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The idea of "just one more go" is pervasive in the rogue-like genre. Randomized levels means that next time pretty much everything will be different, excepting yourself and your ability. Another world, another generation, another roll of the dice to see if what the game throws at you might perfectly match the game's difficulty with your ability.
Size Five Games, better known as Dan Marshall, hopes that he has nailed the genre's promise of discovery and reward in The Swindle, which is releasing on July 28th. It casts you as a thief in steampunk London, slipping into houses and eluding security bots to grab as much dosh as you can before escaping in a steam pod and counting the quid back on your airship.
Beyond the milieu, what really sets The Swindle apart is you only have 100 days [meaning one hundred lives] to steal as much as you can before the government installs an omniscient surveillance device [meaning Game Over]. That limit creates a tension against the natural "one more go" rhythm of the rogue-like.
"The Swindle is a game about death and greed, and I think one of the best ways to learn about its baddies is to die at their hands quite a lot."
“The idea was always that you leave the level whenever you like,” he tells me. “It’s a burglary job, right? There’s no running from right to left and then you’re done.” What this means is that you decide when you’ve amassed enough of a take to make this a good use of one of those hundred days. But if there was no limit, you could just grab the easiest cash over the course of thousands of plays, slowly working your way up in a low-risk manner.
“The 100 days limit came in as another resource, separate from money, and as soon as it went in it made the game so much more exciting because it made the money mechanic much more interesting to play with.” Marshall continues. “You know that you need £30,000 to get this upgrade you need, but you’re not sure you can get it, you’ve only got a few days left. Once it was brought in, it focused the design a lot, and made the game feel a lot more pressurized, which I think it needed, as it’s about burglary.”
Spelunky is a clear influence, and Marshall is open in his admiration for that game. “The great thing about Spelunky is that you learn stuff," he explains. "It doesn’t log those things in a database for you--that database is your brain. You’re never really back at square one, because you have experience, and it’s not tallied on a leader board somewhere, it’s experience in yourself. You don’t need a marker on an upgrade board to tell you that you’re doing better when you can blitz the mines.”
Marshall says that The Swindle's tries to do something similar, though players may not pick up on it until they're deep in the new game. “You won’t finish it in the 100 days," he says. "When you first pick it up, you’ll maybe get to level 3 or 4 before you run out of days, and then you’ll have to start over. The game sort of accommodates that because it ramps up the difficulty a bit when you start playing through a second time. It throws things at you a lot quicker, because you should be a lot better.”
The game also adds subtle touches of characterization to each new day. When you die, it generates another thief for you to burgle with, with their own name and just enough distinctive features--from big mustaches to grimy cloth masks--to make you feel slightly disappointed when this latest thief croaks.
“It’s horrible when your favorite sniper dies in XCOM, but it’s also brilliant.” Marshall explains. “The gut wrenching feeling, the knot tightening in your stomach... that’s something I wanted to reproduce. Not to mention it makes you extra careful when you’re on a job with them.” On top of that, the more successful their burglaries, the more of an experience bonus they receive.
He says that he was also inspired by games that openly risked putting off players with their difficulty. “There was a sort of wave of Meatboy and Fez stuff that don’t hold your hand,” he says. “I play those games and I really appreciated that they don’t thrust a tutorial at your face every time you need to open a door; they let you sit and work things out through experience. That’s one of the key things about The Swindle. It’s a game about death and it’s a game about greed, and I think one of the best ways to learn about baddies is to die at their hands quite a lot.”
“Maybe the difficulty in The Swindle is an active retort to games being so aggressively tutorialized.” Marshall continues, clearly wanting to get this off his chest. “I’ve been playing Arkham Knight and so many Riddler puzzles seem to follow a pattern of where I’m working my way through them and then Batman just gives me a massive hint. I’m enjoying working out the puzzle and suddenly he tells me how to do it. Twenty seconds away from the revelation and now I just feel dumb. I don’t need that.’
“I enjoy the sensation of having endured something, of having been presented with an actual genuine challenge. Not to mention that it makes it more fun. The first prototype of The Swindle had a health bar and regenerating health, and it just didn’t feel tense. So I dropped the health from 100 to 1, and suddenly it became fun, because there’s something in that vulnerability. It immediately made it ten times harder, but it feels like a burglary now, it feels like you’re outgunned and outnumbered, and that’s where the game is.”
Each death means the loss of all the money that you were holding. One more precious day gone, with nothing to show for it! That's the unique tension created by the The Swindle. I’m still struggling to reconcile it with my previous experience in the rogue-like genre, but I’m beginning to think it’s quietly excellent, mixing the friendly face of Spelunky with the sort of desperation that develops over the course of a poorly-executed XCOM campaign. All those little missteps compounding into one huge mistake that I have to struggle to come back from...
Or I could wipe the slate clean and try again from the start, just give myself another hundred days. One more go, after all.