They Bleed Pixels

A game by Spooky Squid Games for PC, Mac, Linux, and Switch, originally released in 2012.
They Bleed Pixels is a game about stylish Lovecraftian asskickery at the bloody bifurcated hands of a prep school girl… and really, how often do you get to say that? Our heroine arrives late one night at the front gates of the Lafcadio Academy for Troubled Young Ladies, suitcase in tow, and wanders up the foggy pathway to the large beknockered double-doors of the institution, in an opening scene steeped in the heavy juices of Lovecraft and Argento.

Along the path, the girl passes a number of creepy-looking statues (which represent some of the game’s enemies) and walks beneath the cephalopod-carved overhang. Above this, at a window marked with a 2-pronged fork symbol, a terrible ritual is underway. We see shadowy hands produce a twin-bladed knife (modeled after the 2-pronged symbol) and slice open a vein, spilling blood onto an ominous-looking tome bearing the same symbol.

Of course, it’s not long before the girl discovers the book and finds what it has in store for her. Turning its pages, the book begins to glow and transforms the girl, leaving her with 2 long pointed digits on each arm in place of her hands. Each night, she is transformed as she enters a warped dream world to defeat monsters and collect the symbol-marked pages of the book. Each new morning, she attempts to dispose of the book – which adds a bit of levity to the situation, until you realize that she’s not being cleansed completely of her dream-form each morning – but each evening the book returns to her side and transforms her once more.

The platforms and enemies of the dream world appear in dark black with white highlights, and most levels are lined with spikes and saw blades. Spikes come in 2 varieties: short spikes will stun you and take away one unit of life, whereas long spikes will kill you instantly if you fall onto them from above, but you can safely walk through them if you come at them from the side. Most enemies are affected by spikes and saw blades as well, and it’s possible to knock or lure enemies into them.

Platforms tend to be fairly spread out, leading to a somewhat disconnected world that seems a bit at odds with reality. Death awaits those who misstep or fall short on a jump, or those who don’t take their enemies’ movements into account. Backgrounds vary from one level to the next, but they’re generally filled with images that are designed to be somewhat unsettling.

The player has a rather robust set of moves available to him, particularly given the limited set of controller inputs, which include only a directional stick and buttons for jumping and attacking. Our heroine has a variable-height 2x jump, which can be extended up to a maximum of 4x with her double jump. She can also cling to walls, wall slide, and wall jump. The disconnected environments require liberal use of these skills for basic travel, and often require the player to perform advanced moves like initiating a double jump cross a pit of spikes while moving beneath another deadly obstacle. Book pages are often tucked away on alternate paths that are only accessible to those players who have mastered the mechanics.

Additional obstacles come in the form of slippery surfaces, which as you might expect, cause you to slide along the ground. This can cause you some trouble when navigating narrow platforms, and you have to be careful when fighting enemies because you can be knocked backwards, potentially dropping you off an edge and into a pit of spikes. There are also slippery walls which cannot be grabbed. You will occasionally have to deal with switches as well, allowing you to open doors, which can also drop more enemies into play.

Fighting enemies comes down to more than simply hammering the attack button whenever a baddie stands before you. Given the dangerous nature of the environments, you’re rarely left with a wide span of solid ground on which to fight. As such, combat becomes a delicate balance of using the environment to your advantage while keeping it from killing you in the process, all the while understanding enemy behaviors and the tools you have to dispose of them.

Your basic attack is a short range stab with your pointed digits. Moving toward an enemy and pressing the ATTACK button will let you stab it, killing smaller enemies outright and taking some health off of larger ones. However, some enemies can block your basic attacks, which requires the use of some more advanced techniques.

If you approach an enemy from a distance and attack, you will dash toward it and stab, and there is a short cooldown period before you can perform another dash move. Standing still and pressing the ATTACK button will allow you to kick enemy away from you. This doesn’t do much for flying enemies, but ground based foes will go flying backwards, knocking back any other enemies behind them as well. It’s also worth noting that kicks do not cause any damage to enemies, but they’re a very important part of your combat repertoire. You can kick to break a blocking enemy’s guard and get in more attacks, or you can kick them off the side of the platform and into a pit of spikes or spinning saw blade, which will kill them.

A second type of kick is available by pressing UP and ATTACK. This is a slower move, so it’s best to stun your enemy before attempting it, lest the move be canceled by a counterattack. By doing this, you will kick the enemy straight up, and they go pretty high. Again, this breaks the enemy’s block, and can be used to send them into something pointy to rain down a shower of their blood. You can also use this move to set up a combo that lets you juggle enemies by continuously attacking them from below, or you can jump up and deliver multiple midair stabs.

You also have the ability to dive bomb enemies by pressing DOWN and ATTACK while in the air, which aims your attacking claws downward. The further you fall, the more damage you will cause when you make contact. Also, you can run and slide under low overhangs, and this works as a sort of leg sweep on ground-based enemies, knocking them backwards but not causing any damage. And, you can duck and attack.

A combo meter counts up as you make multiple attacks succession, and all killed enemies reward you in blood, moreso the higher your combo. At the top of the screen, a counter shows the number of pints of blood you have spilled from your enemies, and there are also floating blood pickups spread around some environments. Killing enemies and collecting blood globules is key to advancing, as it powers the game’s rather unique checkpoint system. Rather than encountering checkpoints at specific intervals, the spilt blood is added to a “sigil meter” that – once filled – allows the player to drop a checkpoint wherever he chooses, except on slippery surfaces or in the vicinity of enemies or saw blades.

Once the sigil meter has filled, the player can stand in any safe place and wait for a few seconds, and a sigil will be drawn in the air, restoring the player’s health to a full 3 hearts. If the girl is killed, she will rematerialize back at the spot where the sigil was placed. This gives the player the ability to drop save points before or after difficult sections. There is a risk-reward system in place here as well, as the player can keep the sigil from being drawn by pressing UP or DOWN while standing still (and earn extra points by holding onto it). In this way, the player may try to fight a little further along, risking safety to get the checkpoint to a more strategic location. However, there are several situations where you are placed in long gauntlet-style runs where it’s impossible to drop a checkpoint and easy to be killed, making for some tense moments if there is no recent checkpoint to return to.

Enemies come in several shadowy varieties. Large loping enemies called shamblers patrol back and forth on their platforms. They’re slow, but they can absorb a lot of damage before they go down, and they will block your attacks after taking a couple of hits. Often, kicking them into spikes or saw blades is a more efficient way of destroying them than stabbing, but they also make great combo fodder. Shamblers have long, slow tentacle attacks with a pretty decent telegraph, so you can avoid them by jumping away or ducking under them if you’re paying attention (although they can duck and attack as well).

Bomb carrying imps are small and slow, although their bombs are large and have quite a bit of range. Getting near a bomb imp will activate its bomb, which will flash red and begin counting down, emitting a chime that sounds in shorter intervals as it gets closer to exploding. Exploding bombs affect everything around them, killing enemies (or you) at close range, and knocking everything else backwards and potentially into danger. Bombs can often be used strategically by kicking them into enemies or setting off chain reactions, and they can even be used to activate switches.

Knife carrying imps wield huge knives that are even bigger than they are. Knife imps are incredibly mobile and will hop from platform to platform, and they can be rather relentless in their pursuit of you. Their most effective attack is a dive bomb where they jump above you, turn their knives downward, and drop quickly to the ground. These attacks aren’t terribly difficult to avoid on their own, but they can be troublesome when you’re up against these enemies in great numbers, which is usually how they attack. If you can get alongside them in midair, they die in one hit, and they have a few seconds of vulnerability after dive bombing while they attempt to pull their knives out of the ground. These enemies can also slash you if you’re standing next to them, so you’ll want to take advantage of their downtime as much as possible.

Other enemies include a couple of airborne varieties. Tiny flying octopi will dart toward you when they line up with you horizontally, and they’re invincible while they’re dashing. They only take one hit to kill if you can manage to get ahold of them. You can also lure them into flinging themselves into spikes or saw blades.

Wraiths, on the other hand, fly slowly through the environment and are capable of passing through solid objects, including environmental hazards. They can also follow you to pretty much any place in the level, so it’s important that you deal with them when they appear, and preferably on solid ground. Wraiths sit stationary in the environment and move toward you when you get close or when you turn your back. They can also hide behind solid objects and come out of the walls toward you. They take a ton of hits to destroy, and getting in a hit or two will cause the wraith to disappear and rematerialize behind you. If you’re on a wide, flat surface, you can simply turn around and attack again until it is destroyed.

Each time you die – which you should count on being a frequent occurrence – a ghost of your former self will be left behind in the place where you died. So, if you were killed by an enemy, your ghost-corpse will by lying on the ground, and if you were impaled by spikes, you will see your ghost skewered when you return. The only time your ghost does not appear is when your body is completely obliterated, which usually happens when you are killed by a saw blade or a falling spike trap.

As you play, you can earn various in-game rewards that come in the form of badges. These are awarded for beating levels with a high rank, completing them quickly, performing big combos, and pulling off some of the more interesting combat techniques. Badges allow you to unlock artwork, and you can also earn the ability to play bonus levels. Bonus levels are extremely challenging arenas that put all of your skills to the test, but they look completely different from the main game. The bonus levels are re-skins from other folks in the indie scene, and all of the sprites are changed to fit the new theme. Even the wording is changed for the points system and combo names.

At the time of the game’s release, 2 bonus levels were available: They Bleed Ponycorns, and They Bleed Stardust. When fighting through the Ponycorns version of the game, you will be rescuing Ponycorns rather than picking up pages from the mysterious book. And, rather than playing through the dark and ominous levels of the main game, you will be running through what appears to be a child’s drawing, with all of the black backgrounds replaced with purple, and the dark-haired protagonist replaced with a blonde. The flying octopi are even re-themed to be lemons. The mechanics are all the same, and the level is very difficult, which is a bit ironic given the more lighthearted tone.

They Bleed Ponycorns was based on Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure by father-daughter duo Ryan and Cassie Creighton (Untold Entertainment) and features the young girl’s voice in the background music as you play through the level. They Bleed Stardust is based on Seraph by Alex Bethke (Golden Gear Games) and features a cosmic theme and a bright white silhouetted protagonist. Additional planned levels include one based on Mathew Kumar’s exp. Magazine with black and white and grayscale levels, and the Ninjas Bleed Techno Dance Party, based on Michael Todd’s Techno Ninja, and featuring loads of neon purple and techno beats.

They Bleed Pixels was developed by Spooky Squid Games, a development house in Toronto, Canada dedicated to furthering their unabashed love for cephalopods. The studio was founded by artist and designer Miguel Sternberg, co-founder of Capybara Games (Sword & Sworcery), who is also of the folks running the indie game art group, The Hand Eye Society.

Programming was done by Ukrainian programmer Andrij Pilkiw, and the music was provided by Shaun Hatton, otherwise known as DJ Finish Him, who is known for creating his sound by mixing synthesizers with game machines and other oddball items and strange instruments.

They Bleed Pixels was the studio’s first commercial release, but Spooky Squid Games has released a number of freeware PC games since their original founding in 2008:

In 2008, the studio released Night of the Cephalopods, subtitled: A Terrifying Experiment in Narrative Excess. The game is an overhead survival horror game in a 16-bit style, featuring dynamic narration (yes, they did it before Bastion did it, albeit on a smaller scale). In this case, the narrator is the protagonist, and comments on his actions as he is relentlessly pursued by hovering cephalopods. Armed with a shotgun and limited ammo pickups, our hero traipses through a number of single-screen environments trying to survive until dawn. The game was originally created during a Toronto-based game development event called Artsy Games Incubator and was created in Game Maker. Miguel Sternberg did all of the coding, writing, and art for the game, with Scott Moyle providing the voice of the narrator, and music by Dan Oberbaur.

The developer followed this up with Cephalopods Co-op Cottage Defence, a 2-player co-op game where a pair of players works to defend their cottage (which doubles as an occult research facility) against the same hovering cephalopods that terrified our hero in the last game. Scientist Lady Amber Pennyworth, and her clockwork valet Winston Mianspring, must work together, using shotguns to blast away the invading creatures and hammers to mend their defensive walls to prevent the tentacled beasts from making their way inside. This game was created as part of an IGF submission.

In 2010, the studio released The Night Balloonists, a one button game for 2-4 players where players compete to gather the most pollen from plants growing from a sea of ink on the bottom of the screen. By pressing and holding their assigned button, the player’s balloon will drift downward, and touching the ink on the bottom of the screen fills the balloon’s reservoir. Double-tapping the button allows the balloon to release ink and move upward quickly. Dropping ink on other players’ balloons, or ramming them with your own balloon, will make them lose some of their collected pollen. A swirling air current pushes the balloons around the single-screen environment, although players can boost upward to move ahead of others. The game was created as part of the GAMMA 4 One Button Game competition using Game Maker. Once again, Miguel Sternberg did the writing and art for the game, but he was joined by Andrij Pilkiw, who did the programming.

In development at the time of They Bleed Pixels’ release is Guerrilla Gardening: Seeds of Revolution, a game combining stealth, puzzle solving, and revolution, as players use vegetation to overthrow a dictatorship that has outlawed plants. By surreptitiously planting seeds, you cheer up citizens and fuel their desire for anarchy. Players can even plant vegetation that screams, distracting or scaring away patrolling guards, or herding them into a desired location. Different kinds of plants have different effects, including those that charm citizens into coming toward them, ones that emit pollen that causes guards to fall asleep, thorns that create barriers, and bluebells that actually ring and cause distractions.