SXSW: Game Oven has a touching swan song in ‘Jelly Reef’

March 17, 2015 | 10:26 a.m.

THE PLAYER

"Jelly Reef" is a mobile game in which players must guide jellyfish to safety. (Game Oven)

“Jelly Reef” is a mobile game in which players must guide jellyfish to safety. (Game Oven)

“Jelly Reef” looks adorable. At the start, players will have a school of jellyfish — all of them wide-eyed and smiling. Then, in a matter of moments, they will all be dead.

This wouldn’t be so harrowing if they didn’t start to frown first, a simple touch that turns this accessible mobile game into one of pure dread. Ultimately, it’s as much about nurturing tiny gelatinous reddish and orangeish critters as it is about reaching a goal.

“Jelly Reef” is also the swan song from the three-person Netherlands-based studio Game Oven, a company that in its brief existence specialized in pushing the boundaries of the mobile experience. The studio’s previous game, “Bounden,” sought to teach two players how to dance as they were connected via one phone. Following on-screen prompts, participants would twirl around each other, and those averse to touching would be advised to stay away.

“Jelly Reef” isn’t nearly as experimental. It’s Game Oven’s most approachable game to date, and the first that isn’t centered around making players uncomfortable, as long as they’re OK with watching tiny sea creatures die.

“It’s sort of tricking people, I guess,” said the studio’s Eline Muijres at the South by Southwest games festival in Austin, Texas. “It has these really cute and relaxing visuals. But there are enemies in this game, and you need to be very precise. It’s a contrast. In the end, people like that. They have to be careful.”

Careful is an understatement. The game, coming in a matter of weeks for iOS and Android devices (a version for Windows phones is available now), asks players to manipulate water currents to guide the jellyfish to safety. Its levels are randomly generated, so no two plays are the same, and changing the course of water is at times an unpredictable little predicament.

Swipe too fast and the jellyfish will encounter a prickly piece of coral. Swipe too slow and a shark or blowfish will gobble the jellyfish right up. As enemies come into view, the jellyfish — represented here as oval faces with giant eyes and tentacles — will tense up and look fearful. The temptation to not start swiping the phone wildly is a difficult one.

The jellyfish will often see perils before the player does, so keeping a close eye on their, well, eyes, is essential.

Players will have to keep close watch on the eyes of their jellyfish to gauge their mood in "Jelly Reef." (Game Oven)

Players must keep close watch on the eyes of their jellyfish to gauge their mood in “Jelly Reef.” (Game Oven)

“At first they didn’t have big eyes,” Muijres said. “We want you to be able to see when they’re scared. When they’re together they’re happy, but when they’re apart they’re not so happy. When they’re near an urchin or near another type of enemy they’re scared. That helps the player. It says, ‘You don’t want to touch that.’ That’s why we made the eyes a little bigger. Even on a small screen you can see that fear.”

“Jelly Reef” gets difficult fast, this despite its colorful coral reef universe. Thankfully, there are plenty of tiny jellyfish eggs lying around to replenish one’s supply of cutesy marine animals. It adds an aspect to the game that feels like parenting.

“In a way, but you still kill your babies,” Muijres said. “You basically try to save as many jellyfish as you can and pick up the eggs. We want people to go look for eggs. If you run out of jellyfish, you’re dead and you need to start over. We want to punish you for not keeping them alive.”

Though “Jelly Reef” will be Game Oven’s final game, it was actually the first one the studio began developing. The game started as a student project, initially available for large touch-screen-enabled Microsoft tables. It was first a multiplayer game, and developers Adriaan de Jongh and Bojan Endrovski became fascinated with how players played it rather than the actual game itself.

Namely, they were interested in what happened when a game inspired people to accidentally touch each other. Game Oven’s games — “Fingle” and “Friendstrap,” among them — were focused on using the digital space to get people to interact in real life.

“People would touch each other and that would inspire all sorts of reactions,” Muijres said. “That reaction is very interesting. People would accidentally touch each other’s hands and then be all awkward about it. That basically inspired them to make ‘Fingle,’ a game that was all about weird, awkward touching.”

Game Oven is breaking up due to creative differences. Muijres is working on a game called “Interloper,” a strategy game designed to be played in five minutes. (People don’t have a lot of time, Muijres  said.) Game Oven’s De Jongh intends to focus on more experimental, art-driven games.

“We could have made other games,” Muijres said. “We’re not bankrupt. After this month, though, it’s done. It’s mostly people wanting to do different stuff. Adrian, for example, wants to go wild with experiments.  You can’t really combine that with running a studio and paying people. That was the core reason.”

“Interloper” looks abstract — its art is somewhere between deep space and the deep ocean — but Muijres wants it to have broad appeal. That’s why, for instance, it’s short, and why it’s about territory management rather than killing.

“There are lots of different types of gamers,” she said. “I really like to get people to play games who don’t necessarily identify as gamers. That’s what I really liked about showing ‘Bounden.’ It’s so out of their idea of what a game really is and that’s like magic to me.”

We’re at South by Southwest until Sunday. Join us at latimes.com/sxsw for ongoing coverage of the festival.

– Todd Martens | @Toddmartens | @LATherocomplex

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