To Give a Game

Exploring Ludum Dare 

There are too many Ludum Dare 26 submissions for one person to sift through. Altogether, there are 2346 games for this event alone. 

Started in 2002 by Geoff Howland, Ludum Dare (or, LD48), is a condensed, themed game-making competition spanning 48 hours (with a parallel-running 72-hour “jam.”) Contestants then have three weeks to rate each other’s games on criteria including “fun,” “innovation,” “mood,” and “theme,” naming winners - though there’s no prize, just glory and (for all entries) the retention of IP rights.

This voting process - wherein games are rated on grades from 1 to 5 - is one I wonder about as I look through this variety of games. Where does the overwhelming popularity of some comes from? While games win in a variety of categories, the overall winner (MONO by TimTipGames) and the jam winner (Leaf Me Alone by Claw) - though quite clever and well-executed - are a little more reminiscent of popular styles than some of the more overlooked ones. I’m glad to play them, but I am curious what else is there to be uncovered. The games in this competition often feel like little samplers of a creator’s style and I’d like to taste as many as possible. 

For the latest event, held from April 26th-29th (the next one is scheduled for August), the themes were “minimalism,” and the joke alternate, “potato.” Plenty of games offer familiar mechanics with themed aesthetic twists - sidescrollers, puzzle games, et cetera. But part of LD48’s charm is the opportunity it extends to sparks of mad genius. Take, for instance, Potato or Big Minta Bronson: A Vegetable Love Story by James Earl Cox III, which is a series of surreal, “nightmare” minigames. 

Not that every game needs to be an acid trip into kaleidoscopic weirdness to merit attention. Submissions like Alan Zucconi’s deliberately Minecraft-ian Tower of Pixel, asks you to build a tower using a limited number of blocks in the environment. The little game manages to squeeze a lot of play out of few elements. Zucconi, a first-time competitor, tells me that the time constraint allowed him to put aside perfectionism and “get stuff done.” 

The maker of physics-meets-Piet Mondrian game MONO tells me that his winning game was the result of a frustrated creative process. Perhaps MONO is symbolic of LD48: the game was forged through sheer determination and is made of a cohesion of “features” that its author, Tim Hantel, didn't know where else to put. He reflects on LD48 with an appreciation for the way its structure enforces focus and tenacity, rather than getting “lost in small details.” 

Constraints have a history of breeding innovation. Take Naked Shades, by Porpentine (who also made climbing 208 feet up the ruin wall, for the competition) and designer/programmer Andi McClure. The jam collaboration is the first MMO made in hypertext interactive fiction maker Twine. Interactive Fiction may evoke minimalism, but perhaps not “MMO” - one where you can’t see, only feel the influence of others. It’s an atmospheric, text-based world where one fights lamias and consumes the corpses of the fallen. 

“Originally the game was underground in stony labyrinths and much more about moody exploration,” Porpentine explains. This is preserved in objects like the piano, for instance. 

“The piano started as just, ‘what if we had a piano that people could play, wouldn't that be creepy in light of the asynchronous nature of the game?’ if someone plays a piano in the same room as you, but you can’t see them, that’s creepy.” 

“It’s much more experimental than most online games, but still minimal - it has exactly as many systems as it needs, and they all interlock,” Porpentine tells me. The game has an ephemeral feel but an internal logic—the environment feels vivid and alive. 

Naked Shades is an example of why I advise against assuming the winning games are necessarily the “best.” 

“The idea of ‘the more you vote, the more visibility you get’ is nice and I understand that tried to avoid ‘the more popular you are, the more votes you get,’” says Zucconi, who likewise doubted the effects of mass visibility on creativity. “…[It] is very rare for me to design something that aims to reach ‘as much people as possible,’” he says. 

The most recent LD48 results, separated by category.

Hantel believes the rating process could be improved, since it can engender lopsided results: “The numerical rating system just takes the average of all ratings for a game in a given category…That seems to be a bit outdated given that only a tiny fraction of all participants will rate your game. This allows for non­representative results especially for games that get only a few ratings and are thus vulnerable to statistical outliers (in a positive as well as in a negative way),” he says. 

Porpentine suspects that the rating process often represents a popularity contest, telling me, “Some of the most interesting games kind of hover at the periphery, usually picking up a decent place but still getting crowded out.” 

Porpentine explains that “more votes aren't necessarily better - what you want is consensus.” She explains that 1 ratings - the lowest grade - are what positive consensus helps an entry avoid. She invites me to consider which games tend to get 1’s - and that winning games have a tendency to pander to voters with familiar, safe settings, stories or mechanics, or by having the most polish. 

“It’s like, who can get the shiniest wrapper.” 

And so I browse a site where the top-rated entries are spoon-fed to me, but I want to see more. I want to see the breadth of creativity, the limits against which creators pushed to realize their visions. Maybe it’s that the winning games are so sophisticated for the time spent making them, or maybe it’s the cultural currency they possess for voters, but they don’t speak for all the entries. Winning games are worth playing - both for their own artistic merit and for what they may tell us about the much-vaunted “indie values.” But the power of LD48 doesn't start to shine through until you begin to really sift through the myriad entries, a diversity congregating in a virtual space to test themselves, share their creations, put their voices out there even if they might get drowned out.