Sunday, May 20, 2012

Wonderputt - thinking around the box

When I was a first-semester freshman in high school I took a drawing class. It was the only art class I took during my entire four years. This was back when I still had tentative career ambitions to become a graphic designer.

There was one assignment I remember in which we had to draw an abstract isometric picture—a kind of jumbling together of boxes and rectangular prisms. The idea was to create something figurative from these bland three-dimensional renderings. It felt similar to a Rorschach test—interesting from a psychological perspective to see what different students saw in a mass of boxes.

A friend who was also taking the class drew his initial piece and immediately envisioned a gun. He rendered his final drawing as a complex weapon resembling an Uzi. It was interesting. Very utilitarian.

I had a more difficult time with the assignment. I looked at my initial sketch and didn't see anything practical at all. Quite the opposite. The best I could envision was a futuristic, utopian cityscape, or rather just a small block of a fantastical (completely impractical) urban environment. I made little shops and buildings out of the blocky shapes. I drew in people walking through the alleys, one guy pulling money out of an ATM.

I was reminded of that 15-year old drawing exercise while playing Wonderputt, a web-browser game developed by Reece Millidge of Damp Gnat Ltd. As much a piece of interactive art as an actual game, Wonderputt presents a surreal isometric landscape as the backdrop for a five-minute point-and-click putt putt adventure. Its 18 holes are linked together by a series of quirky animation bits; the little yellow golf ball travels by balloon, submarine and all manner of imaginative transport. It's a delightful sight to behold as the static backdrop unfolds, reveals new layers and otherwise comes to life with each successive hole.

The game itself plays handily and functions more like a virtual billiards game than golf, in that it's all cursor-based. Position the cursor in a certain radius around the ball and a trajectory arrow will appear. The thickness of the arrow, which changes with the cursor's moment-to-moment distance from the ball, indicates speed.

Wonderputt really is the perfect name for the game. There are no clubs, and while the course itself takes inspiration from miniature golf with its banked surfaces and puzzle-like setup, these holes abandon the notion of traditional putting greens altogether. But it's still a type of golf game at heart, a golf game with a generous standard for par (I was already 16 strokes under after my second time through). Getting a bogey triggers a playful chicken cluck. A birdie activates a pleasant chirping sound. And putting for an “albatross”—one better than an eagle in the land of Wonderputt—awards the player with a victorious squawk.

A cursory peak into the background of the developer reveals some interesting information. Prior to making Wonderputt, creator Reece Millidge had developed a very similar experiment of a game called Adverputt. Just as the name implies, this browser game mixes commercial branding with putt putt golf, with each hole individually sponsored by a different advertiser. While a decidedly colder experience than Wonderputt—not necessarily for the hyper-advertising but more for its comparative lack of visual and auditory character—it's mechanically the same game and an intriguing idea. He even made a micro version of the game that individual companies can use on their own websites, plastering the small game world with their own name and logo. He strikes me as a pretty innovative guy. You can read a quick interview with the developer at Gamasutra.

Needless to say, that whole visual art career path didn't quite happen for me. If it did, or if I had the technical talent to develop small games myself, I'd like to think I would be creating things like Wonderputt. Ever since I was a kid I've been drawn to elaborate, visual-physical contraptions. I loved miniature golf. I swooned over marble mazes and labyrinth games, even the digital ones (a lá Marble Madness). There's also something aesthetically satisfying to me in the conceptualization of basic isometric design as an interactive space. So it's easy to see why Wonderputt and I really click.

But enough about me, you should really check out the game (such as here). It's free. It's fun. You might be as surprised as I was to see how advanced and polished a modern web browser game can be.