VVVVVV

Introduction

Shortly after graduating from college, a man from Ireland named Terry Cavanagh began working in a bank. He considered it a fine job, but he wasn’t happy with his work. Citing the games he grew up, he constantly thought about creating one of his own. He had experimented with the medium while in school, creating small QBasic games, but now that he worked a job, he couldn’t find the time. Believing he wasn’t ever going to achieve anything if he did nothing, he carefully began saving up money to fund a new project. His tenure with his company ended in a rather abrupt, unexpected manner. He became intoxicated at a staff night out and told everyone present that he wanted to quit and spend all his time making games. Mr. Cavanagh’s boss quickly found out, and when he asked him about it, he impulsively gave him his notice – despite not having saved nearly enough money at the time.

Mr. Cavanagh’s first title was a platforming game made playable through Adobe Flash entitled Don’t Look Back. This simple game, originally launched in 2009, combined two concepts. He wanted to create a “silly shooter” where the events were shown from a different perspective and a narrative in which the gameplay acted as a metaphor for the player’s actions. Though few formal reviews were written due to it not being a commercial release, journalists praised it for eliciting different responses from its players. In particular, the staff of the online video game magazine The Escapist found the game addictive and “a perfect example of doing more with less”, making sure to highlight its “wonderfully haunting aesthetic”.

Around this time, Mr. Cavanagh decided to participate in a game jam held by the website Glorious Trainwrecks. Every month, the site would hold a jam called the Klik of the Month Klub. The event was named after Klik & Play, a script-free programming tool developed by Clickteam in 1994 that allows its users to create video games of their own. Mr. Cavanagh sought to enter the competition himself with his own entry: Sine Wave Ninja. It was, in his words, “a simple action game that didn’t really work out”. Nonetheless, he had developed something about the character’s basic movements that he wished to explore. Specifically, this got him thinking about a gravity flipping mechanic, how it’s usually handled in games, and what new directions to which he could take the idea.

From this line of thinking, his next project began: a platforming game in which players had to constantly reverse gravity and avoid hazards. Admitting he didn’t have a knack for naming things, he settled on VVVVVV as a title. This decidedly unconventional title is a twofold reference. It alludes to the spikes that serve as the primary hazard players have to avoid as well as the names of its six main characters – all of which begin with the letter “V”. There was one key difference between Don’t Look Back and VVVVVV; the latter would be Mr. Cavanagh’s first commercial release.

Understandably, going from using the Flash model wherein his woes ended when he found a sponsor to deciding how much he was willing to charge people to play his creation terrified the new indie developer. In interviews leading up the release of VVVVVV, he was taken aback after making a blog post asking for donations to help him submit his work to the Independent Games Festival. He never suspected that in the first few days, he would have dozens of donations, exceeding what he was asking for. He had over one-thousand dollars by the end of the week. As it turns out, these donations were well timed, as his finances had been dropping rapidly. He admitted that he was only a week or two away from having to beg his friends and family for money to get him through Christmas.

Despite these numerous setbacks, VVVVVV was released in January of 2010 for personal computers everywhere. Though it didn’t quite amass the universal acclaim Braid and Limbo enjoyed, VVVVVV is considered one of the premier indie titles that helped the scene blossom into a formidable force in the 2010s. Did a gem arise from the decidedly tumultuous development?

Analyzing the Experience

Captain Viridian and their crew consisting of Doctor Violet, Officer Vermilion, Professor Vitellary, Doctor Victoria, and Chief Verdigris are travelling through space when disaster strikes. They realize the ship has become affected by some sort of dimensional interference. Everyone successfully escapes through a teleporter on the ship, but Captain Viridian is separated from their fellow shipmates. They find themselves in the strange Dimension VVVVVV, and they must do what he can to reunite with their comrades.

Platforming games have been around almost as long as the medium itself. It stands to reason; after all, developers didn’t need advanced graphics to create them. Particularly skilled creators could craft simple, yet addicting experiences. Despite this, there was quite a bit of variety to how characters could defend themselves. Depending on the game, they could outrun enemies, charge at them head-on, or shoot at them from a distance. Regardless, there was one constant throughout this genre: the jump button. Characters had to utilize their decidedly strange ability to jump several feet in the air and navigate precarious platforms. Even today, fewer moments in the medium are tenser than those split-seconds in which you’re unsure whether your button inputs allow your character to land on their intended target.

However, though the jump button is a staple of the genre – a fact that did not change as a result of the mid-nineties 3D revolution –an odd exception here and there deliberately excluded it. Counterintuitively, a few classic titles such Capcom’s Bionic Commando, resulted from this daring design choice. Unsurprisingly, a fair share of disasters ended up proving why such games needed jump buttons to work. One of the most infamous examples was the SNES adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, which included a character who couldn’t jump amid myriad other problems. The takeaway from this is that deciding against using a jump button in a platforming game has the potential to make or break a work. One either discovers a new perspective for the genre or prove why even the least talented developers tend not to deviate from what is considered a cast-iron rule.

With this information in mind, the player will discover in the second room that, though VVVVVV is indeed a 2D platforming game, there is no jump button. The only way to make it past the pit of spikes in this room is to press the key as indicated on the prompt. This causes gravity to reverse itself, allowing Viridian to traverse the ceiling of the room instead. It is this simple idea on which VVVVVV hangs its identity.

 

Viridian cannot flip in midair; only if they are on the ground does the key function. Spikes are the most common hazard Viridian must avoid, but there are others as well. The basic rule to keep in mind is that any mobile object besides the occasional autonomous platform is harmful to the touch. Throughout the game are small consoles bearing a letter “C”. These are checkpoints. There is no life system in VVVVVV; if Viridian dies, they are sent back to the last checkpoint they touched.

Mr. Cavanagh stated that the aesthetics of VVVVVV were heavily inspired by Commodore 64 games. They are, in turn, accompanied with an excellently crafted soundtrack that uses the computer’s distinct sound chip as a base. From a visual standpoint, he was responding to something said by an independent developer by the name of Paul Eres, who accused the TIGSource community of having a “retro fetish”. Because VVVVVV was originally planned as a short side game, Mr. Cavanagh thought he might as well indulge in his own retro fetish.

The aesthetics seem to bleed into the gameplay as well, for VVVVVV is about as simple and pure of a platformer as one can get. In fact, I’ve already described what the game entails in its entirety. This is what I would consider the game’s greatest strength. Rather than constantly adding new mechanics or making players go through stages with unique art assets and set pieces, VVVVVV revolves entirely around this gravity reversal mechanic. As you progress, you will deal additional obstacles such as trampolines, lines that forcibly reverse gravity in midair, and endlessly repeating hallways. Regardless of what the game throws at you, how you respond to them is the same. You reverse gravity and guide Viridian’s decent, ensuring they don’t crash into any hazards.

In a way, VVVVVV reminds me a lot of Jumper, a 2004 indie game made by developer Matt Thorson in that it manages to be a platformer with a distinct lack of action elements. Jumper and its sequel had antagonists whose only real purpose was to place the protagonist in death courses, and VVVVVV takes that aspect to its logical extreme. Viridian isn’t out to defeat an evil entity; they only wish to rescue their crew members, all of whom find themselves trapped in Dimension VVVVVV. Though they do have to occasionally deal with enemies, they don’t exude much in the way of malice; if they could even be considered sentient isn’t made clear. There is a real conflict that makes itself known upon completing the game, but it doesn’t appear to have been the result of an evil influence.

In addition to being a platforming game, it’s easy to consider VVVVVV a Metroidvania as well. It’s a decidedly unconventional example of one; there are no power-ups for Viridian to obtain. Theoretically, the entire dimension can be explored from the very beginning. The dimension is divided into smaller sections. When you examine the map, you will notice it is distinctly color-coded. These colors match that of the crew member trapped in the area.

Though VVVVVV doesn’t feature any power-ups at all, there are collectables in the form of trinkets. There exist twenty of these strange, glowing orbs. If you’re particularly tenacious and astute, collecting them all will affect the ending. |They take the crew to a secret lab containing research that will save Dimension VVVVVV from destruction.| Though some are out in the open to let new players know they exist, a majority of them require a lot of patience and foresight to procure. |One even requires you to die on purpose to circumvent a solid wall.|

Though the characters form a rather standard space crew, they are likable in their own ways. Upon rescuing the third and fourth members, Viridian and that character will be whisked away to a pocket dimension. The first of these instances forms the basis for what amounts to an escort mission. It’s amusing when Professor Vitellary is the one Viridian escorts. The former at one point suggests bringing one of the checkpoints back to the ship to study how it works before the latter awkwardly urges him not to think too hard about it. If you rescue Officer Vermillion early, he shows up in random places and comments on his surroundings. Though VVVVVV isn’t exactly a story-focused game, the crew members’ personalities are endearing enough that you’ll want to see them make it out of this ordeal safely.

Though there are plenty of great things I can say about VVVVVV and the simple concept is well-executed, it’s not without its flaws. Its most obvious issue has to do with its length. If you’re versed in platformers, there’s a good chance you will complete VVVVVV in four hours or less – even if you decide to find all the trinkets. This is a problem Mr. Cavanagh himself indirectly addressed. When the game was originally released, its asking price equated to fifteen in USD. He eventually relented and reduced the price to five dollars. I wouldn’t say the game was overpriced at fifteen dollars, but I can’t escape the notion that he could’ve gotten more mileage out of his concept.

Otherwise, I would say a bigger problem with the game is that a lot of the dimension is empty space. There are quite a few trinkets to be found within this void, but with the lack of hazards, it seems to solely exist to pad out the length of the game. Considering it’s roughly four hours long, VVVVVV is the kind of game that notably suffers when it has any amount of filler.

The game’s final noteworthy flaw concerns navigation. When playing VVVVVV, it’s advisable to obtain all of the trinkets as soon as they become available. If you don’t, you will have to navigate the various obstacles a second time just to reach them again. Thankfully, the game does contain teleporters, which significantly expedite exploration, but it doesn’t change that some of these trinkets are in obscure locations. Granted, this an understandable design choice given that the trinkets aren’t supposed to be easy to find. It’s still not advisable to make backtracking in a Metroidvania tedious – even if the world is small.

If you’re able to look past these flaws, you’ll be rewarded with a solid game that pushes your platforming skills to the absolute limits. Though the aesthetics hark back to the Commodore 64 days, VVVVVV captures what made those games enjoyable while also employing contemporary design sensibilities. The result is a game that’s always challenging, yet never intimidatingly so. It asks a lot out of its players, but it never forces them to do anything unreasonable. Any of the obstacles can be overcome with enough practice and patience. This was made by somebody who grasps the difference between a legitimate challenge and annoyance.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Excellent music
  • Good level design
  • Unique platforming mechanics
  • Comes with level editor
  • Interesting take on the Metroidvania
  • Good characters
Cons:

  • Extremely short
  • Game world consists of a lot of empty space
  • Backtracking can get irritating

I find it a little ironic in hindsight that VVVVVV didn’t generate as many waves as other contemporary indie titles such as Braid, Limbo, or Fez because to a greater extent than any of them, it helped map out the direction in which the scene as a whole needed to go in order for it to truly evolve. Don’t get me wrong, I give the creators of those games some credit for attempting to lend a degree of artistic credence to the medium. That being said, what Terry Cavanagh accomplished with VVVVVV showcases a greater amount of confidence in the medium. This was a man who went into his project knowing exactly what he wanted to create and never lost sight of his vision in an ill-advised attempt to prove the skeptics wrong. As it is, VVVVVV was an indie offering sold entirely on the basis of being a fun game. It wasn’t sold based on how many raw nerves the creator could touch or with its eye-catching art style. With the indie scene having transformed into a force capable of standing on even ground with AAA efforts, it is in some ways hard to believe VVVVVV spawned from that specific era.

Now that my stance on how VVVVVV fares when stacked next to its direct competition has been established, the next question one would likely ask at this point concerns whether or not it’s still worth playing in light of the indie scene’s blossoming. In that regard, my sentiments toward VVVVVV are similar to the ones I have for Cave Story. Back in 2010, those two games could reasonably be considered the greatest spawned from the independent circuit. Nowadays, it’s easy to get the impression that the only reason anyone gave them the time of day is because they were developed by one person. Though the game is over before you know it, I think retro-inclined enthusiasts or fans of 2D platformers in general should check out VVVVVV when they get the chance. On that note, it’s perfect for the person who likes games but can’t find the time and wants a short, fun experience. That the hardest decision Mr. Cavanagh had to make was reducing the cost of his hard work demonstrates how invested he became in the project. It was only appropriate how that kind of passion wound up shaping the indie crowd for the better in the long run.

Final Score: 6/10

16 thoughts on “VVVVVV

    • Yeah, for 2010, this was a decent effort. It didn’t hold up when the indie scene truly took off, but it’s priced well and it manages to be neat game while it lasts. If nothing else, it’s better than Braid.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I know what you mean. I heard of Don’t Look Back before I tried out VVVVVV for myself, but I had no idea both games had such intriguing backstories. That’s definitely one of the cool things about doing research on these games.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. The beginning of this story makes me want to quit my job to become a game designer.

    But more seriously, what kind of jerk work colleague would rat you out to your boss on this, and what kind of stupid boss would follow up on it?

    “Oh no, when one of my employees gets drunk he dreams of quitting his job and joining the circus. Quick, get the personality-vac stat.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • You have a point. It is a bit of a strange thing to not only report to one’s boss, but also have said boss follow up on it. Most of the time, stuff like that gets dismissed as drunk talk and that’s that.

      Like

  2. Great post! Loved reading the backstory behind the game.

    I’ve had this in my Steam library for years and years now and only recently fired it up. I just wanted a small and simple controller game to test out my Steam Link, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the beginning. Once I finish off what I’m playing now, I play to go back and play through it finally.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Yeah, I wasn’t expecting the backstory behind this game to be so fascinating. It really made me respect Terry Cavanagh as a designer.

      If you’re looking for a fun, simple game, this will certainly deliver. Hope you end up enjoying the rest of the game.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. There’s something to be said for that “less is more” ethos in gaming. Still, though I think it’s better than Braid, I do wonder if the creator could’ve gotten more mileage out of his concept. And you’re right, the soundtrack is something else.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: July 2018 in Summary: At the End of an Arduous Month | Extra Life

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