The demo is almost over. We started as a team of four randomly chosen people out of a line. We are now a single machine, working together to try to beat the high score of this last level. Only twenty-four more seconds, and we’re done. The goal is simple: use each of our super powered characters to keep a giant ball from rolling off the table that they are on. I use my character’s telekinesis pull to grab the ball right before it falls off. My team cheers. I fist-bump the teammate on my right, a person whose name I never even learned.
Tiny Brains is a four-player co-operative puzzle action game from Spearhead Games, a newly founded indie company started by some of the brains behind franchises like Assassins Creed and Dead Space. Moments like that mentioned above are what Spearhead Games co-founder Malik Boukhira says are the goal of the studio in their development of Tiny Brains.
Each player controls one of the lab animals, each with a different super power. One is able to teleport across short distances, another can create objects out of thin air, the third character can push any objects or enemies away, and the fourth can pull objects and enemies. The game is played on one screen, on an isometric camera angle, and focuses on one room at a time. Combat in the game consists of pressing the attack button on the controller to hit, and simply walking away to dodge. For a game with as brilliant team work and coordination, the combat felt a little stale. As an alternative to combat I was able to use my character’s pull ability to bring enemies over to the edge of the room, where I called for the player with the push ability to knock them off.
As we played through the demo, the puzzles progressively required more communication between our team. We tried to play silently at first, but eventually we started coordinating our powers to move on to the next room. The breaking point for our silence was when we had to figure out how to get across a large gap in the room. Towards the end we were cheering the names of each other’s respective color. Malik tells me there are a lot of combinations of powers to use in the game, and will require more true cooperation in the full game.
I sat down with Malik after playing the demo, and was amazed to learn the game had only been in development for about four months. “We develop very fast because we don’t do design docs. Instead we make prototypes and iterate from that,” Malik explained,” So what we do is have an objective of making a really cool and awesome experience. Then we made a prototype and figured out what was fun, what didn’t work.”
When I asked Malik why he decided to move away from the comfort and security of a big publisher, I was surprised by his answer.
“Well we worked on projects like Assassins Creed. There is something truly epic about everyone knowing about a project you’re working on. You see it on TV and have millions of fans,” Malik explained to me, “But the hugeness makes it so it’s a bit more rigid to work on things. You see for example games are being involved in teaching. We can’t even imagine how they will affect our lives in the future. We decided to step back and become indie, so we could experiment and have the flexibility to try things. We want to be involved in making video games a part of the future.”
Tiny Brains was easily my favorite experience at PAX East 2013. The fact that they forced a group of strangers to work as a team and eventually start cheering each other on will stick with me. Spearhead Games is on the right path to making a truly memorable cooperative action puzzler in Tiny Brains.