You might be forgiven if at first glance you were to confuse Sophie Houlden’s recently released Swift Stitch for a video game out of another decade. Utilizing the Unity3D game engine, Sophie has created an ostensibly 2D game, though one that hews closer artistically to the legacy of early vector displays than the more prolific blocky bitmap art that followed. The slick mathematical aesthetic, the palette of black, white, and bright flickering neons, and the bare-minimum control method may seem otherworldly amongst today’s fare. On deeper examination however, you may discover that Swift Stitch is a game firmly rooted in the present, taking a unique approach in addressing several modern game design paradigms.
In play, Swift Stitch bears significant resemblance to the bit Generations (or more recently, ArtStyle) games. Roughly similar to various entries in the arty Skip Ltd. developed series, Swift Stitch presents the player with minimal visual and aural feedback, tightening the gap between stimulus and player reaction. When successful, this kind of game induces a unique head-space that makes every lesson learned by failure and every small triumph feel sublime.
The player controls an abstract craft, trailing a line as it navigates a course of simple obstacles in order to reach a goal gate. The craft travels forward in one of two possible directions, determined by the state of a single button. By default the craft moves horizontally, and when the control button is depressed, vertically. Colored gates within the course flip the orientation of these directional states, diverting the craft on contact. One gate toggles a unique state in which the control method changes to a clockwise/ counterclockwise rotation, swapping the default Snake-style handling for an alternative more akin to Atari’s Asteroids. Overlaid triangles help prepare the player by indicating the ship’s horizontal and vertical orientation, and dashed leading lines aid in navigation. Given this limited mobility, the flow of the game is strictly dictated by the layout of each level, streamlining the player through increasingly intricate and complex courses.
A number of Sophie’s unique design choices are revealed as the player makes progress across the game’s levels, and unfold at the same didactic, linear pace as the moment-to-moment challenges within the courses themselves. These include her methods of addressing player-directed challenge, meta rewards (aka Cheevos), and the efforts she has implemented to mitigate player frustration.
One of the unique things about Swift Stitch is how it presents challenge. At first the game seems simple in this regard: a balance between intuitive strategy (solving the correct order of navigation through each level’s gates to reach the goal) and action (timing each turn correctly to avoid a crash) required to reach each exit.
However, after completing the game’s tutorial stages, the player may realize there is more depth than was immediately apparent. First, there is an optional ‘slowdown’ button, which gives the player a limited amount of time to navigate difficult passages. Second, any given level is presented for careful inspection when the game is paused. At this point the player is free to pan and zoom around the course in order to plan their path in advance without penalty. Third, the game allows the player to select the ‘Speed Class’ at which their craft travels. This setting, which can be changed at any point between levels, acts as a fine-grain difficulty selection between 1 and 7, with 4 being the designer’s chosen default. Lastly, all main levels of the game are completely open to the player from the start. The game can be completed in any order.
Most stage-based games dole out content selectively, preventing the player from spoiling elements in advance of earlier challenges. Sophie shows great confidence in immediately placing so much of the game at her players’ fingertips, and yet Swift Stitch is impeccably designed as to never feel aimless or opaque. In addition to player aids and difficulty selection, there are a few modifiers available in the Bonus Options which add significantly to challenge.
A large segment of Sophie’s audience, and especially many of her critics and fans, are amateur game developers themselves, or are otherwise interested in the ‘independent games’ sphere. That is to say, they are familiar with the current zeitgeist, and likely have their own opinions on popular design trends. For example, some in this crowd get really grumpy about ‘Achievements’. Shouldn’t games be rewarding and fulfilling on their own merit, encouraging the player to experiment and set their own goals? Why even bother with meta rewards? Sophie’s answer here is interesting.
While typical completionist and commentary-style rewards are present (Collect All ‘Shinies’, Finish at Speed X), there are also rewards that contribute to the player’s experience in a unique way. These provide thoughtful context for moments that might otherwise be overlooked as mundane game action. I won’t spoil them, but the rewards in question can be discovered by thorough play of levels Narrow (15) and Traverse (18), freely accessible within the generous 21 stage demo. Sophie introduces a subtle narrative by drawing connections between abstract player action and a relatable emotional sentiment. These rewards add a bit of tactile, thoughtful commentary without hinging on overstatement.
Another issue Sophie tackles is assistance in response to predicted player frustration. Video game designers face a unique challenge, in that player skill is a limiting factor to enjoyment. When a player desires more from the game than they are able to access, a vicious cycle of head vs. wall can develop, preventing progress and enjoyment. This is an issue that Nintendo, for example, has recently addressed with its divisive Super Guide (and subsequently, the more subtle Golden Tanooki Suit).
Certain designers and skilled players tend to think this kind of intrusive assistance is a bad thing. They’re seeking self-improvement and feel these features act as the game nagging them in order to ‘play itself’. But what happens when the less skillful player hits a wall of difficulty they find insurmountable? Should the game bow before them, self-adjusting to let them glide through to later content? This seems disingenuous; the struggle after all, is what lends weight to eventual triumph.
However Swift Stitch is so carefully tuned to the player’s needs that it would be a shame not to lend a hand in an instance of frustration. Upon a set number of failures, the player is presented with a humble suggestion.
Sophie is an independent developer in an increasingly vast sea of independent developers, but her heartfelt persistence and unique design-sense makes her work stand out. In a time when market driven multi-million blockbuster games cloy for our attention, it’s nice to know that people like Sophie still care to provide simple, compelling experiences without neglecting the details.
A demo for Swift Stitch, as well as the full game (purchasable for $7, available for PC and Mac) are available on her website.
Make yourself a cup of tea, turn down the lights, and enjoy a computer game that not only manages to please us cynical critics and enthusiasts, but a game so lovely it would make the ghosts of John Whitney and Jack Bresenham themselves proud.