphors are put to the test when the Runner meets a New Girl, and all the vague questions from the beginning of the game are quasi-explicitly answered by what happens when you meet her. The game has a definite, intentional arc of player emotion that goes from mild confusion at the beginning of the game, to general understanding at its end.

But what if you can’t beat the game? 

The game is meant to be difficult because of the subject matter, but what if the difficulty is so great that you just pereptually remain in this state of  metaphor-decyphering confusion? What does that mean? In theory, one could say that a player constantly losing represents their inability to get over the memories of old relationships, but the player doesn’t know that. They don’t even know the game is about the memories of old relationships until they get to the end and meet the New Girl.

Failure, in this scenario, is meaningless unless the player makes it all the way to the end of the game — and considering the lack of progression feedback mentioned above, a lot of players may not have bothered to finish at all. Such players were left in an awkward interpretational limbo, where they have just enough information to be confused and pissed off, but not enough to have a full understanding of what they’re actually pissed off about.  


The player has little interpretational freedom

Since much of the game’s meaning comes from the aforementioned loose narrative, the player doesn’t really have the ability to interpret their play experience with the degree to which one might with a game like Passage. In Passage, each different way you might choose to play tells you something different about life and death. Depending on whether or not you picked up the spouse, and how many points you scored, you get totally separate but equally meaningful statements about the human condition.

In Runner, you either get through the story or you don’t. There’s a little bit of interpretational wiggle room with the really vague stuff (like the aforementioned typewriter thing) and a few subtle, binary choices you can make throughout the game (both the New Girl and typewriter can be intentionally avoided), but there’s no real sense that your method of play determines what themes you get out of it. At least, not to the degree that Rohrer or Humble’s games afford.


The ninja thought bubble

There should have been a frame with the Runner, the redhead, and the ninja all in the same shot.


The code is crap

Runner‘s “code,” if it can be even be called that, is a mess of weird alarms and needlessly complex object relationships and a bunch of interlocking drag-and-drop stuff that was not only time consuming and inelegant to implement, but made debugging way more difficult than it should have been.

Before Runner, I knew next to nothing about programming. Everytime I got confused while trying to implement something mildly difficult (like, say, variable sprite depths depending on where they are in the foreground or background), I’d go running to the Game Maker Community forums, where I got incredibly helpful advice in a matter of hours. This worked like a charm in the short term, but I also didn’t end up learning anything new throughout the game’s production (apart from the revelation that, rather than being simply bad at programming, I am really bad at programming). 

Again, I’m glad the game got done and all, but I don’t feel even remotely confident about programming my next game. I’d like to pretend that I would somehow be a smarter and more intelligent coder, but my knowledge of Game Maker is still restricted to drag-and-drop commands. In terms of sheer coding ability, finishing Runner taught me almost nothing. That’s as terrifying as it is saddening.


The controls would probably make more sense mapped to an NES or SNES controller than a keyboard

I mean, you can use Joy2Key or Xpadder or whatever, but I would have loved to put in some real gamepad support. It’s a game based on a retro level that had to be played with a controller, so it’d be only fair that the game is best played on a joypad of some sort.


It took a year to make, and I don’t know if my next game will be completed any quicker, or be any better

Since I cannot program, I will slowly write crappy, derivative, difficult-to-debug code; since I cannot do art, I will have to wait on other people who work for nothing during their free time, whose every generous creation I will criticize and complain about and ask for revisions on. This is an awful way of going about things, but it is the only way at my disposal.

It took me a goddamned year to make four minutes of gameplay, and there’s no excuse for that whatsoever. Well, maybe you could excuse it by pointing out that this was my First Game I’ve Ever Tried to Program Ever, but still — most peoples’ first games take a few weeks or months to put together. Not a frigging year. But I really don’t see any better way to go about things, short of outright hiring a programmer and an artist (which I can’t afford).

And since I am moderately happy with the final product despite the fact that most people didn’t really enjoy it, how can I improve? The ideas I have for my next game are almost completely different than Runner, but how do I know they won’t be received in exactly the same way? Should I even care if people don’t like them?

I dunno. Either way, Runner doesn’t feel like my last game.

Anthony Burch