They call you Fight, and for all you know, that is the sole purpose of your existence. As you groggily stand up from your knees in a graveyard for mech, you know that your only goal is destruction, helping technology triumph over the grotesque, meaty things that infest your world. That is all you are instructed before you open your eyes to an alien world with nothing but a gun.
Throughout your endeavors on this strange planet, you will meet horrendous creatures standing in the way of even more horrifying monstrosities - staunch defenders of the Megabeast, the enslaving overlord. As luck would have it, it is Fight's raison d'être to eradicate the meaty disease that has seen mech made all but extinct on its flailing planet.
A Robot Named Fight is an upcoming indie game developed solely by Matt Bitner that blends together two unlikely genres - a metroidvania that met the roguelike genre to become a wonderful creature in a strange world. A Robot Named Fight does not diverge from the individual characteristics of the metroidvania and roguelike genres. However, the marriage of the two genres, combined with the gory, SNES-inspired graphics and the game's own quirks make for an exceptional experience.
A forgiving game, A Robot Named Fight invites you to explore an unusual, ever-changing planet that only wants you dead. It is easy to lose yourself beneath the crude surface of the planet where players find themselves, and that is why Game Lens took the plunge, exploring the gory, bloodied interior of a foreboding world.
Peeling Away A Meaty Surface
Room after room, you pilot Fight beneath the metallic surface of your planet. The lifeforms increasingly resemble abominations as they multiply, obstructing you from ridding the planet of its fleshy infection. It is a formula that does not stray far from your average roguelike game, with opponents that are not particularly intelligent or challenging, except when in numbers. Conversely, each randomized labyrinth seems to have a mind of its own.
You would be forgiven if you thought that each maze beneath the planet's surface was hand-crafted just for you, like a sentient being that carves out a path to the ultimate monstrosity hanging from the sky. Game Lens took an in-depth look at procedural generation a few months ago, outlining the pros and cons of one of the most common techniques in modern roguelike games. In an age where procedural generation has become a regular fixture in roguelike games, A Robot Named Fight does not reinvent the wheel, but finds its own way to stand out as Matt Bitner told Game Lens.
Matt Bitner saw in the technique a tool that greatly enhances replayability. Nonetheless, procedural generation also comes with its own pitfalls, as the developer told Game Lens. "Procedurally generated levels can often be repetitive and maze-like, with dead ends and meaningless paths," Matt explained. Unabated, he went on to describe how he "wanted to use the principles of a metroidvania and item-driven exploration to give more direction to procedurally generated levels."
"I had to create a system where rooms could support multiple kinds of exits, communicate the kinds of exits they support to the level generation algorithm and then let the level generation algorithm filter rooms and make decisions based on that information."
It was from this ambitious ideal that the core procedural generation engine in A Robot Named Fight came to be. At the start of each playthrough, the game picks ten items from a pool of more than sixty objects. Subsequently, Matt's algorithm builds a dungeon built around the abilities granted by this mix of weapons and powers.
Thanks to this algorithm, A Robot Named Fight manages to strike a balance between curated and procedurally-generated content; the rooms themselves were designed by Matt, but the dungeons are created on the fly. In this way, the algorithm bridges the gap between procedurally generated content and the curated touch of a level designer. Nevertheless, designing rooms that are capable of achieving this goal was not a simple task, with Matt having to keep in mind the various quirks of the system while creating them.
In reality, the algorithm works charmingly. Upon every death and every birth, you are cast into a new, classical metroidvania dungeon. Unfailingly, the path to your triumph is crystal clear, as if the maze itself was guiding you with invisible hands. In short, what Matt created is an elegant solution comprising two types of rooms - those that are accessible, and those that will become accessible when the required items are found. As for the players, this system reduces the need to backtrack to find the right path. The alternative is not only a frustrating experience, but an unnecessary risk for players in a video game where death signals a definitive end.
That is not to say that the game does not suffer from flaws. For example, the lack of direction requires players to experiment with their abilities, having to discover the applicability of power-ups on their own. Notwithstanding the burden of the design shortcomings, A Robot Named Fight's procedural generation algorithm masterfully avoids creating impersonal dungeons, hiding the imperfections until players discover the game's secrets for themselves.
Procedural generation poses design questions beyond the superficial make-up of a dungeon. Luck plays an integral role, particularly when the labyrinth is built around a small number of objects. Consider, for example, seeking a balance between items - ensuring none are too strong, or too weak for that matter. It is not far-fetched to imagine luck taking center stage, which is undesirable if you consider that a video game should be driven by player choices. Matt Bitner evoked this dilemma with Game Lens - a pursuit to strike the delicate balance between luck and player control. The first solution is the dungeon itself.
Matt's algorithm does not stop at creating dungeons with an origin, a destination, and the connecting rooms in-between. In fact, the game creates a sprawling network, filled with nooks and crannies that not only present unwarranted danger, but also reward the daring adventurer. In this way, exploration is recompensed by new abilities, ore that can be crafted into useful objects, and minor items that improve Fight's attributes.
The second solution adopted by A Robot Named Fight to counteract pure, luck-based gameplay are Allies - fellow robots who turn ore into useful items, including guns, orbs and maps. Although the game falls short in explaining what purpose the items on sale serve, seasoned players will be able to decipher icons and know what it is that their playthrough is missing, and use Allies to plug the shortcomings. In Matt's own words, "as the player becomes more familiar with the game they can use their familiarity to make wiser choices at shops and overcome unlucky item RNG [Random Number Generation]."
"The player has the choice to take the time to search these [items] out, trading speed and time for power. They can also find scrap around the world that Allies can use to forge additional power ups selected from a list, granting the player some influence over their build."
The gameplay's micro-decisions - such as the choice of empowerment over time, and the inherent risks of exploration over the peril of being unprepared for a boss fight - give player the chance to embrace luck, or to tempt fate. Nevertheless, Matt Bitner's decisions do not serve to eliminate luck altogether, for good reason.
The right cocktail of power-ups and attribute boosters can create an overpowered character that obliterates opposition and bathes in chaos. Under the right circumstances, this yields an enjoyable run, but not only that; an unfair advantage arising from this randomness gives inexperienced players a fighting chance. And like before, players do not have to rely on pure luck.
A Robot Named Fight also rewards exploration and progress with new content - items that can either present new opportunities in future playthroughs, or orbs that can accompany players on new adventures. As a result, the game gets noticeably easier with time, improving upon the age-old roguelike formula. Ultimately, the game succeeds in finding the sweet spot where luck and player choices may co-exist.
A Meaty Underworld
It takes time to explore hell. From killing monsters to discovering the secrets of your meat-infested abode, mastering technique does not come cheaply, nor without risks. As a roguelike game, A Robot Named Fight forces you to exercise caution. Safety itself costs time, and as a result, determining the ideal length of a playthrough can be challenging.
Do you use save slots, or would that kill the spirit of a roguelike game? Do you enforce a time limit, or would that exacerbate the difficulty of an already-challenging genre? Questions such as these arise in any game development environment, which is why Game Lens brought up the length of A Robot Named Fight with its developer.
In its essence, A Robot Named Fight is not particularly difficult; most monsters have predictable patterns, and a few power-ups are enough to beat the tougher kinds. Seasoned players of the roguelike genre might even argue that it is too easy, especially when considering that each playthrough includes no less than three checkpoints. Yet if there is one thing that the game nails, it is the playthrough length, which ties in perfectly with the difficulty conundrum.
"The shorter play time makes the permadeath less punishing, allows for a higher overall difficulty, and also emphasizes replayability by limiting the number of items available in a single run to a unique subset."
Having gotten used to the game, completing it can take less than an hour - even as little as 35 minutes, according to Matt Bitner. That hour is chock-full of content, but Matt told Game Lens that it ensures it is short enough that permadeath is not too punishing. At the same time, playthroughs are long enough to allow players to discover and grow comfortable with their Fight build. In fact, players will find themselves using this hour to fine-tune their character, get acquainted with their new abilities and prepare tactics to avoid an untimely demise.
This hour of discovery and self-exploration also serves as a wholesome factor for replayability. Indeed, starting the game from scratch does not feel like a punishment, but like a fresh start. The wide array of usable items results in vastly-diverse playthroughs, and experimenting with putting your skill set to use is a refreshing experience. There is more to the experience than just randomly-generated characters, however.
It is the attention to detail that separates a good game from a great game. The flying meat, the dripping blood splattered over the floors and the mysterious messages scribbled on walls, as small and insignificant as they may sound, contribute to A Robot Named Fight's experience. And just like how the graphics, the sound effects and little details tell a story, the emotions told by the soundtrack tie everything together.
What is the role of music in video games? Does it take center stage, or does it sit quietly in the corner, observing and occasionally intervening? Perhaps the answer is not important, because what matters is the effect that it leaves on the player. A Robot Named Fight's soundtrack seems to have followed this ideal.
"The music in A Robot Named Fight really sets the emotional tone for each environment. There's really only one character in the game, the player, so whatever narrative they want to project upon the gameplay is up to them and the music is sort of there as a guide."
Matt did not just develop A Robot Named Fight, but he also composed a soundtrack for it. In the beginning of the game, when you are still doe-eyed, looking around at your new locale, you will likely appreciate the accompaniment. However, as time wears on and chaos grips the world, it takes a step back; the soundtrack itself becomes a partner to the player from the shadows.
Perhaps that is what makes the soundtrack so fitting in A Robot Named Fight - a sole adventurer on a seemingly-impossible quest fighting to the rhythm of Matt's soundtrack. Although the game's story is low-key - up to each player to figure out for themselves - the indie game's music is also an attempt to set the tone, enrich the environment and tell its own story, as Matt told Game Lens. "That is not to say that the game does not have a story, but the story definitely is not overt," he admitted. However, he continued, "it [the story] is hinted at by things like the soundtrack and art in each environment, but it is ultimately up to the player to parse it all."
It is not often that a roguelike invites you to look for meaning, and truth be told, A Robot Named Fight does not try to tell you a story. Instead, it sets the stage and lets you fight for your life while exploring a world that tells you a narrative through graffiti, weird rooms and other minuscule details.
It is beneath the rubble, the scrap metal and the mounds of meat that players will discover what defines their persona. Finding a meaning in chaos is no mean feat. Make no mistake, however - with time, you will grow to relish the mayhem wrought by your destruction.
And you will grow attached to Fight over and over again - as long as it takes for the Megabeast's guts to be hanging out over the sky.
This article was made possible thanks to Matt Bitner, who graciously accepted to answer Game Lens' questions. A Robot Named Fight will be released on Steam for Windows and OSX on the 7th of September, 2017.