Hot on the heels of their last bunch of sales, Steam is doing a singularly evil promotion: essentially, an achievement-based sweepstakes. Every two days until the 20th of the month, they post a set of criteria for filling in checkboxes that count towards a random drawing for free games. (Also, certain threshold numbers of filled-in checkboxes give special hats in Team Fortress 2, which is one of the strongest motivators known to modern ludology.)Most of the criteria involve playing games that they happen to have on sale for those two days, and apparently they’re all simple enough that you can be reasonably expected to achieve them within an hour or so of playing the game for the first time. So there’s a clear temptation here. Now, in the US, it’s illegal for a privately-run sweepstakes to actually require a purchase. Promotional sweepstakes that you enter by buying things are common, but there’s always an alternate way to enter, usually involving postcards, buried somewhere in the fine print. And so it is here; I could enter this contest without buying any games. But that’s missing the point. I don’t need the prize. I don’t even really want it. I just have a compulsion to do things that fill in checkboxes. (I’m one of the few people I know who played Achievement Unlocked and its sequel to 100% completion.)
But my will is iron. I have sworn not to buy any games solely for the sake of this promotion. Games that are already on my must-play list, though? That’s another matter. And so I’ve bought Dejobaan’s AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!, which has a sufficiently quirky basis to be on my radar as worth trying out, if only for the lessons we can learn from its experiments.
That basis: it’s about base jumping. There are some levels with mountains, but mostly it’s base jumping past large floating artificial structures in the sky. You score points by getting dangerously close to them. Points give you money (or “teeth”, as the game calls it — the designers’ attitude contains a big hunk of non-sequitur humor) which you use to unlock more levels. There are more complications that I’ll probably get into in future posts, but that’s the essence of the game right there, in the same way that “enemy spaceships come from the right of the screen and you shoot at them” is the essence of myriad scrolling shmups.
And I mention scrolling shmups because, in a strange way, AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAA!!! feels like one. It has a similar sense of inexorable movement, and of twitchy reactions within a continuous framework of tactical decisions about which route to take. And when you come down to it, it wouldn’t take a lot to re-theme this game around spaceships. The main difference is just one of perspective, of whether you think of the direction you’re moving in as forward or down. (Ender Wiggin would approve.)