The Reward is The Game: JOYLANCER Level 1
So full disclosure, Joylancer is a game made by one Tyvon Jamal Thomas, an independent developer currently living in Seattle. I consider him a friend, and I’m writing this more or less as an advertisement for his game. Know why?
Because JOYLANCER is fucking great. And TJ is great. And y’all should fucking play JOYLANCER.
I don't have a ton of time to screenshot a lot of this or anything, so use this video of TJ playing level 1 to follow along.
There’s a lot going on in level 1 of JOYLANCER. When I first booted the game up and started looking at all the tightly packed details it was like a Snickers bar of game design: a satisfying initial taste that you’ll soon realize is full of depth.
What it does well is classic game design. We walk right, pick up gems, and our meter fills. We don’t need to know what the meter does yet, but we learn something important to the system before it ever actually matters. We’re learning in a safe space. A block comes in our way and we press one of the two buttons available to us and we jump, in all likelihood harmlessly avoiding the enemy below us.
The enemy appears alone. If he hits us we will not be trapped into a loop, we will simply be hit and then have the opportunity to find that the other button uses the lance, and that using the lance uses meter, and it pushes us a little bit forward. And when we use the lance to defeat an enemy, they leave behind a meter-filling gem. We then use what we learned about jumping and lancing when we jump over the next gap and realize that a regular jump won’t cover the gap: we press the lance button in mid-air and are carried across safely, and are rewarded with gems (and thus meter) that allow us to repeat the process.
Certain possibilities for control are incredibly hard to tell the player visually, so JOYLANCER makes necessary compromises to instruct the player on techniques like super lance-jumping. But it still only has its toes in those waters: we see what we can do, but it’s up to us to figure out the subtleties of using it. We can move directly upward, but we can also veer slightly in one direction, as we do on the next platform up to pick up gems on the way to our next plateau. We also must learn by acting to find that we can go directly from a lance jump to a sideways lance in the air, as we must to continue on.
We continue forward, and then descend, leading us to my favorite set piece of the level. The game’s hint suggests we can drill downward in the air, which we find is useful for destroying the particular type of block we are just now encountering. We do so, and we plummet downward in gleeful destruction and land on a rail, continuing our downward momentum into a new form of forward momentum.
Great game design is based on rewards. Players understand new mechanics, and by mastering new mechanics they are then rewarded by the game with both forward progress as well as something that might aid their forward progress. It’s salesmanship: you convince the player to do something and then aside from just the basic fact that learning the game will help them beat the game, you sweeten the deal. Think, for example, how learning the wall jump in Megaman X rewards you with a nice life boost.
Thomas does something that I’d describe as quietly radical here. Our reward is not yet again gems, those become secondary in this instant. The reward here is the joy of playing the game itself. JOYLANCER in this case doesn’t give you resources, it gives you affection. And that is incredibly hard to pull off.
And it doesn’t stop there. After this, we enter a doorway into the second part of the level where only one new mechanic is introduced (a device that captures the character and allows you to shoot him full speed in a particular direction.) For at least this level, we’ve learned what we need to know, and now we’re applying that knowledge, and we’re applying it in brazen and stylish fashion, destroying the immense obstacles in our path at our whim. Again, the reward here isn’t anything that makes the game easier, it’s the game itself that we pummel through and conquer. And then the level is over.
But that's not all! Because when we go back through the level knowing what we learned by playing it, we find new shades. We can air lance up and down, which means those enemies we lanced sideways in the air to avoid below us at the beginning of the level can be ours for the conquering, and we can also confront the enemies high above us. Later in the level we lance more or less through what looks like a solid texture, which encourages us to check the walls, and if we investigate a particular ceiling we can find a secret route. Again, as always, the reward is the game.
JOYLANCER is an immense statement from an immense talent. Play it.
- Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2014