Before game designers even begin to make a game, they must answer two very important questions: what will the player do in the game, and how will that be fun? Answering the first question may be fairly simple, although answering the second requires an entirely different process. Unlike other media styles before them, video games have the quirk of requiring the audience to participate in the experience instead of following the path set by an author or director, thus also having the requirement of being fun in order to hold the audience’s attention. Because of this, during a development cycle, designers will put their ideas through rigorous phases of playtesting before releasing the game to the public so that they can more accurately trim the game’s content to what makes it fun. Even then, however, there’s no guarantee that the audience will find it fun upon commercial release, no matter how properly tested those ideas were. Sometimes this can be due to the game’s own foundational faults, however, people also have a natural tendency of “optimizing the fun out of a game,” as Civilization IV designer Soren Johnson remarks noting how players will always abuse the cracks in his design, making it less fun for themselves. Despite this monstrous task, some games manage to mitigate this problem by incorporating systems that prevent themselves from being abused, and Downwell accomplishes this venture.
Initially released in 2015 and developed by Ojiro Fumoto, Downwell is a fast-paced platformer about racing to the bottom of each level, following a man called Welltaro and his journey to save a cat while battling monsters along the way. Fumoto cleverly protects players from turning the game into a mindless grind and pushes them into a style of play he finds most fun.
Every system in Downwell revolves around a single core mechanic: Welltaro’s gun boots. Unlike most other means of offense in platformers, the gun boots can only fire downward, instantly leaving the player exposed to threats from above and giving him incentive to run away from them. Firing them also slows down Welltaro’s fall, giving the player better control over progression in a level. Although, they have a limited amount of ammunition before requiring the player to reload, which can be achieved by landing on the ground or stomping an enemy, the latter of which is the riskier option. Furthermore, Downwell features a combo system, which offers the player rewards with gems, the game’s currency, health, and extra ammunition for killing as many enemies as he can without touching the ground. This not only offers an additional dimension to the game’s skill ceiling, but also incentivizes the player to take risks by stomping as many enemies as possible and shooting more for locomotion than offense.
Even with this combat system, however, the player can still find a repeatable, comfortable playstyle that will quickly bore them, which is why Fumoto adds even more variety to the gameplay through different guns. In most scenarios like this, people will usually try a few of these guns but only stay with a few favorites, but Fumoto forces the player out of their comfort zone by rewarding them with health or ammunition for cycling between them, making them choose between their favorite play style or valuable resources. In this manner, Downwell rewards the player for fully experimenting with its mechanics, thus keeping it consistently fresh.
Downwell features many more tricks such as finding ways to always make gems valuable throughout the game or using its randomly generated levels to force players to master the systems instead of simply memorizing their layouts. All of these elements come together and form a very compelling gameplay loop, which contains only few and minor abusable cracks. Despite all of the effort to keep Downwell fun, its ultimate destiny just like any other game is to become boring because of human nature. In A Theory of Fun, Ralph Koster mentions how wanting a game to be fun means fighting a “losing battle . . . because fun is a process and routine is its destination.” By nature, humans will always look for the solution that yields the most results from the least effort, and not knowing that ultimate solution is what makes a game fun. Downwell does little to hide its ideal solution but compensates that by making its mastery incredibly difficult. Even then, however, it will only be a matter of time before the player masters it with practice, which can be seen as a reward unto itself. So even if games can’t be fun forever, at least we can enjoy our time with them while it lasts.
Thumbnail. “Downwell.” 15 Oct. 2015, https://store.steampowered.com/app/360740/Downwell/.
Johnson, Soren. “GD Column 17: Water Finds a Crack.” Designer Notes, 12 Jun. 2011, https://www.designer-notes.com/?p=369.