Litil Divil’s Design Sensibility

A colleague noticed that I was playing Litil Divil — he doesn’t read this blog, but we use Discord, and my Discord account is linked to my Steam account, so he could see what I was playing that way. He remembered finding the game tremendously impressive in its day, and asked how well it holds up. I sadly had to inform him that it does not hold up well. But it’s an interesting question, because the obvious way for a 30-year-old game to age badly is in its graphics, and I really don’t feel like that’s the case here. Indie games have made pixel art fashionable again, and this game still has pretty good pixel art — I suspect a modernized version would mainly just give Mutt more frames of animation.

But the gameplay feels positively antiquated! And I struggle to articulate exactly why. It’s big on the design philosophy of “If you liked doing it once, you’ll like doing it over and over”, but that’s never really gone away — mostly the difference is that modern games more effectively make players actually want to perform repeated actions, by exploiting the mechanisms of addiction that have been called “gamification”. Litil Divil, despite being a game, isn’t particularly gamified. In some ways it’s anti-gamified. When you fail in a mini-game, you can’t just give it another try. You have to navigate to it in the maze again first. This discourages continued play.

I’ve been thinking of this game as having a coin-op arcade sensibility, but that’s not quite right. For one thing, unlike arcade games, it does have save points — it just makes them uncomfortably sparse. But also, by the time it came out, it was normal for coin-op games to let players insert another quarter to avoid losing progress. I guess the thing that stands out here is that it really is structured like a modern game, just without modern conveniences. I compared it to Dark Souls before. Dark Souls and Litil Divil really have a lot of their structure in common: you spend your time exploring a network of twisty passages with sparse save points, occasionally confronting special challenges (boss fights in the case of Dark Souls) that either block the path or grant special items useful elsewhere. But in Dark Souls, when you beat a boss, the game saves your progress. If you die, you get sent back to the last save point, but you’re not expected to fight the boss again. Litil Divil hasn’t caught up on that particular design innovation, and that’s a big part of what makes it frustrating.

3 Comments so far

  1. Arthegall on 27 Aug 2022

    Your description of this game intrigued me. It sounded very early 90s. So I watched a playthrough on YouTube.

    I agree with you that the pixel art is good and holds up well.

    I think (based on no experience playing it) the tedium you describe isn’t so much a game design flaw as it is an implementation/technical aspect that has aged poorly–the mechanics of turning.

    On the video, turning just felt horribly disruptive. The jarring break to the movement flow quickly became annoying. Everything else seemed like it could be engaging and enjoyably grindy (for those who like grindy games) even today. The fact that you have to retrace so much lost ground after a failure is not inherently offputting in my experience (I think particularly of runbacks in WoW Classic). Yes, they’re annoying, but they offer real stakes. The farther you go, the higher the tension. The greater the sense of relief and joy on a success, the greater the wish to avoid failure. At the same time, as old ground becomes familiar with repeated travel, you get better. There’s a satisfying sense of progression and achievement. That’s all good from a design point of view.

    But man, that disruptive turning. To my modern eyes, I know I just wouldn’t be able to stand it. But I suspect that early 90s me would not have cared–maybe not even have noticed.

    Everything computer was slowed back then. Booting. Opening windows. Everything. I went back and played Bard’s Tale again (which I adored at the time on the Mac) and, oh man was it ever unplayable at native speed. Everything was simply too slow. When I jacked up the speed of the emulated CPU it was much better.

    This feels like that to me.

  2. Mikuru on 3 Sep 2022

    I have never understood the idea that graphics can “age badly”. Sure, newer systems are capable of more impressive feats; the factor of “I didn’t know it was possible to do this in a videogame!” is lost to time. But if graphics were beautiful at the time, they are still beautiful 30 years later. It makes me very sad that there are so many spoiled, entitled kids who don’t appreciate this.

  3. Carl Muckenhoupt on 5 Sep 2022

    I think the turning might be less bothersome in the MS-DOS version — or maybe it’s less bothersome when it’s under your control. Whichever way, I see what you’re talking about in that video, but it didn’t seem bad while I was playing.

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