Growing Pains

A game by Smudged Cat Games for PC and Xbox 360, originally released in 2011.
There aren’t many developers who can claim to have been inspired to make a game based on the size of their wives (at least not many who have survived to tell the tale), but that’s precisely what developer David Johnston did. As he watched his pregnant wife grow bigger and bigger, he began to think of her growth in video game terms… How would you deal with a platforming world if you played a character who couldn’t stop growing? That question is answered with Growing Pains.

A 3D world is a perfect place to explore scale since the very nature of 3D allows for the creation of objects of any size. However, few titles have actually explored scale in any meaningful way. Noteworthy applications of gameplay-impactful scale are the Chibi Robo games, the Remote Control Dandy / Robot Alchemic Drive series, and the God of War series. Even fewer games explore physical growth as a gameplay dynamic, with the Katamari Damacy series being the standout example.

A 2D world is a less likely environment in which to explore growth, because the locked perspective means that zooming the camera out will also make the player character smaller as well, potentially inhibiting gameplay. Additionally, early technology was incapable of rendering the action of an entire level at once, restricting what could be done with scaling alone. Technology growth has taken care of the latter problem, while the developer was left to contend with the former.

When you begin a new level in Growing Pains, you’re really just standing in a teeny tiny section of a much bigger world, and each passing second sees your character growing larger and larger. The trick is to collect all of the rainbow-colored “glow sticks” to open the exit door before you get too big to move through the level. When you open up the next section, you will find that it is significantly larger, and you are therefore small in comparison. And so it goes, with each level being larger than the last, and the player character’s proportionate relationship to it constantly in flux.

Of course, you’re not just collecting doodads and running; you also have to contend with a variety of obstacles. For one, there are spiked balls that can be stationary, float along a path, bounce around the room, or swing back and forth on a chain like a pendulum. More advanced obstacles include lasers that can fire across the screen, but which are blocked by walls and platforms. There are also cannons that fire spiked balls in arcs along a set path, and tracking cannons that slowly alter their trajectory toward your position, lobbing balls in a high arc which explode into 4 spiked balls that arc downward, making them very difficult to avoid.

On the lower difficulty levels, you’ll just have to deal with a few obstacles, but they grow in number with each higher difficulty setting, as do the number of glow sticks that need to be collected. Collecting more means dodging more obstacles and staying in the level longer, which means you have to be more cognizant of your size. You’ll need to complete the first stage before opening the second, and complete the second to open the third, and so on, for a total of 9 stages. Each stage has 3 difficulty settings, which must also be completed in sequence.

But size has its advantages as well. The bigger you are, the higher you can jump, and sometimes you’ll want to let yourself grow on purpose in order to reach a higher area. In fact, you can press the RIGHT TRIGGER to increase your growth rate as well. The LEFT TRIGGER temporarily stops your growth – great for when you’re getting dangerously large – but its use is limited in each level and the ability will eventually run out, as indicated by a meter on the top of the screen.

Movement is inertia-based, and you quickly ramp up to the maximum speed. This can make precision jumping difficult, making it hard to navigate between small platforms or dodge tightly-clustered enemies. Of course, this is all relative to your size… Wait a few seconds, and your enemies will no longer tower over you; rather, you will dwarf them. Still, the controls are definitely geared more favorably toward long distance jumping rather than movement in tight quarters or across small platforms, and this can lead to some untimely deaths, which will restart you back at the beginning of the section, shrunken down to a more reasonable size. You start each stage with a stock of 10 lives, and you must reach the end before they all run out. There are no 1UPs to be collected here.

In addition to running and jumping, you have a wall slide and wall jump. You can quickly climb vertical surfaces and you can jump away from walls to dodge obstacles or land on platforms. Landing from a jump or fall will cause the character to “squidge” against the ground, and if you jump while he is returning to his normal shape, you will perform an extra high jump. Using the squidge move can be difficult, however, as the timing for this move is not fast. You need to wait a second for the character to react from bouncing before jumping again. This can result in some accidental high jumps, although this rarely affects gameplay negatively. Getting the timing down is really only necessary if you’re going for a speed run; otherwise, you can simply wait until your character grows larger and make regular jumps with ease.

Some situations are easier to overcome when you’re small, like running under swinging pendulums or dodging projectiles, while others are certainly easier when you are large, like crossing large gaps and avoiding narrow pitfalls. Since you are able to pick up the glow sticks in any order you wish, this means that you’ll be playing the game differently depending on where you go first in each room. You could drop down to the bottom of the room and use your small size to dodge obstacles and then use your larger size to climb back up to the top more quickly. But if you start at the top and work your way down, you might collect the glow sticks more quickly but put yourself in greater danger when dodging obstacles below. The continued change between your size and that of the level means that the level layouts are in constant flux and that repeat playthroughs – and playthroughs on higher difficulty settings – will invariably require different strategies.

Before you enter each stage, you can watch a silhouetted preview of what’s to come, looking at the level layouts in an ever expanding view from the first room to the last. As you play the levels, there’s a ring in the upper right corner of the screen showing the total number of rooms and how many you’ve completed to that point.

There are two views available in the game. One is a zoomed out view which is typically locked and shows the entire play area for the room you are in. If you are really small, an arrow will point to your location. The other mode is a zoomed in view where the camera follows you around and you can only see your immediate surroundings. There are rooms, however, where the zoomed out camera only shows a partial area. For instance, one anxiety-inducing room has you running through an ever-expanding maze, exploring different paths while attempting to find all of the glow sticks, and then backtracking to previous areas of the maze, all the while fighting the “biological clock” (Oh the cleverness of you… -ed) of your ever-increasing size, threatening to trap you in one area.

Smudged Cat Games is a one-man studio headed up by designer and programmer David Johnston, with additional work being contracted out. Although David worked briefly at Rare (before Microsoft consumed the studio), his time there was spent developing tools rather than games. David is probably best known for his work on The Adventures of Shuggy which was released on Xbox Live Arcade in 2011 and PC in 2012.

The Adventures of Shuggy (2011)
The Adventures of Shuggy stars a cartoony purple vampire who has just inherited a haunted mansion. The little vampire must make his way through the five themed areas of the mansion – totaling more than 100 levels – to rid the place of the spirits that inhabit it, including some boss creatures.

While the game is a platformer at its core, much of the level navigation is centered on puzzle elements, including reversed (and even sideways) gravity, the ability to rotate sections of the environment or the entire level, and time travel elements where you can do things like speed up time or have multiple copies of your vampire self trigger switches or play out all of their actions simultaneously.

The game also features a number of 2P co-op levels where players have to help each other by doing things like flipping switches that allow the other player to access a new section of the level. Players can also challenge each other to see who is best at tackling the single player levels, and there’s an online competitive mode as well.

Despite being a full-blown XBLA title and having generally positive reviews, The Adventures of Shuggy did not fare well on the market. The game was initially showcased in the 2007 Dream Build Play competition, where it was one of the top 20 finalists. Various publisher woes pushed the eventual release back to 2011, well after games like Braid had hit the market, and the puzzle-platformer gameplay that stood out in 2007 had the unfortunate feeling of being a “me too” title by the time it was finally released in 2011. Combined with very little marketing, and no press copies being sent out prior to the game’s release, the game went mostly overlooked by the gaming community.

Timeslip (2010)
While Timeslip was released on the Xbox Live Indie Games channel in 2010 and as a freeware PC title in 2012, David originally developed the game back in 1999 for the Playstation Net Yaroze. The gameplay is the same, but the title has been updated with a new soundtrack and HD presentation. David has long had an interest in gameplay centering on time travel, and a number of its mechanics were the basis for the time-related puzzles in The Adventures of Shuggy.

The game features a snail that is caught in a time loop. While the player is free to navigate the environment, the snail is sent back in time every 30 seconds. From there, you can continue traveling, but you must be aware that your 30-seconds-ago self is out there roaming around as well. You must avoid direct contact with your former self lest you cause a paradox, which ends the game.

The longer you play, the more previous versions of yourself are out there and need to be avoided. But you also need these extra copies to navigate the environment. Pressing a switch will open a door, but if you move away from the switch, the door will close. So you need to leave one of your selves sitting on the switch while another goes through the door. This makes the entire experience a very puzzle-oriented affair and forces you to think of your current situations as well as how your actions may have consequences to your future selves.

A Bomb’s Way (2009)
David also created a couple of games that were originally planned to be mini games in The Adventures of Shuggy. The first, A Bomb’s Way is modeled after the arcade classic Bomb Jack with its single screen environments and floaty jumps, but instead of collecting bombs before they explode, you control a bomb with a lit fuse who has to collect clocks to extend his fuse and delay his eventual explosion. Added is the ability to rotate levels at 90 degree angles, thereby shifting the direction of gravity.

The Tower: A Bomb’s Climb (2010)
The second planned mini game, The Tower: A Bomb’s Climb, once again features the big-eyed bomb with a lit fuse who must ascend a huge tower. This time around, you do not have direct control over the bomb, as he walks back and forth between the walls of the tower on his own. Instead, you control the arc of his jump, and holding down the button longer allows for a higher jump… but holding it too long causes the move to backfire. You have to be careful because the continuously-moving bomb can actually walk off of ledges and descend a bit, and fire rises up from below, spelling your eventual doom. The game is meant to be played in multiplayer, with up to 4 players each controlling their own bombs, grabbing powerups, and attempting to quickly ascend the tower while causing their friends to fall into the fire below.