Some games aren't done justice with just a still screencap. Some, like the 2017 survival-platformer Rain World, have to be seen to be believed. And what better way to be seen than with what may be best described as an animated image, better known as a GIF?
Since the early 2010s, the image format known as GIFs (or, "Graphics Interchange Format") have become the way to show video games off. Some may argue the trend started with Tumblr, with its once-horrific 1mb limitations. Others will point to the development forums TIGsource (The Independent Gaming source), where devlogs live and die by screenshots and GIFs of progress. In recent years, it's drifted to Twitter, where likes and retweets spread interest for games far and wide, making it not only a way to share progress in dev circles—but has morphed into a promotional tool for those without PR studios at their behest too.
"Rain World specifically is like all about procedural animation so it doesn't really make sense if you just see a still shot. It's all about seeing the movement of the character," says James Primate, half of the development team behind Rain World, Videocult. "We started posting little snippets of character movement and stuff like that and it kinda just got into our brand I guess. I think honestly it was probably the main reason the game got as successful as it did. It almost makes more sense in GIF format than it does in game format because games are like this big complicated world where like a million things are going on, but a GIF you could just capture like a couple of seconds and you can see this, like, story take place."
On TIGsource, you'll still find an active forum thread that started in 2013 simply entitled, "GIFs of games being worked on." Five years and 280 pages later, developers still post GIFs of their in-progress games on there. The hashtag #ScreenshotSaturday on Twitter has bent to the trend too. As it's not screenshots people are sharing anymore: it's mostly GIFs. And the popularity of GIFs is no small feat. They're used as reactions to respond to friends. They've become memes. And for potential fans, it takes a lot less effort to watch a GIF on its infinite loop than to click on a video. If a game GIFs well, people will undoubtedly pay attention.
The point is: GIFs are everywhere, and if a game isn't GIF-friendly, it suffers the pressure of being lost in the crowd of the hundreds of daily releases across Steam, GOG, itch.io, and more. As a consequence, a lot of the successful indie games we've seen in recent years fall in either two categories: either they stream well (prime for Twitch and YouTube fodder), or they GIF well. The pixelated detail of Hyper Light Drifter, the adorable art of Night in the Woods, and so on—for many of the biggest indies in recent years, a striking art style that looks great in motion helped propel it.
The Slugcat That Could
"I guess at the time when we were kind of in midway of development of Rain World—it was like 2013, 2014 I guess—and now GIFs are like, developers always are sharing GIFs, right? Like every game comes out, you [see] a million GIFs," says Primate. "But I guess at the time [we were doing it] it really wasn't all that common." Rain World's devlog actually began before that period, way back in 2012, complete with GIFs posted by Primate's co-developer Joar Jakobsson.
The GIFs communicate a lot about Rain World, too. In it, you play as an adorable part-slug, part-cat creature. The slugcat may be cute, but the world it has to survive in isn't; it's dreary, dark, and constantly threatening. Its ecosystem is out to kill it. In motion, you see this dichotomy play out alongside the physics-based pixelation of slugcat escaping whatever is on its tail.
Primate describes himself as not the ideal source to speak on what warrants a "success" in indie gaming, describing himself as "basement dwelling indie game art weirdo." But for what Rain World saw in its early days of sharing devlogs on the development forum TIGsource, which later blossomed into GIFs being shared across social media, was that people were excited about sharing animations of the little slugcat that could. The hype even leapt overseas thanks to its wordless nature, where a Japanese streamer once posted a GIF of Rain World, only for it to blow up with 15,000 retweets and twice that in likes. With GIFs, the reach of Rain World was bigger than the developers could have dreamed; but like Primate notes, that doesn't necessarily extend to other metrics of "success."
At launch, Rain World attracted middling reviews due to its high difficulty. In spite of the so-so critical reception, the developers persevered. In the months following its release, Rain World was patched with an easier mode and also the addition of local co-op.
"It doesn't actually correlate with sales necessarily. Like we did fine, but Twitter as a platform is almost its own entertainment medium and liking and sharing things is its own currency almost, and it doesn't really actually apply to the real world of sales and numbers and stores and stuff like that," says Primate. "Like it's almost as if the people who are sharing that stuff on social media, the only thing that they really care about is the GIFs or is the fan art. [...] It's not so much about the game itself, it's about like the sharing and the excitement and enthusiasm."
GIFs as Game Design
At this year's Game Developer's Conference during The MIX's offsite indie showcase, Knuckle Sandwich developer Andrew Brophy tells me of how he first generated buzz for his WarioWare-inspired RPG in 2015. And it all came down to trailers and GIFs, of course. In between explaining how EarthBound—the game Knuckle Sandwich is most compared to in media coverage and tweets from fans—wasn't really an inspiration because, simply, "[Australia] didn't have EarthBound," he elaborates on his use of GIFs. Or more specifically how the practice of making GIFs has ushered in a "new way of game design" in recent years. Game design inspired by imagining how something will look in action, and capturing it in a little, infinitely looping animation for the world to easily see.
It's undeniable that games with a charming aesthetic reign supreme in today's social media climate. We've seen it with Glumberland's Animal Crossing-Harvest Moon-Pokemon hybrid Ooblets, which debuted on the web in the summer of 2016 with a devlog and GIFs to show it off. Fast forward to February 2017, where it was confirmed as a Microsoft exclusive along with the announcement of Double Fine publishing it; not bad at all for an ambitious little slice of life game. We saw it more recently too with House House's Untitled Goose Game, where you play as a sneaky rude goose ruining people's day. The goose is cute. The GIFs (and demo I played last year) were cuter. And now, Untitled Goose Game has ridden into a publishing deal with Panic, and even had a sizable booth at PAX West this past summer—all for a game without a proper title yet.
Among these GIF-borne achievements are the developers behind the upcoming game What the Golf?, which earlier this year completed a successful Fig crowdfunding campaign. What the Golf? is kind of the perfect example of the modern GIFable game: it's adorable, it's funny (thanks to its heavy reliance on goofy physics), and it parodies other games, such as Superhot and Clustertruck. To sell the concept of turning the sport of golf into an endlessly silly endeavor, its campaign was not so surprisingly driven largely by GIFs and other moving formats.
"[When] we were planning to do our Fig campaign page, we thought, 'oh well what should we write?' It's difficult to write something about this game because it's not like 'oh hey we have a billion guns and we have like level editors,'" producer at Triband, Peter Bruun, tells me way back during this year's GDC. "But so it ended up just being GIFs. Well that's a little bit—we had to write something. But it's only GIFs and that worked out well."
And it very much is. Scrolling down its campaign page, it's loaded with GIFs; so much so that those with rough internet are probably suffering. But it doesn't really matter: as using GIFs to explain your game has become the norm for a lot of developers, like a new language that speaks beyond words. For the team behind What the Golf?, sometimes the GIFs used on social media don't even make it into the final product.
"Many of the GIFs we have aren't even in the game and might never get there. Like for Valentine's we made sort of a Valentine's GIF that's probably not going to be an actual level. Those are just for the GIF," says Lasse Astrup, a programmer at the small Copenhagen-based studio. GIFs, they tell me, are also handy for showing outside sources, like any other parties interested in the game, What the Golf?'s potential. "Sometimes you need a GIF to prove it. Like I showed you a prototype and nobody cares. Then you put it on about this GIF [sic]," trails off Astrup. "[Then] post it on Twitter. And then if that's popular they'll come back and say, 'Oh it's GIFable,'" finishes Bruun.
The Social Media Pressure
While looks can be everything, when a GIF breaks through the noise, it depends mostly on luck. At PAX West 2018, World of Horror developer Paweł Koźmiński, also known as Panstasz, shrugged at the notion of how his 1-bit, Junji Ito-inspired horror game entered the public consciousness thanks to sharing its development on the internet. "I still haven't cracked the code for maximum retweets," Koźmiński says. "But yeah, I'm trying to share my current work. Stuff I'm happy with, I'm proud with. And I feel the work will defend itself."
For some, the pressure of the expectation to share the game development process, whether through GIFs or not, is overwhelming. Jenny Jiao Hsia, a developer on games such as Beglitched, Stellar Smooch, and Morning Makeup Madness, has recently been cataloguing her development of Consume Me, a personal game about the harms of obsessive dieting that she's co-developing with frequent collaborator AP Thomson. Like most of Hsia's games, Consume Me maintains a lovable art style in spite of its dark subject matter. So much so, that she's even dialing back sharing GIFs after someone stumbled on her work and found themselves triggered to a dark time in their life; the realization helped urge her to reapproach how she promotes her development progress online.
"I wanted my development to be like accessible visually and I made a lot of [GIFs]," she says. She doesn't know quite where her GIF-making ways started, but points back to her co-developed iOS game Stellar Smooch from 2014 as maybe where it began. "I think [I made] almost too many because I ended up obsessing over people's perception of the game and worrying that like 'oh, the game's not going to live up to like these 300 likes,' if that makes sense." Nowadays, Hsia largely sticks to videos and screenshots to show off development.
"I think [making GIFs] definitely shaped my development," Hsia adds, specifically crediting how her games are very physics-based for silly purposes. "For me, I realized that stuff that got a lot of hits included just like emotional expressions. You know, I can't say this is like 100 percent for sure, but I just get a hunch that people like responding to GIFs when there's like a character who is making goofy face or who's upset. And there's something there that is more relatable than, say, like a GIF of Tetris food pieces."
Even though Hsia has taken a step back from posting GIFs of Consume Me nearly every day—she even notes how she unfollowed everyone on Twitter a year ago to resist the urge to dwell on social media—she still struggles with the habit. "It's like I post something and I think it's really good, and it doesn't get that number that I wanted to get and then I'm just like 'man, did I just like totally embarrass myself,' you know? I'm really trying my best to just not get into that mentality because I think it's like really not a good way—I mean it's not a good use of time to feel that way," she says. "But I think making those nice GIFs contributed to me developing that kind of attitude."
In recent years, GIFs have become the unspoken rule for what games generate likes and retweets and whatever else on social media; dictating which games eagle-eyed critics will scoop up to write about. Where word of mouth used to be one of the only things that carried games, now it's the expected social media savvy of developers too. It casts a shadow on the games that don't necessarily GIF well—the ones without sugary art styles, the ones that are mechanically sound but don't have the aesthetic to field adoration at a cursory glance. It's the sad reality a lot of independent developers are facing today: that shareability in 2018 is a necessary evil (or good) in game development now, shrouding video games with the promise of likes. Sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse.