Wolfire Games is more than an indie darling. It’s probably more accurate to just call them an oddity. Consider that Lugaru: The Rabbit’s Foot, their first commercial game, is about a giant anthropomorphic rabbit named Turner with rather advanced combat training under his belt. It’s ridiculous and strange and funny and, actually, quite good, especially considering it was made almost entirely by Wolfire’s founder David Rosen.
Perhaps what is most endearing about Wolfire is that they’re so open. Now four-person studio, they regularly put up videos on their YouTube channel detailing design decisions, art assets, development progress, and even songs from game soundtracks. And with most of these uploads, narration accompanies the visuals and offers fascinating insight. For example, one video discussing combat changes to Overgrowth shows how the AI predicts your movement and how that influences player combat.
What’s Overgrowth? Well, it’s a “spiritual successor” to Lugaru, though it seems to be directly following the events prior with Turner’s lingering anarchistic maneuvers, but whatever. It looks pretty neat and somehow improves on a game no one thought they wanted until they played it, but what’s more interesting is a game attached to it called Low Light Combat.
To be perfectly clear, LLC isn’t a part of Overgrowth, but it is free with a preorder, though you could also buy it for five dollars. It was created as part of the Mojam 2 charity drive, so 100% of the money they make off of it will go to either Camphill California, a residential care facility for adults with developmental disabilities, or Blender, an open-source piece of 3D modeling software.
LLC is back in the first-person perspective, a reminder of their last game Receiver. But whereas Receiver was about delving as deep as possible into the mechanics of operating an actual firearm and using it within a traditional (if minimalistic) video game environment, LLC is about exploring the relationship between power and vulnerability.
In LLC, you play as a ninja, and in keeping with the game jam theme of endless nuclear war, you are powered by nuclear energy. You have 60 seconds of power available to you, but you can earn more time and power by killing other ninjas (the point being that you are fighting to determine what the Illuminati will do next). The problem is that to kill other ninjas, you have to either fire off your laser shotgun thing or use your sword, the former costing you 15 seconds of time and the latter only being able to be used while running which drains your energy four times as quickly.
The biggest issue, though, beyond the constantly ticking timer on your screen of your imminent death is that you can’t see much of anything. True to its name, LLC takes place in some rather low light and ninjas, apparently, are constructed almost entirely out of shadows. So the only time you can really catch a glimpse of your enemies is when they attack or turn on their flashlight.
Make no mistake; LLC is about stealth, but it is fast and reckless stealth. The games move as quick as a Counter-Strike game but with a lot more breathless stalking and swords swinging. The brilliance of this whole setup is the timer. Competitive stealth (or even non-competitive or single-player stealth experiences) is often about lingering. You wait and you wait and you wait until your moment arrives. The Assassin’s Creed multiplayer is a fine example of this. You spend most of your time biding it, trying to see if an opportunity presents itself before you expose yourself. There is less a literal timer and more a race between the mining of opportunities.
A discrete timing mechanism, though, tickles a very fundamental portion of our human brains. In Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine, it ticks up, and you immediately want to stop it from doing so. The only way to do that, however, is to finish the level, so your stealth is an active measure of avoidance rather than hiding, usually in the form of running and screaming like a child. In LLC, the timer goes the other way and ticks down, counting your remaining steps until inescapable death. Now, the slightly advanced mental actuation of considering the reduction of time turns into the extremely simplistic notion of beating the time. It is one abstracted layer less and one more notch towards a primal instinct of competition.
And on such a low level of operation within your mind, the impulse is native and trumps the superficial desire to hide in the shadows. The immediacy of the risk-reward analysis is simple and lives as a little nugget deep at the core of your brain: choosing to fire or run or simply wait in the dark is as simple as breathing. This allows higher level functions to determine how to go about it rather than if.
Of course, on some level, that still persists across all mental calculations, regardless of complexity or residency in the brain. But rather than being filtered through additional gates of considered causality and risk aversion, the idea that a timer has to be beat and maintained shutters every hurdle and hits the NOS.
It’s not necessarily an increased impetus or a push against reason. It’s more like a direct line access to being “in the zone.” And that’s how you can determine the good players among the sea of bad and average fodder. When your instincts are finely honed enough to match your slower, more deliberate and thoughtful actions, you are a notch above. It’s like the difference between someone who can intuit if they’ve fired off every round from their revolver or someone who just kind of thinks they might be out. It’s a learned but deeply ingrained type of knowledge that separates the professionals from the hobbyists, the chefs from the Food Network fans.
It’s when you know you have to make a move rather than taking the time to calculate run and gun utility costs and estimate your chances of success. It’s more just thinking that this is an opportunity and more knowing it is going to be yours. It’s an impressive feat to construct a design so human and fundamental over the course of a 78-hour game jam, to so easily tap into what many other games attempt and desire to do. Or maybe it’s less impressive and more odd. This is, after all, Wolfire Games we’re talking about, and this is Low Light Combat.