We have it fairly easy when it comes to controlling video game heroes for the most part.
Generally speaking, pushing right makes you go right; pushing left makes you go left; hitting the "jump" button makes you leap into the air, optionally with some sort of "woohoo!" noise. This is the conventional and accepted language of "traversal," as it tends to be called these days, and it's become such a firmly ingrained part of how we understand "games" that both developers and players sometimes struggle when we're confronted with something new like motion controls, Kinect or touchscreens.
Of course, part of the reason for this is that these new input methods often find themselves saddled with old-fashioned, largely incompatible control schemes -- the most egregious example of which is when developers shoehorn virtual thumbsticks and buttons into touchscreen games. But what happens when a game has been deliberately designed to use an unconventional control scheme -- whether it's making use of a new input method like Kinect, or experimenting with new ways of using an old one, like a dual-thumbstick setup?
That's the question that independent developer Jordan Brock and his team at Hit the Sticks are hoping to answer with a new Cthulhu-inspired game called Mark of the Old Ones.
In Mark of the Old Ones, you take on the role of a tentacled... thing -- actually a person with tentacles sticking out of his back, if the concept art is to be believed -- and must navigate your way through an increasingly perilous open-world 2D environment. The twist is that said tentacled thing can only move around by using its tentacles to grasp on to various parts of the environment, meaning you'd better get good at swinging and grabbing if you want to get anywhere.
The game requires a joypad, and makes almost exclusive use of the thumbsticks. Pushing a thumbstick directs that tentacle to reach out and potentially latch on to something; once attached, you can swing and extend or retract the gripping tentacle while at the same time manipulating the other one to "pull" you along. The game also features a "rocket" boost that causes you to hop into the air, and a "slow time" function that makes it easier to grip on to moving platforms. For the most part, though, it's about carefully swinging between your two tentacles and "walking" along the ceiling. Not easy to get to grips with -- no pun intended -- but rewarding when you do.
I had a play with an extremely early prototype of Mark of the Old Ones recently and can confirm it does indeed take a while to get used to using your two hands independently to direct the two tentacles. After a short period of adjustment, during which you will probably swear a lot as you find yourself inadvertently flinging your tentacled thing into walls, floors, ceilings, spikes and pits of flames, you will find yourself naturally relaxing into a rhythm. It's like learning to walk or ride a bike for the first time again -- initially frustrating, but something you can clearly see yourself getting better at over time.
The level design currently present in the prototype helped with the learning process. Beginning with a safe, hazard-free environment in which you're free to experiment and mess up as much as you like without worrying about falling into deadly traps, the game gradually introduces new tricks to you at a good pace, beginning with chains that are affected by physics and eventually moving on to moving platforms, swinging pendulums and perilous swings from stalactite to stalactite over a pit of flamey death. It's designed in such a way that by the time you reach something new to get your head around, you should be at least reasonably comfortable with the previous mechanics you learned.
Mark of the Old Ones is in such an early state that there's no real art or story as yet -- just a prototype that gives you a feel for the basic mechanics with a minimalist wireframe aesthetic that calls to mind 8-bit classics like Thrust. The final game will include a much more authentically Lovecraftian aesthetic if the concept art (which you can see on Hit the Sticks' website) is anything to go by. It'll also include an ongoing story that is "horrifying without being horrific," according to Brock -- firmly in keeping with traditional Lovecraft, that -- and full of suitably weird goings on.
Brock tells me that the final game will follow a Metroidvania-style open world structure, and that exploration will be an important part of how the narrative unfolds as a whole. He also notes that a couple of criticisms I had about the prototype -- the fact that there's no real tutorial, plus it can, at present, be hard to distinguish between the two tentacles -- will be addressed in the final version rather than simply throwing players in at the deep end.
Mark of the Old Ones certainly has the potential to be a very interesting game. The control scheme is, as you might expect, something of an acquired taste -- but it's one of those experiences where, when you master it, you feel genuinely pleased with yourself. Then you get overconfident and fall into a pool of lava.
If I've piqued your curiosity with this quick look, you can actually play the very same prototype I tried over at the official site. Note that since the game is a pre-alpha prototype, it's not really optimized and as such requires a reasonably powerful machine to run, along with a 64-bit operating system -- Windows, OSX or Linux. You'll also need a gamepad with dual thumbsticks, as that's sort of the essence of the whole control system.
Give it a shot; once you've tried it, let's hear what you think in the comments!