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Why I Worked on a Puzzle-Platformer

by Randy OConnor on 05/01/14 06:40:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Escape Goat 2 is out.


Ian and I worked on it for sixteen months. We had critical programming help from Katelyn Gadd and Ethan Lee; and fantastic musical assists from Rich Vreeland (aka Disasterpeace), Dave Shumway, Ian's wife Mary, and a couple others. 


[Random side lesson! I have to applaud Rich for how strongly he has branded Disasterpeace. Even though he's a friend, I can't mention him online without feeling the need to add the Disasterpeace moniker. It's clearly valuable to wait for a company/game name that really sticks. And then make it a thing.]


It is a platformer where you solve puzzles.


Many reviews mention the game being "another" puzzle platformer. This bothers me, but I get it. You think of a ton of puzzle platformers going back twenty years, and then you check out mentally. You think Braid, you think Thomas Was Alone, a billion games on Kongregate, Fez, The Swapper

In most games, the environment is static until proven dynamic. Escape Goat is different.


I got to help playtest Escape Goat 1. It looked like an NES or Amiga game, but at the flip of a switch, the world would shift in ways impossible for old hardware. Platformers are often static environments with physical/interactive objects selectively inserted. They are one of the early types of game, and the lineage is clear. Escape Goat broke down a common assumption of puzzle-platformers, of most games, by constructing a space that can be dynamic as easily as static.


We may not be a roguelike, but Escape Goat is about systems.


DayZ is popular for the same reason basketball is popular. There is a system with a set of actions, and each player's success is based on limited knowledge of that system and the variables currently in play. Roguelikes embrace how we love storytelling games like Diablo and Zelda and Half-Life, but also how we want the world to be consistent. So many games strip away our weapon when we enter a safe area. A roguelike says that you can attack your ally, and he'll get mad, or he might die from your attack. His behavior is consistent with other characters in the game, enemy or ally.


The reason I fell in love with Escape Goat when I'm usually tired of puzzle-platformers myself, was an awareness of how fundamental the systems are. Every element has value and danger. Almost every single block and gadget and character can combine without fear of the system falling apart. The single-screen amplifies this. The thing about the game is that the editor is the roguelike, and the player gets to experience the distillation of that possibility space.



In Escape Goat, the level editor encapsulates the design philosophy of the game.


Ian designed the level and world editor (in public beta right now!) to be controlled with a gamepad, and by extension to encourage rapid iteration. Watching Ian design levels is like watching him compose a song. He knows the system. Every block and gadget is a note, every space is a rest. Copy a block with Y; drag the thumbstick to the right a smidge; hold down A; slide your thumb around, dropping new copies of that block in rapid succession. Left and right triggers flick through the different higher-level block options; press X to edit a block.


At any time during development, Ian had a ton of levels in progress. Each of them were his sketches, ideas, pressed into reality as easily as I filled my sketchbook with goats, because of the fluidity of the editor.


Ian was a perfectionist fighting that impulse. He spent months on the Escape Goat editor, he spent months on the physics. He wanted to be able to fill the entire screen with explosive barrels, and if the game freaked out, then the engine wasn't done. If the editor prevented him from easily making the changes to make a level better, it wasn't good enough. If the elements in the editor weren't consistent, if the world wasn't tangible, if the pieces fell apart when he tried to combine them, well then, what was the point?



The puzzles in Escape Goat are merely manifestations of the system, natural occurrences from throwing everything at the system and seeing what interesting things could happen.


The environment is the true story of Escape Goat. The protagonist is subservient to the systems around him, just trying to free himself. The goat is the size of a block. 


For me, I wanted to support Ian's level design, his system design, and that meant that every single piece in the game be a completely independent artistic element. Any block can be dropped alongside any other. Not only that, but we even systematized the decorative blocks. You can flip a switch and make the forest level into an Egyptian temple level or ice caves and it will look correct.


The systems of Escape Goat 2 are freeing. Any region, any tileset, any level, any block, they are all as important or unimportant as the next. Escape Goat 2's world design is agnostic, and this is the subtle yet important choice Ian made when he first made Escape Goat. The editor lets you make what you feel and doesn't judge you for it.



-Randy is an indie who just helped release Escape Goat 2! He is working on an iPhone game and a boardgame. He worked on Waking MarsSpiderDead End HDDistractions.


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