Tell simple 2D stories click by click

2018-01-14

I've known about Bitsy for a while, but used to dismiss it as a toy until November, when I stumbled, quite by accident, onto the unofficial -- yet definitive -- tutorial by Claire Morley, which is really more of a love letter, as its author readily admits. I promptly dropped everything and spent three days making my own little personal game, one that made people sit up and pay attention like few things I made. And that's despite its simplicity.

Because, you see, Bitsy can't do anything very complicated. You click an 8x8 grid to make monochrome tiles, which you then arrange onto a 16x16 grid to make rooms. You can have any number of those, connected by exits; you can also have "sprites", that represent NPCs or static scenery and give you dialogue when you bump into them. More recently, even items you can pick up. You can't have keys: items and variables only influence dialogue (no choices there, either). In other words, you can only make walking simulators, though people have achieved remarkable results simply by teleporting the player to "parallel universes". As for colors, you only get three per room: one for the background, one for the tiles and one for things you can interact with -- including your avatar, which can of course be customized. If you're feeling adventurous, any tile or sprite can have a 2-frame animation. That's really it!

Which is exactly why people have flocked to Bitsy, creating numerous little gems, some game-like, other focusing on story, or even just impressions. The artistic and technical ingenuity are off the scale: it's hard to find two Bitsy titles that look remotely the same. Well, unless they have a common theme: a very popular edition of their monthly game jam was all about castles.

The old truism that limitations breed creativity is amply proven by Bitsy. But there's more at work. Namely, how easy it is to start. Most people who can use a computer should be able to type a few words in a box -- the ideal size of a dialog line is comparable to an SMS -- and draw a stick figure. The barrier to entry is about as low as it gets. Moreover, Bitsy is inviting: the same quality 8-bit home computers used to have, but few modern platforms seem to replicate. It's no coincidence that the default colors (as my friend WereWolf pointed out) are the same as on the Commodore 64.

Contrast this with the well-known RPG Maker suite, which is not only expensive (at least if you want a modern edition) but also intimidating to get started with. Or at least that's what I've been hearing from various sources; I gave up trying to download even a free demo when they asked for my personal data in exchange. Those who get past the various hurdles then seemingly feel obliged to make large games that take many hours of play to complete, and that means either lots and lots of content... or else grind. If you ever heard RPG Maker games described as grindfests, this might be why. Can't even blame the authors.

Not that Bitsy is alone in its category. The slightly older Emotica works on a similar principle, except it relies on standard emoticons for tiles and sprites (as the name suggests), and flip-screen navigation instead of explicit exits. It's otherwise more capable and resource-intensive. I also couldn't figure out how to test a game without exporting until peeking at the documentation revealed that you can play and edit at the same time! Too bad it doesn't seem to have caught on.

But that's all right. More prior art has been there for a long time. 1991 classic ZZT, that sold well for over a decade and still lives on in a spiritual successor called MegaZeux, is essentially the same kind of tool except for omnidirectional shooters with ASCII art. And ZZT in turn appears to draw inspiration from Adventure (the Atari 2600 title from 1980, not the seminal text-based game from a few years prior) -- a game praised by many for its narrative qualities, that are all the more notable in a game lacking any words!

I mention the latter only because it's what another friend was reminded of when seeing early screenshots from my upcoming game. And that's funny because he correctly guessed my bigger plans for a spin-off product if this one is successful. Except I didn't yet have a name or direction for said plans; thanks to Austin, now I do. A good thing, too, because we need more entries in this genre of tools (wait, tools can have genres?) that doesn't yet have a name.

Hopefully one will emerge with time. For now, let's experiment and see what comes out.