The Matt Column: Enter the Gungeon and Flavor
Recently on stream I’ve been playing Enter the Gungeon, the twin-stick shooter roguelite game by Dodge Roll studios. This is the final expansion, Farewell to Arms, released on April 5th of this year, and while I haven’t explored even all the content added before that update I’ve been having a blast. I first picked up the game from seeing its bullet hell-influenced combat and its potpourri of references and jokes. As I played, not only did I explore the game’s seemingly endless supply of jokes, guns, and enemies, but also its surprising amount of depth.
Enter the Gungeon’s depth exists on both a macro and micro scale. On the larger side, players are given many choices that heavily impact a run (a playthrough of the game) or future runs. Things like tight money and prices for upgrades, a limited supply of keys to a limited supply of chests, all the way down to learning the patterns of the game’s procedural generation. In this post, however, I want to delve more into the micro side.
Most rooms of the gungeon are relatively small and packed with enemies, each of them primed to shoot you. It’s up to the player to plan and practice how to best dodge each enemy and react to the given enemies present. Certain heuristics are quick to develop, like “take care of the weakest enemies first” and “dodge into the bullets, not away.” However, at an even more micro scale, the player has to learn how to use their weapons.
Some guns and items in Enter the Gungeon are pretty straightforward. Weapons like the AWP or Shotgun work similar to their roles in other games. Once the player encounters Gungeon’s more wacky weapons, their strange nature can make them harder to understand at first. For a game that’s designed to be played through quickly in an iterative process, this is an important pillar of design. Giving players tools is one thing, but making those tools complex enough that players can explore and strategize with them can add replayability. Additionally, in a game like Gungeon that provides upgrades that persist across future runs, these complex weapons provide players with an avenue to help them feel like they’re getting stronger, not their character.
Importantly, these also enhance the game’s humor and style. Before I continue, I want to state a few facts first.
Everything a player wields is a gun, even if the object is decidedly not a gun (like a sword).
Everything a player uses sometimes or passively is an item.
Most guns have ammo, a clip size, and a reload time.
Sometimes while carrying two specific guns and/or items they provide a synergy, an upgrade to one or more of those items. Some synergies are small bonuses, some radically change the properties of whatever it may be.
The core of these guns’ and items’ depth comes in the emergent playstyles they promote, the way these playstyles are hinted without shown, and the way these playstyles reflect the source material of the guns or items.
The game explains what a gun does, but not how to use it. For example, take the wind-up gun. The gun is a reference to a weapon from the show Futurama, in which the gun required winding up to shoot. The description explains that the first half of the clip has a higher damage output than the latter half. The player has to connect that it’s optimal to manually wind up the gun, and the player has room to practice and perfect tracking its ammo.
For a gun that better represents its source, take the rad gun. The weapon is a gun with a baseball cap and attached to a skateboard. The gun can increase in damage when you reload, but it requires pressing reload during the animation before it would normally end. In practice, it plays like a tony hawk-style skating game, where one missed input and you wipe out and lose all your points for the combo.
(From u/fasderrally on the Enter the Gungeon subreddit)
These exist across the entire game. The baseball bat, Casey, can hit bullets back at enemies. It’s easier to time the swing while standing still, making the pace in that moment more like an actual pitcher and batter. The megahand, lifted straight out of the megaman games, gains synergies that allow you to switch its shot type. This is a type of design I personally like, one I like to call “mechanical role-play.” These weapons are designed so their intended play pattern puts the player in the shoes of that weapon’s source. You are Casey at the bat, you are Megaman - or at least, it’s as if you were playing megaman.
This sort of design is used in Gungeon to hint at that intended play pattern while letting the player feel clever. A lot of games with a thematic-mechanic coherence do this. Take for example McRee in Overwatch. McRee is a cowboy, and some players might think of two traditional cowboy tropes: duels and QuickDraw shootouts. McRee is designed to be better in 1-on-1 skirmishes and bursting down the enemy team with a few precise headshots. A player’s knowledge of those classic film tropes might make them try those playstyles. On the other hand, upon finding that those strategies work, the player might just appreciate the coherence of McRee as a whole.
When playing games that allow players to feel out their own strategies, there’s always some amount of intended strategies. It’s impossible for a developer to not think about how someone might play their game optimally, especially if they need to balance said game. Placing these breadcrumbs can get players interested in mastering the game, and I encourage you to think about where and what those breadcrumbs might be when playing such a game.