Downwell — Minimalism in Game Design
Haikus are a form of Japanese poetry. Short and sweet, they are traditionally only 17 syllables. This format, rather than limiting, is empowering. Every syllable is significant. Each pause, every consonant is able to play a significant role. Haiku’s exhibit a form of minimalism that prioritizes depth over breadth. Ojira Fumoto, an indie game developer, explores this same style of minimalism in his game Downwell.
Early 2014, Fumoto begins development on a new game with a set of self-chosen guidelines.
“So I decided at the start that it would be a 2d platformer playable on mobile. It would have vertical levels that grew downwards. It would be played in a portrait orientation on phones and it would have some random elements like Spelunky for replayability sake”
From this basis, the manpower of a 1 person development team and the guiding direction of what he would want to play, Fumoto created Downwell.
Downwell revolves around a single tool and weapon — the gunboots. The player uses the gunboots to slow their descent and deftly maneuver around obstacles and foes. At the same time, the gunboots are a ranged attack and can plow through these same obstacles. The key for players lies in fully utilizing the gunboots by interweaving these methods to create the best path down the well.
Even though players are granted a ranged attack, Fumoto encourages stomping upon enemies. By landing on these enemy, the player reloads the gunboots, immediately destroys the enemy, and bounces up slightly, slowing their descent. All of these increase maneuverability. The small upward velocity grants the player time to think and prepare their next move, while the restored ammo grants them the means to do so. Further, stomping conserves ammo that would otherwise be spent on the enemy. And of course, the player clears the enemy from the path.
Fumoto designed these mechanics to encourage bounding from one enemy to the next. He incentivizes lengthy combos with rewards after 8, 16, and 24 consecutive enemy kills. Through these mechanics layered within the gunboots, Fumoto creates an intense and gripping experience. It is possible to play Downwell cautiously, slowly clearing out the depths by sniping enemies for afar, but the rewards and ensuing speed from bopping enemies on the head are difficult to resist — and one kill just leads to another. The player is able to slowly hone their skills, pursuing riskier jumps and chases as they feel more comfortable. The environment is adaptable to different skills levels. The player feels challenged whether they’re a novice or master by pursuing combos and eeking out those special perks.
During an interview, Fumoto revealed one of his inspirations for Downwell, a quote by Shigeru Miyamoto, the renowned Nintendo game developer.
“A good idea is something that does not solve just one single problem, but rather can solve multiple problems at once”
This is where Downwell really shines. Rather than adding more components and moving parts, Fumoto adds depth and layers. The gunboots in every aspect of their usage and interaction carve a very a specific style of play.
But for all these carefully crafted mechanics, Downwell leaves some questions unanswered. What is the best run? No high score is recorded. Is it depth? Or speed? Are longer combos more important than accumulating a wealth of gems? Fumoto provides no answer. In music, the silence is just as important to play as the notes. Through the absence of a score, Fumoto leaves these questions ultimately to the player. Do they want to concentrate upon chaining a larger combo? Have they explored the full depths of the well? Here Fumoto hands the reins to the player.