11 August 2019

7 Day Broughlike

From June 2nd to June 9th, me, Ben Allen, and kjeann hosted the inaugural 7 Day Broughlike (#7DBL) jam.

About a year ago Alex Chen (vivafringe) created the Brough Games Discord server, where the jam was first proposed and then organized; vivafringe had previously provided some much-appreciated Brough game commentary, including a Cinco Paus strategy guide and streams of Imbroglio's Izu Mode (like a daily challenge but for every 4 days). Really valuable stuff, especially for those looking to penetrate under the surface of these sometimes inscrutable creations.

When it comes to appreciating the work of Michael Brough, there is currently, as Frank Lantz put it, "the thrill of being on the inside of a grand secret, members of an elite cabal," but without a dedicated forum in which Brough's cult may gather, its fervent, often Portuguese murmurings might have tapered off into silence.

A clear nod to the annual 7DRL (7-Day Roguelike) challenge, an indie institution which midwifed Brough's own Zaga-33 and 868-HACK (in the form of its prototype 86856527), the 7 Day Broughlike is intended to clarify, explore, interpret, and test the ideas and techniques that make Brough's games—many (but far from all) of which could be called "coffee break" or "minimalist" roguelikes—so compelling.

Here's the copy I wrote (with input from the Discord) attempting to define "Broughlike" for the jam page on itch.io.
The goal of this jam is to create a "Broughlike" in 7 days. That is, to create a game in the style of Michael Brough (@smestorp), a pixel wizard whose highly compressed designs are cherished for their elegance, depth, and enigmatic oddness.

Though an emerging and flexible sub-genre, certain recurring stresses are characteristic of Brough's approach:
  • Small, square boards & small integers
  • Orthogonal 4-way movement
  • Parity & zugzwang (or "compulsion to move," i.e. inability to freely "pass" a turn)
  • Streamlined controls, e.g. attacking with the same input as movement
  • Roguelike mechanics like procedural level generation, permadeath, teleport, polymorph, etc.
  • Numerology, i.e. conspicuously consistent integers
  • "Glitch" mechanics / aesthetics
  • Identification & decryption
  • Positional tactics: pushing, pulling, choke points & egress
  • Differentiated resource binaries, e.g. credits & energy, blood & mana, etc.
  • Unconventional scoring systems
  • Idiosyncratic art & audio
  • Topologies, synchronies, overlapping matrices

I think the key word is really compressed. Brough has tried his hand at many genres, but  the engine driving each design is his commitment to compression. Most often this manifests in the first point: super low-res square grids. 9x9, 7x7, 6x6, 5x5, 4x4. Tight boards force more interaction between elements, denser tactics, more overlap. Overlapping, in fact, comes to play a huge part across his diverse yet cohesive portfolio. The trajectory from Game Title to Corrypt is especially enlightening, but that notion of mapping a data set onto a dungeon room's tile grid shows up prominently in more recent efforts like Imbroglio and Cinco Paus as well. 868-HACK plays with the "overlapping" theme in its own way, principally through the Glitch enemy's ability to move onto wall tiles (and its obvious counter, .DEBUG, whose description reads "TERMINATE OVERLAPPING").

Per article 7, let us observe this conspicuous recurrence of the "glitch" motif throughout the artist's body of work. We see it in Lost Levels' item position memory exploit, in Corrypt's unwieldy overwrite magic, in Post-Future Vagabond's shared save file shenanigans, and in Helix's script-flipping pathogen, an addition Brough himself deemed "sublime." Brough's felicity for glitches arises from a sensitivity to what he calls software's low-level "grain." The surprise with which he encounters these effects as a programmer gets translated for players into the frisson of subverted expectations, of exotic electronic demons destabilizing otherwise highly symmetrical, deterministic systems.

Which brings us to probably the second most important concept animating Brough's creations: parity. That is, the condition of being even or odd. Broughlike tactics typically revolve around managing parity or one could say getting "in sync" with your enemies: if you're two spaces away from an enemy and then use your turn to move adjacent to it, that enemy gets to stay put and use its turn to get the first attack in. Zugzwang means you can't simply (freely) pass your turn to have that enemy move into position adjacent to you. Often, however, you'll have resources providing options for flipping parity, such as Cinco Paus' wands or Imbroglio's character-specific rune abilities.

On a deeper level, Brough's corpus evinces a perspicacious balancing act between rigorous, obsessive symmetry (evenness) and tossed-off—or equally obstinate—asymmetry (oddness). His lapidary designs illuminate some of the profoundest mysteries of mathematics, yet they come to us in the rags of fever dreams recalling the harsh, protozoic digital death mazes of the early to mid-1980's.

Yet it's hard for me not to view Brough's catalog as the mesmerizing navel of gaming in the 2010's. It's all there, every* trend and genre, swirling together in a candy-colored spiral: glitch, low-fi, retro, generative art, roguelikes, MOBA's, deck-building, time-gating, local multiplayer, mobile, chain games, albums, remixes, demakes, parodies, cheeky conceptual provocations, mindfuck puzzles, earnest sui generis art games, Twine. To my mind the representative genius to emerge from the past decade's fertile indie game milieu, Brough's highly individuated instincts are very much a product of that culture and its myriad pageants, jams, and forums: Ludum Dare, Pirate Kart, TIGSource, Glorious Trainwrecks, SHARECART1000, Super Friendship Club, Retro Remakes, and of course 7DRL.

And now we've come full circle.

Brough's made a lot of games. At least 50. I listed just 4 of them on the jam page, leaving out his latest release, Cinco Paus. Cinco Paus is a contender for best game ever made. Unfortunately, its high-res hand-drawn art style and portrait-oriented aspect ratio didn't look good in small screenshots alongside the other games' chunky pixels. Oh well.

The games that we did list—868-HACK, Post-Future Vagabond, Zaga-33, and Game Title—all seemed especially "Broughlike" to me, or at least cut from the same cloth, and establishing certain obvious and replicable conventions for their facture.

We didn't stop at Brough's output, however; we also cited examples of games produced by other authors in the same spirit, authors including Kenny Sun, Tom Francis, Jonathan Whiting, and Sean Barrett. One can see that we left the jam's prompt pretty wide open. After all, we're not "reforming" some widely familiar tradition, we're inviting curious jammers to try on an emerging idiom.

That being said, I do think there's a sense that Brough has in recent years, with works like 868 and Cinco Paus, spearheaded something like a genuinely new sub-genre, one that's robbed me of my patience for many other styles. These curious pocket roguelikes have an immediacy, a simplicity, and a crackling, compulsive randomness, but also a tactical depth, arcane mystique, and high concept bravura, that suggest a truly robust and fecund pattern for future elaboration.
I wanted to try my hand at making one of these things. I started brainstorming.
  • Board is calendar. 7x4? Not square. 5x5? Advent... Scythe, time travel, liturgy?
  • Pick-up & drop. Weight, encumbrance, stacks, piles, scales, offerings, breadcrumbs, lures.
  • Archaeological dig. Strata, fossils, burying, excavating, button to plant shovel + direction to pitch substrate. Using uncovered artifacts vs. delivering them for points. Gardening.
  • Arranging layers by Z-index. Hide, don disguise, emerge to surprise, overwrite, combine, cut away, reveal, polypile.
  • Binding spirits. Synchronized movement, conducts, seals, alignment grid, port(al)s.
  • Scare tactics! Ghosts, ghost pushing, phasing through walls, animation/possession, exorcism, suck/blow (pull/push) vacuum/cyclotron, ventilation, Cryptog-esque invisibility. 
  • Glitch Tank roguelike built around the secret level mechanic from 868. Randomly drawn hand of abilities, discover ordinal input sequence meta spells, wait action clears sequence?
  • Feng shui. Chaos Seed: Feng Shui Chronicles with a dash of The Sense of Connectedness: dungeon layout, room connections, flow, orientation, elemental energy.
  • Status effects. Accruing tags that get triggered (identified, activated, developed, cleared) on score pick-up like "curse" in Imbroglio, which confer passive effects and active abilities. Received from contact with enemies. Discover cures. Lab rat.
  • Hermes archetype wielding Y-shaped caduceus bident. Action to flip between two-pronged end and one-pronged end. Even or odd amount of damage. Enemy type defined by current HP? Even and odd version of each enemy? Dowsing rod vs. antennae? Reciprocal vs. non-reciprocal exchange? Electrical outlets... Sleep spell... Delivering mail—messages are spells—deliver vs. use; use degrades—efficiency vs. quality (compression)—cumulative rules applied to bident functionality... Entropy... Hmm, well... well! Okay, okay...

I was really grabbed by that last idea, as you might have guessed. If parity flipping is generally at the heart of these games, why not make it the core mechanic? I also liked the message delivery conceit, and especially having those messages double as your spells.

When sifting through my notes and ideas and comparing them to Brough's games, it became clearer and clearer to me that his stuff is not just elegant, not just cerebral, but fun—cheeky—and, perhaps more importantly, well-paced. Periods of low-anxiety flow are punctuated by bottlenecks of risk assessment, with snappy arcade-simple input (and near-instant output) moving things along at a player-determined rubato [Expound here on music and sound design as well as on short feedback loops of making the games themselves]. His best games have an appreciable dramatic arc wherein opening and endgame provide interesting challenge for inverse reasons, be it Imbroglio's weapon level vs. spawn frequency or Cinco Paus' wand knowledge vs. enemy toughness (not to mention the artifacts, upgrades, and enemy abilities to be found in multi-game streaks). These arcs grow up organically out of the games' core tensions. Which is part of what appealed to me about the Hermes concept: the tension of fidelity versus speed in delivering coded messages.  

I thought maybe I'd write my game using Hermes, a game library for Processing. Well, I had to work full time at my new job that week. Didn't get anything done.

The jam was unequivocally a success though. We received dozens of really cool entries showcasing about as many different approaches. Some of my favorites:

Mortacrust (You Gotta Rake)

by Z. Bill

Hey, what's a platformer doing here!? Chill bro, chill. It's turn-based, alright? Just chill. Delightfully weird, humorously grating mechanic of alternating every turn between moving either left or right (ascending bone ladders automatically) and raking either left or right. Your trusty rake, naturally, destroys or transforms certain adjacent blocks if they're at your level and catches certain adjacent blocks if they're above you and bound to fall. Later levels introduce nifty photocopier block. An unorthodox but welcome take on zugzwang.


by Ahmed Khalifa

Movement in the direction you're currently facing is free, and recharges your ink. Changing direction costs ink but also functions as non-zero-sum offense, laying a bomb in the opposite direction.

Hladová zeď

by Jonathan Brodsky

Uses edge walls and attraction to neat effect, requiring you to pull the titular "hungry wall" through blood splatters left by enemies spawned at gates that are themselves pullable edge walls. Upon being fed, the hungry wall confers a consumable power-up.


by Nilson Carroll

RPG Maker mainstay delivers an abstract, melancholy slice of glitch hell. Thoth tarot keycards, inscrutable manual checkpoint placement (sort of like Game Title's CAT... I think), secret rooms, boundary breaks, and snippets of angst in Arabic-style type.

Xryst - HAL

by Lucas Le Slo

This one's probably got the Broughiest vibe, at least visually. Charge up your (automatic) ranged attack, push and shoot crystals, destroy socket guards to leave zap traps, teleport between corners, and acclimate to the weirdness of a board that expands each level. Enigmatic and stylish.

Vlad the Bleeder

by magmafortress

Impressively coherent hexagonal tactics. Switch between human, bat, and ghost form, either by having satisfied a requisite condition the turn before (such as taking damage or killing an enemy) or by electing to spend mana, which is picked up on the map. Kind of similar to Tom Francis' Morphblade, but also kind of similar to Brough's own entry. Speaking of which...

P1 Select

by Michael Brough

That's right, we received a submission from the mighty Smestorp himself (the nerve!). Since then he's expanded/polished it into a full commercial release. His own thoughts on the matter here.

Somewhat slight compared to a Cinco Paus of course but brilliant nonetheless. Wrapping 3x3 character select grid on top of non-wrapping 4x4 dungeon room. Title as prompt. Glitch joke as tutorial. Delayed joke reprise via unlockable upgrade ("have my cake and eat it later"). Tabular HP distribution. Football-style attack pattern diagrams. Synth squelch SFX. Burgundy and chartreuse on grayscale. Scoring system on rolling average. Decimals.