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January 4, 2010

The Maw

You may or may not be familiar with small development team Twisted Pixel‘s latest hit on the XBox live arcade, ‘Splosion Man, but it was a well-received 2D platformer that won the hearts of many and featured some intensely fun and challenging timing-based gameplay. While this is Twisted Pixel’s most recognized XBox game, it isn’t their only one. Their single other game, The Maw, also got some positive feedback, (winning the Pax Award Show and being a finalist in the Independent Games Festival to name a couple) but wasn’t as big of a project as the infamous ‘Splosion Man, which is made obvious by the improved graphics, polish, and sales of the title. But that doesn’t mean that The Maw should be left to be forgotton, and while it isn’t a perfect title, it certainly deserves some more attention, even so long after it’s release about a year ago.

The Maw is based around pretty simple concepts. Eat enemies to get larger (not unlike Katamari), and steal their special powers as well (Kirby, anyone?). Yes, these ideas aren’t completely new, but The Maw is a game all its own. You play as a small alien boy who leads around his pet, the Maw. The Maw is an ever-growing gelatinous purple blob cyclops monster, which is a lot more adorable than it sounds. The game overflows with charm, which can be traced back to a number of things. Perhaps it’s just the low-res background textures and oddly shaped polygon mountains reminding me of my fond childhood days on the Nintendo 64, but this game feels like an old classic. The game’s setup is fairly simple: Feed the Maw, and get to the end of the level. What the game does well, however, is make the world in which The Maw takes place interesting and enjoyable.

The Maw, using his newly acquired fire breath

Instead of thinking some well worded transition to lead us into the main section of the post, I’m just going to lay it out for you: Now we’re going to go in-depth about the design choices in The Maw. Awesome, let’s get on with it then. One thing I admire The Maw for, is it’s ability to make old concepts feel fresh. The levels are set up in a very simple goal oriented fashion; You are tasked with overcoming one obstacle at a time in a usually pseudo-open world and must use your character’s abilities to progress. We’ve seen this in games like Banjo-Kazooie, DK64 and Mario 64, but the Maw puts it into a smaller scale, and provides some new ideas as well. The Maw’s designers uses a tactic I like to call “The Toolkit”, meaning that the game gives you tools you need to solve puzzles, kill enemies, platform around obstacles, etc, (which in this game is the Maw’s ability to devour his foes and the player’s small set of non-lethal moves), and lets you use those tools to figure out the rest for yourself. Actually, a lot of games use this very common tactic. To put it into simpler context: Imagine somebody giving you a wrench, you discovering a metal nut, and using the wrench on the nut. Obviously you know what a wrench does, but if you didn’t, I’m sure there would be a sense of satisfaction in figuring out how to use it to your advantage. This is the principle gameplay mechanic in The Maw, only used in many different cases and in great variety. Only once did the game lead me astray by not telling me I had a wrench, or in the context of the game, not telling me that I even had the attack necessary to proceed. You can probably see how that would be confusing and problematic, but the game avoided this a majority of the time. One of my favorite moments in the game tasked the player with climbing onto a ledge that was too high to reach. The tool the developers gave the player in this level allowed you to pick up the small creatures in the world. Figuring out how to apply the tool is where the satisfaction lies. Monsters flew around the level, and dove into the dirt in pursuit of the tiny creatures. In this case, you had to examine the properties of the world (dirt is soft, metal is tough), use your tool by picking up a small creature and throwing him onto a metal plateau, and watching as the monsters dive after it, only to smack directly into the metal ground. Using the Maw’s power to eat the monster, you gain the ability to fly, leading you onward to the next area of the map. That’s good design. Old design, but not outdated.

The Maw is most successful (as a game and in design) when it is able to present new and interesting interactions with the game world, whether it be light puzzle solving or exploration. The Maw is weakest when it fails to make the interactions feel like a new discovery. The discovery can be solving a difficult puzzle, finding out what’s over the horizon, or something as simple as what happens when the Maw eats a stag beetle, but when the player (ME) fails to feel a sense of discovery, that’s when boredom settles in. I’m not saying that The Maw is a boring game, I’m just justifying why I wasn’t fond of the game segments that failed to show me something new. Actually, The Maw often feels like new ideas are around every corner. The level variety is one of the game’s strengths. The environments themselves don’t actually have any degree of variation, all being grassy plains, and while I understand that a short game doesn’t necessarily have time to fit in new settings (like a arctic or underground backdrop for instance), it certainly wouldn’t have hurt. Some levels are straightforward bouts of running and jumping, some are puzzle-based, some combat focused areas, and even one that’s centered around exploration. Doing something different in each successive level really helps the design feel fresh, even if some elements recur. Obviously, some elements of gameplay must recur anyways to add some degree of familiarity, but you get the idea.

The Maw takes some very classic design moves and wraps them up in a charming, albeit brief, experience. It doesn’t revolutionize the platformer, but it doesn’t need to. It’s nearly always fun, and I know a few developers who could use some design tips from Twisted Pixel’s staff. Trusted and familiar gameplay mechanics in a unique and charming setting: MAW.

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