There is a wall. The wall stretches upward, downward, left and right, apparently into infinity, and away from the wall there is nothing but bright blue skies painted with clouds. There is nothing below, nowhere to fall to and if you slipped it would be a drop that would last forever. Somewhere far, far above there is the faintest hint of some sort of structure jutting out. Is that a platform? With a windmill? Even an entire settlement?
The only way is up. So you climb.
This is the world of Against the Wall, one of the most mystifying Greenlight games that I looked at last year and also one that can claim some of the most interesting influences.
The wall is made out of countless blocks of different sizes, arranged in no particular order, and you can pull these out of the wall and stand upon them by using the wand that you find in your hand. Each block glides out with a low grinding noise and, one by one, they form the steps that you jump onto as you shape your climb upward, upward toward the strange structures you see above.
Your route upwards starts to wind back and forth as you try to find blocks of the right size to leap from, while the view downward is dizzying. Even a simple jump can becomes a terrifying prospect. One wrong move or one the retraction of a single block could see you plummeting for eternity.
Why are you here? Why is the world this way? Perhaps your ongoing ascent will provide you answers, or perhaps it will only bring more questions. Gradually, step by step, you begin to see that there is much more to this world than you first realised.
Against the Wall is the work of just one developer, creator Michael Consoli, who explained to me that his unusual vision of this world comes as much from his literary influences as it does his gaming ones. When I ask what inspired him, he namechecks Journey and then Portal (where “having a device in your hand is your means of locomotion”), but what he tells me is his real influence isn’t likely to be so well known well-known amongst gamers: “Borges.”
The Argentinian writer and poet was famous for stories based around metaphysics, abstract concepts and strange realities. There’s the infinite interlocking chambers of The Library of Babel, a representation of the universe as a library, packed endless books and populated with people trying to interpret and understand every work, and there’s The Garden of Forking Paths, a story about choice, consequence and regression. Consoli singles out The Library of Babel in particular, naming it as one of his favourite stories and and an inspiration for an earlier, unreleased project.
“I was originally making a game that was the Library of Babel,” he says. “In fact, I actually made it. I have a fully-functioning infinite library on one of my computers. I realised it was derivative and it wasn’t mine, and it wasn’t much of a game.” Still, one of the many unusual and unreal aspects of Borges’ story stuck with him and became a key influence.
“One of the features of this infinitely library is, in the middle of every room, there’s a hole leading to the room above and a hole leading to the room below,” he explains. “This is infinite in both directions, so [the inhabitants] would dispose of their dead by throwing them into these pits.” The bodies would fall forever because the library extended forever in every possible direction.
Later, when taking part in a Ludum Dare game jam, Consoli drew from this idea of a never-ending drop and combined it with one of his own literary creations, a Borges-inspired short story he penned during his college days. “I wrote a short story, based on Borges, of people on an infinite wall who were just climbing up and never finding the top, just trying to find the top of the wall. It was kind of a pretentious, and I don’t really want to share that with anyone as it’s not the greatest, but I took that idea when I was brainstorming for the jam, and I put it together with my desire to create a game with infinite drops.“ A rough and very early version of Against the Wall was made within 48 hours.
“I couldn’t figure out how people would move around the wall,” he says, “So I just experimented with a few different things and I came across the idea of these bricks that are all different sizes.” With a few limitations (“I had to fake the procedural generation,”) Consoli was able to create a gigantic, infinite vertical maze and, even in its basic state, the game was well received. “I thought it had potential. The people who saw it thought it had potential, even though it was pretty wonky, so I just kept on going with it.”
Others clearly saw the potential too, as a modest Kickstarter campaign launched towards the end of 2011 met with success. Consoli has been working on the game since, exclusively by himself, though he tells me he eventually plans to hire others to help him with both the soundtrack and some of the narrative.
His wall is not completely randomised. At key points in the climb, though he’s not artificially gating them, he hopes that players will come across new environments and biomes, as well as many of his carefully-constructed creations. Set pieces of a sort.
The idea is that the environments and areas that the player explores will give them hints as to what life is like in this reality and “what society would be like if people were on a giant cliff face.” Although he may not have a dedicated writer on board yet, even a quick climb up the wall offers many bizarre and even unsettling insights into this world.
Consoli’s first attempts at game design came with contributions to the Morrowind mod Tamriel Rebuilt and then created his own, Building Up Uvirith’s Grave. It was only “with the democratisation of the tools” and the availability of packages like Unity that he gained both the confidence and the ability to experiment.
“That engine really opened the door for me,” he says, “And for a lot of other developers.” He recommends anyone else with aspirations toward independent games development grab tools like this as soon as possible, because they make games development easier than ever.
Two years is a long time for one person to spend on a game. Consoli has found that an indie developer has to wear so many hats, variously promoting a Kickstarter, setting up and managing a website, contacting sites for coverage, attempting to push the game on Greenlight and, of course, trying to actually make the thing. His plan is to release Against the Wall some time this year, before moving onto other projects. His climb has been a long one, but he’s almost there.