Today is October 15th, which just so happens to be National Mushroom Day. You might be wondering why I’m telling you this; the answer: because it’s also the release date of Mushroom 11, the innovative puzzle-platformer from indie developers Untame that will quite possibly reignite even the most jaded gamer’s belief in creativity as the cornerstone in gaming.
Review by Nick Whitcroft
At its core, the gameplay is defined by a single concept: you assume control of a self-perpetuating fungus. Whilst you can’t directly ‘move’, traversal of the environment is achieved by erasing the cells that make up your amorphous form with the cursor, causing them to regenerate on the other side of your blob-like being (provided it’s not in mid-air). It’s so utterly original and yet beautifully simple that it’s at once immediately intuitive and somehow like nothing you’ve ever played before. It’s been winning awards throughout its time being showcased mid-development and there’s certainly no mystery as to why.
It’s safe to say I like this game. A lot. When I sat down with designer Itay Keren for an interview at Rezzed back in March we spent a lot of time talking about the game’s conception. Itay has always focused his energy on inventive gameplay – some amongst you may have played his previous work, such as Rope Rescue – and Mushroom 11 is no different in this regard. Having started life as a project at the Global Game Jam, back in 2012, where it was recognised for Best Game Design, the game has come a long way since, thanks in no small part to Itay and his wife Julia’s collaboration with fellow husband-and-wife pair Simon and Kara Kono, whose involvement helped shape the production and art direction for the finished game, as well as support from the Indie Fund.
The initial concept for the game was inspired somewhat by Paul Stamet’s TED talk ‘6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save The World’. Something Itay states was important to him in the development of the project was context – whilst there’s no explicit narrative, there are definitely fragments that frame the environment. Much of the backstory behind the world in which Mushroom 11 is set is told through the background, where we stare into a Fallout-esque post-apocalyptic world, devoid even of those familiar raiders and traders; here you’ll find only the irradiated remnants of Mother Nature’s last stand and the empty shells of manmade industrial machinery. It’s superbly done, and a credit to Simon’s stunning hand hand-drawn scenery that much of this mysterious world’s past soon becomes unerringly clear – whilst I won’t share any spoilers, throughout my conversations with the team, as I suggested my potential interpretations I repeatedly found even them surprised by just how accurately I’d put together the pieces from my limited exposure to the game. What exactly are you? What happened to the world? Where has humanity disappeared to? The result is a game in which, whilst the art style and crazy physics are clearly instantly fun and appealing, Untame also manage to create a post-apocalyptic atmosphere that’s convincingly dark and powerful. Think the foreboding land of Limbo, with the barren quiet of Elegy for a Dead World brought to life by the beautiful, glowing, painted stylings of Ori and the Blind Forest, and you’ll be pretty close to the overall feel of Mushroom 11.
The depth extends to the gameplay too. Whilst the core mechanic is simple, its versatility allows for any number of different interactions. The fungus, whilst liquid-like in appearance, has a rigid structure, allowing you to wrap around corners or even create bridges or ramps from yourself to support rolling boulders, slightly reminiscent of World of Goo. Interestingly, the grid pattern on the irradiated goop itself was originally a placeholder but the developers chose to leave it in, both as an assistant in coordinating finer actions and also as it lent itself well to this synthetic nature, further reiterated by the pulsating, circuit-board-like veins criss-crossing the structure. As you make your way through the game’s levels, what’s great is that the pace of new feature introduction never really falters – from the offset, you begin with simple navigation challenges, helping you grasp, without any prompting, the main mechanics, and, throughout, new features are wordlessly introduced at a constant pace, forcing you to get ever-more inventive and experiment with your fungal friend. From splitting in two to allow you to hold down a button whilst going through a door, to locking yourself into a hold to stop you falling from a toppling building, to wrapping yourself around pegs to climb a makeshift rope-ladder, to wedging yourself between the cogs of an enormous machine to allow you to traverse its inner workings… All the while, failure (yes, you can be completely destroyed) results in a swift respawn never hindering the momentum of gameplay. Quite simply, it’s a game that feels expertly paced and polished.
As mentioned earlier, you’re not entirely alone in this bleak environment. There are enemies to overcome, though you never feel truly threatened – interestingly, if anything, you yourself feel like the malevolent force in this encounters; I often almost felt sorry for the fire-belching plants and hanging spiders as I invaded their quiet caves and absorbed their essence into my own for nought but a few extra points. These ‘threats’ come in many forms – from the living creatures we’ve already discussed, to lava pits or hissing acid that infects you with a corrosive tint that rapidly consumes you if you don’t erase it quickly. At the end of each level is a boss battle, which, when I first heard would be included so regularly I was slightly disappointed by. Just the phrase itself – ‘boss battle’ – feels far too conventional for a game of this style. However, on playing the final game, it really works. Not only does it add yet more depth to the idea of these harsh lifeforms finding any way possible to adapt and survive, but it also adds a real sense of a milestone and accomplishment throughout, with each giant creature – from giant eyeball-filled spider to rocket launching lizard-shrimp-cockroach (just trust me…) – taking a unique approach to overcome.
For the completionists amongst us, the absorbing of other life, whilst not adding to your overall mass, adds to your score for that level. Some of these collectables prove straightforward whilst others are incredibly tricky to reach, which, combined with the overall level timer, creates an added challenge and greatly increases the replay value.
Untame also partnered with The Future Sound of London to create the soundtrack to the game. Itay – himself a fan of Garry and Brian’s ambient electronic soundscapes in the 90s – describes them as a “true inspiration for the entirety of [his] work”. The duo, who have always loved animation and CGI themselves, contributed the entire licensed OST, which is integral to the dark, immersive world of the game, complimented beautifully by the additional sound design from Power Up Audio.
Mushroom 11 is a rare thing. It’s a game that made me think, made me pound my desk in frustration, made me fist-pump with satisfaction at the resolution of a tough puzzle, and, above all, made me smile. It’s fascinating, captivating, engaging and utterly unique; and it’s easily one of my favourite indie games to date.
Stay tuned to The Midnight Gamer for the latest and greatest from the gaming world! Mushroom 11 is developed and published by Untame. It’s coming to PC, Mac and Linux on 15th October 2015, and will be available on Steam, GOG and The Humble Store, with plans for a touchscreen port to tablet and mobile platforms next year. Visit the official website for more details.