It’s fascinating the way good old DIY spunk can trump big name publishers and million-dollar budgets in the gaming industry. It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money to make a good game, but it does take some creativity. Osmos, by Hemisphere Games is the latest, and one of the best, examples of this principle. Osmos was created by a few guys with the very DIY spirit needed to make a good game, and they succeeded in making something exceedingly simple and yet addicting.
Simple is a word you’ll hear a lot to describe this game. In it, you play as a bubble-shaped organism in a world filled with other similar creatures. You can absorb bubbles smaller than you and grow accordingly, but if you bump into bubbles that are bigger than you, you in turn are absorbed (the game’s equivalent of dying). That’s it. That’s the game. And yet the designers, have managed to take that premise and turn it into a game that is both engaging and challenging, but simple enough for anyone to grasp.
In fact, one of the best tests of game design is whether a 5-year-old can sit down and figure out how to play in just a few minutes. Osmos passes that test easily because the interface is so intuitive. Why, you ask? Because Osmos uses a physics-based world, so our very interaction with meatspace has already prepared us to know how Osmos works.
You move around by ejecting a small amount of your mass. According to the Newton’s Third Law, you then are propelled in the opposite direction. You place the mouse cursor on whatever side of your bubble you want to move away from, and a click ejects a tiny bit of yourself. Want to go faster? Click a few more times. Want to slow down? Click in the direction you’re going.
Of course, you can’t just fly around the game area forever; you only have a limited amount of mass, but by maneuvering to touch smaller bubbles, you absorb them and gain more mass. The levels of the game always involve some variation of the theme “Grow bigger than all the other bubbles.” Sometimes that’s easier said than done considering the bigger bubbles are also colliding and absorbing smaller bubbles and growing bigger. Some of the levels include intelligent bubbles that seek out smaller bubbles and then try to absorb you once they’ve grown large enough. Yet another level has you orbiting a “sun” and you must change your orbit so as to intersect with the orbits of other bubbles. Eventually you must grow big enough to envelop the sun itself. It’s actually quite amazing how these guys were able to take such a simple premise and create several different scenarios out of it, all equally entertaining.
While the gameplay can get quite frantic at times (right around the points where you realize your hard earned bubble mass is seconds away from getting sucked up, and you start spewing out mass in a futile effort to slow down the mad charge you just started), the whole point of Osmos is to make you calm. Seems like a strange goal for a puzzle-style game, I know, but even stranger is that it works. First of all, the gameplay is pretty sedate except for the panicked moments I mentioned above. The way to win at Osmos is through patience. You can’t go in guns blazing, or rather bubbles blowing, because you’ll never catch enough smaller bubbles to keep up with how much mass you’re throwing out. It pays to take your time and be strategic.
Further enhancing the soothing mood of the game is the music. It’s very low key, almost like something they’d play at a day spa. It’s not really music half the time, but it is relaxing. I asked one of the developers, David Burke, about how they chose the music, and he told me “If [the song] had a beat, it was too upbeat for our game.” They followed that rule religiously.
It all seems to counterintuitive to game design: create a calming game with nothing more engaging than floating bubbles and a simple physics engine, no special abilities or powers, throw in some music that you can’t even bob your head to and call it a day. In the current gaming market where publishers try to catch your attention with chart-topping music, visceral images, and heart-pounding moments of action and violence, Osmos seems so out of place.
But that may be why it’s so endearing. Osmos is a clever change of pace that seems to fill a need that most of us don’t even know we have. It allows you to really sit down and relax with a game. It’s funny how rare a thing that is anymore.
Osmos is available for PC, Mac and Linux versions are forthcoming.