My dad is a brilliant man often blinded by a quietly pathological compulsion to save money; his ongoing exploration of the darker frontiers of frugality has been a constant presence in the lives of his family. When we were kids he used to make his own bread, even though he’d never actually been taught how to make his own bread. He instead relied on a highly personal recipe which appeared to have been ninety per cent guesswork and ten per cent papal heresy; his loaves stayed around for ages, partly because no-one would eat them, and partly because he had stumbled on some strange mixture of ingredients that made them impervious to the ravages of time. When not in the kitchen perpetrating crimes against the living, dad would drive us on lengthy excursions through the steeply banked highways of northern California on day-trips that doubled as opportunities for him to hunt down stray hubcaps that had fetched up by the side of the road in the hopes that he could re-sell them. On one occasion, in the middle of July, I remember him finding two pristine hubs lying next to an intersection along with an abandoned crate of Pepsi, slowly boiling itself into oblivion. Free Pepsi! It was practically a religious experience for him.
We weren’t unusually poor, but dad was unusually thrifty, his raison d’etre the stretching of resources as far as they could go. That’s why I can’t help but wonder if he secretly designed This Is The Only Level, a Flash game allegedly created by John Cooney. (John Cooney also made Achievement Unlocked, however, which is clearly beyond my dad’s coding skills.)
This is the Only Level is a 2D platformer in which you have to guide a boldly unanimated elephant over a series of pits, some of which are filled with spikes, past a switch that will raise a door, and deliver him safely to the exit. And that’s it. The twist is that, once you have initially completed the task, you’ll find you have to do it again, guiding the elephant over the same pits and the same spikes, and past the same switch that raises the same door, the difference being that this time the game’s mechanics have changed fairly dramatically. Then you’ll do it again, and again, each run-through offering a twist on the controls, or an unexpected tinkering with the environment.
It’s an approach that swiftly turns the standard tenets game design upside-down: instead of giving you a single set of tools and then varying the backdrop, the level becomes a controlled lab in which you play the role of the rat. The space remains consistent, but your ability to move through it is constantly in flux: controls are reversed, gravity is unsubtly tweaked, the maze is rebuilt from deadly candy-coloured stripes in one iteration, while the spikes themselves become trampolines in the next.
It’s gaming for the Shuffle Age, and perhaps the most welcome surprise is how, despite the unshifting real estate, you always sense that you’re going somewhere new. Certain variations are better than others, but that’s missing the point – it’s the cumulative effect that really matters.
And in between this series of quick changes, you may find yourself getting a glimpse into the mysteries of design, too. The process of making games remains one of the more magical of creative acts: anyone, just about, could sit down to write a bad film script or hack through a few chapters of horrible novel, but the business of mapping a maze or laying out the guts of a side-scroller is still, by and large, an undiscovered country for most of us. Here, at least, you can get a sense of some of the terrain – an understanding that every path you take leaves a path left untaken, and that everything you rule in leaves a dozen other ideas ruled out.
By refusing to compromise, by seeking to accommodate just about every possibility, This is the Only Level wrings an unlikely amount of enjoyment from the barest of elements. A modest game, then, but one that goes a very long way. Dad would be proud.