Project Totem is Danish game developer Press Play's answer to the "pure platformer," according lead designer Bo Strandby.
Conceptualized by Strandby and his brother Asger, the Xbox 360 and Xbox One game, which was announced today, is a simple yet incredibly difficult platformer inspired by titles like the original Super Mario Bros. The brothers told Polygon they were interested in making a "pure platformer," one that only required one button to jump, had no air acceleration and no physics.
The game requires players to control two totems — one at the top of the screen, another at the bottom. Both halves of the screen mirror each other for a large portion of the game, but every now and again there will be differences that players will have to plan around. For example, in one early level, players are required to get both totems over a pit. In the top half of the screen, there are enemies beyond the pit that the player has to try to avoid. In the bottom half of the screen, there are no enemies. Like trying to rub your belly with one hand and pat your head with the other, players have to try to get the bottom totem across the pit without putting the top totem in the path of the enemy.
"So we've designed the game to be very clean, very simple, so you learn one thing at a time..."
Project Totem has a strong focus on timing and precision. During a demo of the game we found ourselves having to repeat sections because, while we knew what we had to do, timing the action perfectly took practice.
The game introduces new challenges to players in each level. After understanding that the top and bottom halves of the screen are not always the same, the player is taught color zones, which are parts of levels that only certain colored totems can enter. Bringing the wrong colored totem into a colored zone will result in players being thrown back to the last check point. While this is fairly easy to manage at first, with players pressing a button to make the two totems swap places, it becomes increasingly difficult in later levels. In one section, players have to continuously swap the totems while they're falling through a series of color zones.
Later levels also introduce gravity, which force the totems to cling to the ceiling, the floor, or floating structures.
There are points in the game where the two totems will come together, and players can stack them to clear levels. In co-op mode, which is available locally, each player can control two totems, allowing four in total to stack on top of each other.
"There are things the player needs to learn," said game director Asger Strandby. "[In many games], if you do something wrong the first time, you'll keep doing it wrong. We've seen that a bunch of times where people keep doing the unintended solution, so the games gets more and more difficult for them because they never learned what they could do. So we've designed the game to be very clean, very simple, so you learn one thing at a time, and you take that knowledge with you to the harder levels."
Bo Strandby told Polygon that there are so few variables in Project Totem that if even one element changes, everything changes. "If we changed the gravity for just one totem, it changes everything," he said. "The big challenge is to make it playable, because it becomes super hard very easily. One of the first levels, there's an enemy moving back and forth on the bottom, and a hole on the top level. Timing your move correctly so you jump over the enemy and don't fall into the hole is really difficult, and that's one of the easiest puzzles in the game.
"And it only gets harder."
Press Play plans to launch Project Totem later this year.