Atom Heart Smasher

I was digging through my old stuff and thought I’d share a tiny prototype:

Atom Heart Smasher Click here to download (7.2mb)

I grew up on a healthy diet of adventure games. Space Quest, Hero’s Quest, Monkey Island, Sam & Max - I fell in love with the characters, the stories, the absurd geography. I eventually made my own little adventure game, Pilot Light, and later tried my hand at a more ambitious attempt, Atom Heart Smasher.

AHS was a side-project I worked on after work hours in 2007. Like a lot of my prototypes, I used it as an opportunity to try something new to me and something stupid.

The new-to-me part was the heavy use of dialogue. I love to write. But for my games, I try to stay sparse on text. I feel games are at their best when you’re interacting and playing them – it’s a tough sell to force the player to just sit there and read your prose. With that being said, I thought I’d make this a game where the player just sits there and reads prose.

The stupid part I wanted to experiment with was the overall structure. I wanted to make the game based on a series of branching outcomes. For example, you make an early decision  whether to call an ambulance for Lucky Luca, or to let him rot in the desert. When you later play as Lucky Luca, that decision would determine the scenario you’d play: 1. escape from ambulance custody, or 2. rot in the desert and search for water. Choices made in those scenarios would determine later scenarios, and so on and so forth.

Games that are fun to play are sometimes not so fun to develop, and vice-versa. Playing AHS is fairly enjoyable, but developing it was a mixed bag.

For one, the branching overall structure was indeed stupid. It’s production & content hell (duh doy), and I didn’t like that restarting the same game over again was a fundamental part of gameplay. It felt tedious and disrespectful of the player’s time.

Secondly, the dialogue-heaviness drove me kinda crazy. Writing it was fun. But as a developer, it drove me crazy that a huge part of the game had the player just sitting there reading swathes of text. “Swathes of text” is a good description for a lot of games out there, (incredibly successful ones at that) so this boils down to personal taste.

Lastly, it was around this time I became interested in making games with systems-driven mechanics. I’ve long been interested in games that explored this space - the simulated world of Thief and the systems-heavy X-Com are my two top titles - but being able to create and implement game systems requires some level of technical expertise. I was familiar with various game tools, but programming was something I was still learning.

I started teaching myself programming around the year 2000, by poking around the Half-life source code and John Carmack’s Quake2 code. When I say “poking around,” I mean I tweaked random numbers and excitedly looked for what changes it made in the game (note: that excitement was never justified). It wasn’t until 5+ years later did I feel proficient enough to make completely self-contained games (Grotto King, Gravity Bone), and it wasn’t until 10 years later that I coded my first game from scratch (Flotilla).

When I finally gained some loose semblance of coding skill, I slowly steered toward developing more systems-driven gameplay, placing more authorial control in the hands of the player instead of the developer. But time and time again, I find myself using adventure games as a reference point and feeling that itch to make one myself. I don’t think it’s any fluke that some of the most notable games out there - System Shock, Deus Ex - are a hybrid of the best parts of adventure games combined with more systems-based game mechanics.

(and yup, I shamelessly repurposed the the title of this game for Atom Zombie Smasher)