Video games can be great and important works, but not all of them are. Games For Adults is Playboy.com’s regular column highlighting the ones that can make you think about more than hit points and head shots.
Video games can take lots of different forms, from interactive novels to bombastic shooters. But Titan Souls is the purest distillation of a video game, a calculated equation of risk versus reward in which not a single element is trivial or extraneous.
Its influences are clear, with the top-down graphics of The Legend of Zelda and the structure and pacing of Shadow of the Colossus. The latter, an artful PlayStation 2 game in which you explore a massive world in search of colossal beasts, is one of the gaming world’s most beloved creations. Aping it is a daunting task that few game developers have ever attempted.
Where developer Acid Nerve succeeded with Titan Souls was in breaking Shadow down to its essentials, invoking its structure and tone on a smaller scale, then making fully it their own.
YOU ONLY GET ONE
Titan Souls gives you control of a tiny character who inhabits a large, mysterious world. That character has a single weapon, a magical bow whose single arrow can be drawn, fired and summoned back to the character’s quiver with a single button.
Prodigious foes inhabit Titan Souls’ world, but one solid thunk of that arrow into each’s very video-gamey weak point is all it takes to vanquish them. Likewise, your character is killed instantly by any of these enemies’ attacks, or by any misstep on your part as the player.
It’s a dangerous world, but a rewarding one, too.
And surprisingly simple; “one hit point for the bosses, one hit point for you, the whole one arrow thing,” as one of the game’s creators, Acid Nerve’s Mark Foster, summarized it. That simplicity is a product of the game’s origin at the Ludum Dare 28 “game jam” in December 2013.
At game jam events, developers from all over the world gather (physically or online) to make video games, usually in a short amount of time and often with a specific theme. Ludum Dare is one of the big ones, and this particular event took place over just 72 hours. The developers were challenged to make a game from scratch during that time with the theme “You Only Get One.”
Mark and his Acid Nerve colleagues, David Fenn and Andrew Gleeson, stuck to that theme with Titan Souls, but they didn’t think the game up from scratch on the spot once the theme was determined at the jam’s start. They went in knowing exactly what kind of game they wanted to make—one where all you do is fight bosses—and tweaked it to fit within the theme. Lucky for them, it paid off.
“The people who enter the jam vote on the themes, so there were 20 possible themes the day before, and we wrote down rough ideas for each one, kind of trying to shoehorn this idea of a boss fight game in,” Foster told me. “Actually, we didn’t have a solid idea for [You Only Get One] when it came up, but we just sort of ran with it.”
THE VIRTUE OF CHALLENGE
Titan Souls’ mechanical simplicity—one hit point, one arrow, etc.—came from that theme, but another part of the game’s success is the complexity of its boss fights. From fighting Jumanji-style giant plants to a literal Yeti, each battle is both an epic showdown and a smart puzzle. Half the fight is figuring out how to expose the boss’s weak point, and the rest is actually pulling off that crucial shot.
My favorite battle in the game is against a larger-than-life warrior, the Knight Elhanan, who flies around a crumbling chamber shooting his own magic arrows at you. You have to roll and dodge around until you can shoot the Knight’s arrow with your own, temporarily stunning the boss, then call your arrow back and fire it at the Knight before he recovers. It requires precise timing, a mastery of the game’s controls and a tiny bit of luck. Finally beating it is exhilarating.
That formula—to make players keep failing until they’re good enough not to—used to be the stuff video games were made of. But many of today’s games treat players like idiots, desperately spoon-feeding them objectives, checkpoints and Achievements for fear they’ll lose interest and move on, which inevitably occurs anyway.
Titan Souls comes from an older—and arguably better—school of thought, one that’s influenced a few other modern games, like the popular (and excellent) Dark Souls series.
“We found this, kind of like a drug, basically—the endorphins that get released when you pull off that kill after struggling for a while,” Foster said. “We thought it was really cool and just polished it and pushed that as far as we could.”
TRIALS AND ERRORS
In retrospect, the version of Titan Souls Foster and his cohorts made during the Ludum Dare jam was more like a prototype. Thanks to the attention that prototype got in the jam’s aftermath, the three decided to spend the following year and a half making it into a full game. Game publisher Devolver Digital took notice and picked it up, and on release Titan Souls was met with accolades.
“The theme pretty much made the game. We got really lucky with that,” Foster told me. “If it had just been more of a generic game—if it hadn’t had that theme, and it hadn’t been like a one hit kill thing—then maybe it wouldn’t have been that popular, Devolver wouldn’t have picked it up, and I have no idea what I would have been doing right now.”
But the developers’ greatest challenge in expanding on Titan Souls was coming up with enough unique bosses to make a full game.
“The fight needs to be relatively easy to survive, but hard to pull of the kill. At the moment of the kill, you’re supposed to be in a position where you’re in danger…you have to kind of just go all in when you want to pull off the kills,” Foster explained. “It’s quite difficult to actually make something that fits all of these criteria, but then is also completely different from any other boss in the game as well.”
Scrapped boss concepts included a giant frog battled from moving lily pads and a “full Shadow of the Colossus homage” where you tumbled along the back of a giant dragon as it flew through the air (that was “way too ambitious,” Foster said).
But the fights that made it in all share those properties—and they’re fun as hell. The result is a game that rewards you in direct proportion to the time you spend in its world, not with superficial Achievements and score points, but with the tangible sense that you’ve improved at something.
Even if that “something” is simply playing this video game, it’s still something.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Games Editor, in charge of all things gaming but mostly concerned with maxing his Destiny characters. He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and two dogs. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.