Inversus is an elegantly designed minimalist shooter, in which the player’s actions are constantly creating new constraints and possibilities to explore. We spoke with the game’s creator Ryan Juckett...
Pixel Primers: The shooting and the movement in Inversus are tied together in a really interesting way. How did the game's mechanics develop?
Ryan Juckett: I like stuff where your actions have an influence on the state of the game in significant ways. I'd been playing a bunch of Risk Legacy. It’s like the game Risk, but the things you do influence future games, because you'll put a sticker on the board and from then on out some part of Australia is harder to take over because of what happened in the previous game.
I really liked that idea, so I wanted to do something where the things we’re doing in the game like moving and shooting are creating changes in the actual space. And from there, it got to be like if you were shooting in the game and it was changing where you could move, how would that work? And eventually I got the idea that you’re in negative spaces of each other. But it came from those legacy board games and just the persistence of your actions extending further through time and coming back on you later.
I noticed you worked on a lot of AAA franchises like Destiny and Tony Hawks. Do you feel there were lessons you were able to take from that space and put into Inversus?
On the design side, I think the feel of stuff like shooting and the feel of moving and controlling with a gamepad. I learned a lot at Bungie about that. A thing that you continue to learn throughout your career, especially if you're working on AAA titles and ones that are the top of their field, is how much further you can push the bar. It's sort of raising your senses and taste for more and more details of what is better and worse than other things right? It’s pretty easy to look at two shooters and say these are the same thing. But if you get really attuned to it you can start to say, ‘oh this is better than this because XYZ’. To be able to make something that everybody's going to think is the best, you have to have sharper tastes than everyone else right? And certainly working on games for my career has helped me raise that sensitivity to stuff.
And likewise, do you think there are things you learned on Inversus that you could take back into the AAA space?
I think working on a small title forces you to get a holistic view of everything from the implementation costs all the way up to the high level goals, which gives you insight that isn't always there in AAA because stuff is so spread out. You can't trim the edges as well, because you don't quite know the implications that go three layers away from you, right? On small titles there's so many aspects, from writing the first line of code up to designing a thing and making it sound right, and then actually getting it to sell. I think I have a much more holistic view of how the business side of games works.
Inversus is a very simple game, but one with a huge amount of strategic depth. How do you go about designing something that holds these two qualities?
It started with the idea I wanted it to be as if we're running around trying to shoot the other player, while being concerned about being spatially trapped. And initially, the game wasn’t as tuned and has all sorts of little features missing, and it doesn't have that strategic depth yet. You can move around and shoot, but it's more checkers and not chess. And I believed that I could get it so that you could trap someone in a spot by outsmarting them, and then basically the mechanic becomes territory control. As you're shooting, you're basically creating space you can move into that the other player can't move into. And I wanted to make it so that actually surrounding you or closing you in had enough usefulness to it that you would have a hard time weighing between your choices. Should I go straight into the attack? Or should I try and close them in first, right? You want that to be something weighing on the player. And then from there, you’re going to start to get some strategy.
Some of that came from tuning the reloads and how fast you could shoot and stuff, but a lot of it didn’t really click until I started adding the power ups, because then you were both controlling the other player but you’re also trying to control the spawn points for those. So that way, the next time they spawn, they would be in your territory and you could acquire them. And at that point there were enough mental decisions going on that I felt like I hit where I wanted to get to.
On that subject of strategy, Inversus strikes me as the sort of game where the high level players must be able to do some extremely impressive things. For the record, I’m not particularly good at the game!
Yeah, there are some extremely good players. There are things that people can do where the game starts to change a bit. Inversus is trying to mix this thinking game with this very fast paced action game. As players get really good there’s some very sort of twitch based things you can do in the game, like you can catch bullets. Basically right as someone shoots a bullet at you if you press your shoot button back in their direction, just before it hits you, you will actually take it into your chamber. Once you’re good enough you can start parrying back and forth almost at will, which is very hard to do. You have to be really good, but the best players out there can do it. As the game starts to shift it’s still about managing space, but there is a lot more aggression.
I imagine as a solo developer, it was kind of hard to see what this high level play was going to even look like?
Oh, for sure. If you’re a solo developer do not make a 1-v-1 or 2-v-2 multiplayer game. It’s a bad idea! It's a hard thing to do, especially because the game didn't have AI initially to even play against. You’d have to get a friend over to play and have a game night, and then throw it into the mix in the middle to just have a little playtest session. And then, you'd have maybe a couple weeks before you get to do that again right? So you'd sort of be playing in theoretical land in your head, which in some ways is good because you're trying to digest stuff, but it is tricky.
How did you settle on the game’s minimalist aesthetic?
Some of it was just pragmatism of what I’d be able to do with the resources at hand. Looking in retrospect at it though, would I do it again? That’s an interesting question. With Inversus you can look at a video and it does a decent job of telling you if you’d like the game, but I think there’s a lot of people who would find it fun who see the game and think it looks a little sterile or maybe overly thoughtful or something? Just about anybody can pick up the game and play, like families could have a great time. You could imagine a version of the game where one side was water and one side was land and they’re rolling dirt balls to turn stuff into land and shooting out water, and maybe there’s little creatures and it’s cute. You could very much reskin the game in some fantastical way and I think in some ways that could be more marketable to a certain audience.
But there’s an interesting thing in the game right now where because it is truly negative space, your brain is operating in different ways when you’re playing. It’s almost like you have to do this mental shift right? There’s something fun in the mental space of having it be like ‘now I’m just looking at the same world but from a different perspective’, and because of that it feels as if it's kind of abstracted and there’s also readability there. I think something would be lost if it wasn’t the clean, minimal thing. Another thing that would get lost is I ended up going for this neo-retro arcade vibe right? What if Atari had progressed forward to modern day on some other path where everything was still simple shapes?
What advice would you offer to anyone interested in making their first game?
The standard thing people say is start with something simple that you can get to the end of. If it’s your first game, make sure you have a financial situation to fall back on. Even with Inversus where I had made many games before, it was my first solo game. I didn’t take much financial risk with it. I was still doing a lot of it at nights and weekends, and even when I left my full time job, I was still doing contract work. I even still do that just to offset some of that burden and to let me do something a bit more risky; maybe something that wasn’t completely designed for financial success as much as it was designed for its design aesthetics, and for being a thing that I wanted to see exist.
Inversus is currently available on Playstation, Switch, PC and Xbox