Dungeon in a Bottle

A game by Strange Spaces for PC and Mac, originally released in 2022.
Dungeon in a Bottle is a precision platformer starring a thief named Reya. While attempting to steal a magical bottle from its resting place, Reya finds himself sucked inside, only to discover a trap-filled dungeon within. He must use every trick at his disposal – along with some new skills he gains along the way – to escape the dungeon with his life, as he platforms his way across more than 100 levels of steadily increasing difficulty.
Dungeons within the magical bottle tend to be narrow vertically-oriented single-screen environments, although there are a few scrolling levels later in the game, along with some levels that are arranged horizontally. Most levels can be completed in under 10 seconds, with lengthier challenges perhaps taking as long as 30 seconds, although actual completion times are bound to be much longer considering how easy it is for the player to be killed… a fact that the player is reminded of by way of a death counter in the HUD. Additionally, players who have mastered the mechanics may elect to enable a speedrun timer.
Fortunately, Reya’s thieving ways have made him quite nimble, allowing him to quickly jump between walls and reach greater heights to avoid spikes, rising acid, and other hazards… and maybe even collect some treasure along the way. Reya has a 2x nonvariable jump with moderate midair direction control, which is typical of the genre, and he can perform a wall slide and wall jump. Players do not need to press a direction in order to perform a wall jump – which is uncommon in the genre – and they will instead automatically jump away from a surface when the JUMP button is pressed, making the move quite snappy… but also adding some complexity as new moves are gained.
The wall slide is quite fast compared to other games with this mechanic, so players must react quickly, lest the slide to their deaths. There is very little margin for error within the confines of these tightly designed spaces, so split-second timing of wall slides and jumps is absolutely required to move forward. While casual platforming enthusiasts may find themselves making steady progress in the early levels, only veterans of the genre can expect to make it to the end.
Fortunately, players are granted quick restarts, infinite continues, and the ability to exit to the level select interface at any time. Players are able to play levels in any order, allowing them to skip ahead to a limited selection of levels if they find themselves stuck, and they can skip a handful of levels altogether and still make progress. This alleviates some frustration, especially as players watch their death counters climb into 4-digit territory.
Every level contains at least one key, which is needed to open the exit door, but many levels contain multiple keys, some of which cause certain blocks to disappear or trigger traps. Many levels contain golden coins, and collecting these is optional – acting largely as a secondary goal for skilled players – and these can also be used to buy your way past certain level thresholds. That said, if you’re skilled enough to collect the coins, then chances are you’re skilled enough to complete the levels without skipping forward… although there are some late-game bonus levels on offer for the most talented thieves.
The placement of keys and coins adds another level of strategy, as collecting keys not only opens the path forward but can also block your way to certain coins. Some disappearing blocks also hide spikes, so these blocks may act as platforms as you traverse the level in one direction, only to become obstacles as you make your way back. There’s often a surprising amount of complexity packed within some very small levels.
One of the more interesting obstacles comes in the form of moving walls, and these are used in a variety of ways. One wall may push in from the side, forcing you to outrun it as you move in the opposite direction, collecting coins or reaching the exit before your path is blocked. Two walls may push together, requiring that you use well-timed wall jumps to move up between them… with each jump pushing the wall backs slightly, simultaneously buying you some time but also increasing the size of the gap and making it more difficult to traverse.
You can also push against a wall to move it slowly back, as long as you’re standing on solid ground, and some walls are lined with spikes to avoid, or platforms to climb. In some levels, these walls start moving as soon as the level begins, while in others they must be triggered. The game gets a lot of mileage out of these functionally simple obstacles, creating very responsive environments that are less rigid than those found in many other genre entries.
That said, puzzle solutions do become more restrictive as the game goes on, requiring more specific movements and timing, all with small margins for error. This is particularly true once you begin collecting items – retrieved from the bodies of others who died in the magic bottle – which grant you additional movement abilities.
The first of these powerups comes in the form of Moth Boots that let you perform wall jumps at a much greater distance. These are activated by pressing the JUMP button again while in midair, which results in Reya performing a flip. When performed successfully, Reya will pause for a moment when grabbing a wall, and then fling himself forcefully away from it, and this move can be chained together to perform multiple long jumps.
The trick is that you often don’t want to perform multiple long jumps in succession, as doing so may fling you into a wall of spikes or send you falling into a bottomless pit. After you jump, you can tap the JUMP button to initiate a long jump, but you must bear in mind that the long jump is automatic. If you forget this and press the JUMP button again when you hit the wall – which is how you’ve learned to wall jump up to this point in the game – you will initiate another long jump. It can be difficult to break yourself of the habit of pressing the JUMP button when you hit a wall, and you may inadvertently initate a long jump if you tap twice when making the initial jump.
Puzzle solutions become more advanced once this powerup is acquired, and there is another powerup that builds off of this one, allowing you to trampoline off of ropes while flipping through the air. The third powerup allows you to perform a vertical lunge and quick midair direction changes… and this is thankfully dedicated to its own button. With this ability, players become able to jump up vertical surfaces, jump past spike traps, boost upward into narrow openings to retrieve keys and coins, and jump away from walls only to quickly reverse direction and fling themselves onto the other side.
Obstacles are slowly introduced as players make their way forward, with new themed areas unlocking every 30 levels or so. Obstacles include blocks that disappear a moment after you touch them, rows of blocks that explode in chain reactions when you jump away from them, knives that you can bounce on (from above) or wall jump on (from the side), falling objects that can also be used as elevators, and switches that cause blocks to appear and disappear.
Often, obstacles will interact with one another. For instance, the second themed area introduces platforms that may be horizontally- or vertically-oriented. Jumping off of a horizontal platform flips it to vertical, and vice versa. Obviously, this means that you can use these platforms to jump or wall jump based on their orientation, but these can impact other obstacles as well… such as blocking knives that are flying through the air, or preventing plungers from reaching their full length. Plungers can break through disappearing blocks and spikes, and they can be used as platforms and walls from which to perform jumps, so they act both as obstacles and as a means of progression.
While you generally have as much time as you need to complete objectives, and you can usually see everything within the level at once, there are dedicated chase sequences where that is not the case. In some levels, a deadly pool of liquid rises up from below, requiring that you move forward quickly, taking advantage of all the tricks you’ve learned along the way, with slow movement or mistimed jumps resulting in a gurgling death by goo.
The game features art and architecture in a Middle Eastern style, seeming to draw inspirations from One Thousand and One Nights (a.k.a. Arabian Nights), what with its adventuresome protagonist and magic bottle. The visuals are presented in a low color palette with generally warm hues, accompanied by a suitably retro soundtrack composed using Famitracker. It’s also worth noting that there is a stunning array of animations applied to the protagonist, which provides him with a style and charm beyond what is generally offered in retro-style titles. There is very little narrative on offer, aside from a few interactions with the dead people from whom Reya loots his ability-granting treasures, and these exchanges are quite humorous.

Dungeon in a Bottle was developed by Strange Spaces, with programming, level design, and mechanics by Andrew Jones. Art, music, level design and mechanics were created by Jo Hanna, who previously worked on Dragoon Drop, Good Night, Knight, and Dwarfcorp. The game was originally created for Ludum Dare 38 in 2017 with a theme of “a small world”, and was then expanded into a full commercial release. The game was published by Very Handsome Games.