The Virtue of Limitations: Journey of a Roach and Drei

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If you care about Swiss game design, then you have some serious playing to do. In the last few weeks two games have been released that couldn’t be more different. On second glance however, it becomes apparent that they share the same qualities.

These games are Journey of a Roach by Koboldgames and Drei by Etter Studios.

In one game, you control a cockroach traversing underground tunnels in search for his friend. In the other, you stack building blocks onto each other to build a tower.

This might not sound interesting at first. But both games have this one idea that manages to elevate the initial idea to something more. Cockroaches can walk on walls, right? So can you in Journey of a Roach, opening up a different way to look at puzzles, both for the designers at Koboldgames as well as the player, who has to start thinking with port– sorry, with ceilings. The classic adventure game is set in a post-nuclear world where no humans survived. The two eponymous roaches live underground and have to deal with their neighbours, namely spider moms, drunken rats and totalitarian ants. Combining the bleak world of Fallout with the charm of a children’s book isn’t the most obvious thing to do, but Koboldgames pull it off with ease and aplomb.

Drei, an iPad game, on the other hand adds what usually happens in public sandboxes as well: Other people start joining you in building the tower, which turns the whole game a lot more unpredictable and erratic, but likely also more fun. Drei is part of a new breed of multiplayer games that has been spearheaded by thatgamecompany’s Journey: without any visible “multiplayer” interface, players are automatically connected in the background while playing, shifting in and out of other people’s games, collaborating and sharing a good time for a short while, without knowing who’s behind the glass facade of their TV or iPad. Communication is limited to a few words, everything else has to be told through movement and concrete action.

So, what’s especially Swiss about those games? I’d say it’s the fact that both games take limitations and turn them into virtues. Without a budget to pay for big translation or voice work, Koboldgames decided to tell the story without using any text or speech, going for images and talk-like sounds. Not only is this incredibly charming, but it also opens up the game for a larger audience – both age-wise (small kids) as well as globally: the game is available in 19 languages, since the few remaining texts visible in the menu were easily translated.

Drei does a somewhat similar thing when it comes to language. Building towers, a somewhat multilingual affair since the age of myths and legends, requires some sort of communication. Drei offers this by giving players a limited vocabulary translated into 18 different languages to choose from in order to issue commands and shouts. These words will show on the screen of other players translated to their language, allowing them to understand each other across language barriers. Not only does Drei circumvent the inconvenient keyboard of the iPad, but it limits griefing and harassing by restricting the player’s vocabulary.

Stylistically, both studios were aware of the fact that they don’t have the (wo)manpower to deliver high-definition realistic graphics as AAA studios can. Instead they sat down and developed their own visual language. Koboldgames went with an elaborate, comic-like style that complements the fantastic story, while Etter Studio went with an elegant, minimal, flat look that resembles more vector art than 3D realtime rendering. It clearly works for both of them, giving them a unique look – not a bad thing when you have to compete against other games on Steam or the iTunes App Store.

It is no surprise that both of these games actually got awarded at this year’s Call for Projects. They are fine examples of what the Swiss game industry is able to produce and where it could excel. The best thing of course is the fact that they did not only have big plans and great ideas – but the fact that they managed to deliver.

You can find Drei by Etter Studio in the iTunes App Store or try out a free, limited version right in your browser.

Journey of a Roach by Koboldgames is available on Steam or in a boxed version, if you prefer to have something to put on your bookshelf, for both Mac and PC.