The number one thing a developer can do to grab my attention is convince me the world he or she has created actually exists. There are many ways to do this, of course. Hyper-realistic graphics, a strong art style, and high quality voice acting are all powerful ways to liven up a game's atmosphere. My favorite games, though, develop a world based around the existence of its characters. Fez is a good example of this. All the characters in Fez are incapable of comprehending a 3rd dimension, because they're all 2D sprites -- or so they think. The characters feel real, and the world feels responsive to their reality.
At PAX East, I caught up with a game that fits this mold. Girls Like Robots, developed by PopCannibal, is a casual puzzle game in development for multiple platforms. The world of Girls Like Robots is filled with opinionated, thoughtful characters. Girls may like robots, but they don't like nerds. Robots like girls but they get stressed out if they're surrounded by them. The player is tasked with seating these different characters on a grid to create optimal happiness. The core gameplay is simple enough, but as more characters are introduced, the game gets more complex. It starts out easy, but quickly becomes a test of the mind as all good puzzle games should.
The characters themselves are what makes Girls Like Robots so unique. All of the people in this world are represented by a simple square shape, which allows them to conform to the grid. This doesn't only apply to the interactive characters, either. Even people uninvolved in the puzzle, such as a bus driver, adhere to the anatomy of the world. Students in Girls Like Robots go to Four Corners University, and the trailer even ends with a beautiful shot of a square moon. It's a consistent theme that's both clever and exciting.
"We started with this really simple HTML5 thing I drew myself," Ziba Scott, founder of PopCannibal, explained. "It was terrible square characters with no world, no background, no anything. The core game idea came first." He took his idea to Luigi, his artist, who then developed the world around his idea. "He told me 'Well, you say you want a classroom. The room should have a square globe!' He really is an artist who thinks about cohesive worlds and there's a lot of character in Girls Like Robots that you can thank Luigi for."
Characterization lives in the heart of their game. "I really like the expressiveness of the World of Goo's Gooballs." he said, speaking about his inspiration. "This idea of the characters you're playing with looking at you and potentially thinking; it's very inspiring." He also brought up The Muppet Show. While the Muppets have their primary cast of characters, there's a slew of peripheral characters that add to the ensemble feel of the show. Girls Like Robots tries to capture that feel.
PopCannibal isn't happy with simply creating a sensible world, however. As the inclusion of robots may imply, they have a taste for the fantastic. "We're actually wiping out some of the normal school stuff." Ziba told me while discussing the fantasy elements of Girls Like Robots. "We had a kickball field which we replaced with a sport called 'chicken bomb-ball' where chickens have fuses and there's giant craters on the field with feathers all around." He would not confirm if chickens were exploding as a part of this sport. That remains ambiguous.
While it wasn't apparent by the demo I played, Ziba mentioned Girls Like Robots has a complete story. It follows two characters, Ben and June, on a relationship tale that many may not expect upon first impressions. "Once you get farther in the game you realize there's a love story with actual names, characters, and they have their adventures." Perhaps there's more to girls than just liking robots.
As for what a clan of girl nerds -- as if that could ever exist -- might say about a game proclaiming girls don't like nerds, he says it was all in good fun. "I've been apologizing for that all day, but no one seems to care much. I got one half-hearted objection and I understand. I'm playing with an unpleasant stereotype but it's an easy way to communicate the rules of the game." He identifies with nerds, and says there may be a redemption for the nerd somewhere in the story.
Ziba did express concern that people may believe his game is aimed at kids. "Children, I hope, will love the game. But I'm actually making it for myself as a 30-something grown gamer who wants to play it. It makes me worried when I hear 'Oh, nice kids game!" A game for adults would need to adhere to adult expectations, which he promises Girls Like Robots will meet. "I'm a crotchety old gamer that wants to buy a cartridge, stick it in his Nintendo, and be done with it," He said. "I want enough hours, six to eight hours, so people that put money up front will be happy with their purchase. 'Ah, I bought a ticket to this thing and I'm seeing the whole show.' It's a set package."
Girls Like Robots did not have a firm release date or platform at the time of my interview. PopCannibal hopes to release it in the coming months, and the release platforms depend on how the business and marketing work out. They were demoing the game on iPads and PCs at the show, though, so it may reach those platforms at least. Now if only they could license the rights to "Hip to be Square."
Written by Erich "H2O mystakin" Sherman. Erich is the PMS|H2O Editorial Director. Keep track of him and his shenanigans on Twitter!