The online comic strip and blog Penny Arcade has been a leading tastemaker in the gaming world for nearly a decade now. It has reached new heights over the last five years with its own convention, the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX), held every August in Seattle. Though gamers from all over the nation will find a weekend of fun and competition at this year's con, Madison native Joe Rheaume will be an invited guest to show his hit time travel game Chronotron.
Available for free play at the flash game portal Kongregate, Chronotron puts players in control of the title character, a robot with access to a time machine. Using the keyboard, you complete puzzles where Chronotron will need to grab an item before going to the next room. Since traps, elevators, and switches will need to be activated at the same time, you'll have send Chronotron back in time to work with his past self to solve the puzzles. Failure to deliver all past selves safely to future can create a game stopping paradox.
As part of an initiative to encourage independent game development, Penny Arcade creators Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins have established the PAX 10, which highlights creative and fun games that aren't coming from corporate powerhouses like Nintendo or Activision. Chronotron was chosen from over 80 submitted games, and will be featured at the convention for play. The coveted Audience Choice Award for "fun factor" will be the prize, as well as exposure to the tens of thousands of gamers and exhibitors in attendance.
An effort of this magnitude doesn't come by accident to Joe Rheaume, who is the founder of Scarybug Games. A graduate of UW-Milwaukee's Computer Science program, Rheaume took time to The Daily Page about Chronotron and his visit to PAX.
The Daily Page: Are you a full time game producer?
Rheaume: I work full time as the lead programmer for Web Courseworks, a local company that makes educational games. We do a lot of corporate training, as well as educational games for kids.It's all client work, so there's not a lot of it available to the public.We try to apply our philosophy of game-based learning to our projects, but often the client will have different ideas. I believe that educational games should make the learning objectives come from the game mechanics, not use the game as a spoonful of sugar to help the educational medicine go down. Our team just gave a day-long workshop at the Distance Learning Conference at the Monona Terrace last week, where I stressed that idea.
So Chronotron was not part of your normal day job?
Sometimes I write games as a hobby outside of work. Chronotron was something I was building on my own just because I thought it would be fun to play.
How did it end up with Kongregate?
I submitted it to a site called FlashGameLicense.com that allows Web Game Portals to bid on game sponsorships. It turned out there was a lot of interest in Chronotron, so I was able to invest some money in hiring an artist, Bogdan Ene, to redo the graphics, and invest some time and resources in setting up the Scarybug Games site to host the game when it came out. Flash Game License also gave me plenty of feedback on how to improve the game. But apart from all the help I had, Chronotron was a solo effort.
Where did the idea of a time travelling puzzle come from?
The time travel elements were inspired by a commercial for an X-Box game called Blinx [watch it here], that I've never played, and a brief article on the game Braid, which actually just finally came out. Both games were just described as giving you the ability to manipulate time, and that got me thinking about how you could write a game where you cooperated with past versions of yourself to solve puzzles.
Ironically Braid is being compared to Chronotron in some reviews online, despite the fact that Braid was in development for three years and Chronotron took only seven months. On the other hand, Chronotron got compared to a couple of games that came out during its development as well. Time Bot and Cursor*10 both use the "cooperate with past selves" mechanic, but all the other mechanics of the three games are completely separate. It's hard for some people to realize how easy it is for multiple people to independently come up with the almost the same idea at almost the same time.
The puzzle platformer elements of the game were inspired somewhat by The Lost Vikings, and of course there are plenty of visual and textual references to the great fictional time travel stories, like Back to the Future, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, and Doctor Who. I also tried to take a cue from the game Portal when it came to designing puzzles in such a way that each one built on something you figured out previously, and the inclusion of humorous signs and diagrams as hints.
Are you a regular reader of Penny Arcade?
Yeah, I've been reading Penny Arcade regularly for about eight years.
Are you going to be attending the show to support the game?
I will be there, along with my wife and a couple of good friends to help me out. We're going to be giving away Chronotron stickers!
What comes next? A new original game? A sequel?
I have several prototypes in production for other games, but I'm not sure which I'll end up finishing first. I also have stacks of game ideas, and I am working on cleaning up the Chronotron game engine to either release a level pack, or create a sequel that plays with some different time-travel concepts.
The 2008 Penny Arcade Expo will be held from August 29-31 at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle, with tickets still available. Chronotron can be played for free here at Kongregate. Web Coursework games by Rheaume include Get Your Gear On created for Kohl's Cares for Kids, and the Horizon Award-winning trainer Tap Into More Tips created for Miller Brewing.