Last night, by chance, I started down a Wikipedia rabbit hole regarding the "Far Realms" in later edition D&D, basically an outer plane for the outerplanes where Lovecraft dominates Dante and Tolkien. Tentacle monsters and whatnot. This world beyond reason is composed of numerous layers that can be anywhere from a few inches to miles in width, reminding us of Stephen Hawking's 11-dimensional strings rolled up very tightly. Mortals, if not driven mad or torn asunder by sheer chaos, can traverse one layer at a time, but native beings of this realm float in higher dimensions, like an ink blot on a stack of papers, perhaps blotter paper. Revisiting D&D, "the Scottish game" for those who wish to avoid bad luck, I'm reminded of a Dungeon Master running a game I casually attended in my final half-year of college, who told me "I'd like to do more character interaction, but I do a lot of hack-n-slash because that's what these players want." Jason Rohrer, after having created a 2-player, digital version of a storytelling game, has created the equivalent of a tactical combat generator set in a bizarre "far realms" scenario, but with deterministic vectors instead of weighted dice rolls.
Remember Spore? Remember how they forgot the gameplay? We all thought, "wouldn't it be cool if someone could do that on their own, without the acidic encumbrance of a huge organization?" Jason Rohrer was like "hey, I've got some time on my hands..."
You play a mite on a bacteria on an amoeba inside the organ of a parasite on an insect on a small mammal on a living planet inside a universal cthutlu composing a cell of a multiversal dragon. At least, that's the numina of it. Basically, you move a little guy around, you can point with the mouse and shoot, and when you find the exit to the level, it turns out that the level is a larger creature that you now control. Each level in the game is then, ostensibly another power of 10, although the gameplay doesn't scale out like it did in Spore, instead it flows towards a focus. The power-ups you find in a level become the powers of the creature you're inside and about to commandeer. These powers also degrade, so there's a bit of strategy in making sure you can handle all the tactical situations that randomly generated levels and enemy configurations throw at you.
Range is the most powerful item, without it you're pretty much hosed, in a manner not unlike swashbucklers trying to face down a bronze age Phalanx. Then you need an item that gives you greater quantity of bullets, later-stage enemies will have a lot of health typically, so you need to be able to lay down the saturation. Some items are useless or debilitating, which is great, because you can go inside enemies, find these items, and swap them for powers that were giving you problems. You can also go inside power-ups, ok? You can go inside power-ups. This is a high risk, medium reward tactic where you can find better power-up components and make it really strong, but the difficulty increases. You can also go inside power-ups within power-ups, the difficulty bonus scales exponentially. You can end up facing +2 billion difficulty, and enemies with level 34651 Spread. What's like to be pinned down with no hope of escape from a fractional hell, facing a hail of thousands of bullets sub-diving into thousands more? I've got kids man, I don't need to think about sick stuff like that.
The game has suffered from balancing issues that Jason has been addressing with each successive version release. I think there's strong gameplay here, and I've played many hours of it with a diminished return of addiction, maybe as he finds the perfect balance, that return won't diminish so much. Recently he got the balance a bit more right so you can afford to go without range and aren't as afraid to shuffle your power-ups around, creating a more fluid gameplay in line with what he originally envisioned.
Even without the enjoyment as a game, it's extremely interesting to play as a study in procedural content, which is going to serve a greater role in the cutting edge games of the future. Adjusting the fractal seeds of level generation, the probability weights behind where exits, power-ups and enemies are, these mix in a subtle brew that rivals the primordial soup in its secret blend of herbs and spices. Getting into the change-log with a suggestion has become a sort of indie game medal.
What I'm really missing here, besides balancing issues with the spiraling power-ups within power-ups difficulty that makes you more reliant of pure random generation in the regular levels, is the lack of variation in the level designs as you go higher up. I expected, pursuant to the theme, that you'd enter into space, floating on the backs of giant Cthutoids, becoming them, continuing into untold depths of mind-blowing scope, or at least some stars in the background. There's a lot of potential for more interesting level designs involving warps, hidden passages, and other illogical spaces, and I'm interested to see where Jason takes the game as people keeping paying what they want for it. Maybe we'll eventually find that you're inside Jason's head, which is inside an network of online Tweets, inside a network of blog posts.