What do you get when you cross WarioWare with skeletons? Spookware, obviously.
But Spookware is more than just a WarioWare reskin. It’s a set of clever, film-themed micro games framed by a clever storytelling device of three skeleton bros who decide to leave their basement movie cave and go on an adventure in the world, solving problems and creating new ones as they go.
Developers Adam Pype, Viktor Kraus, and Tibau Van den Broeck didn’t start out trying to recreate themselves and their film-watching habits in the form of micro games. Instead, Spookware came from Pype’s participation in Game a Month, a challenge that (true to its name) asks developers to make one game per month over a set period. Pype and Kraus had worked together previously, and Kraus contributed sound for the first rendition of Spookware, while Van den Broeck joined in a bit later.
The early version of Spookware was just a small, rapidfire micro game set. But they were quickly approached by DreadXP to participate in one of its Dread X Collections, low-cost bundles of small, clever horror titles made in relatively short periods of time. DreadXP asked the trio to flesh out Spookware, and so of course they added skeletons.
Spookware opens with the skeleton trio — Lefti, Midi, and Righti — lounging on a couch and watching horror movies, which manifest to the player as a series of horror-themed micro games. There’s one where you saw off a limb, another where you assemble bones in the right places on a skeleton, one where you dig up a skull out of the ground, and another about defusing a bomb. There are others, too, that feature regular activities with a horror veneer, like chopping wood in a quiet forest or a ghoulish hand filing paperwork. Finish all the micro games for a card sorting boss battle game, and the skeleton brothers will complete their movie watching and venture out into the world. From there, the skeletons visit a school and later a cruise ship, meeting people and overcoming obstacles in the form of, yes, more micro games.
Spookware’s micro games are instantly striking, with over-the-top horror music and bold text making pun-filled quips about each successful game completion. My favorite game involves playing the bongos to accompany a skeleton on the saxophone, with the musical interlude concluding “Now that’s jazz!” upon success. They’re all goofy like that, using horror tropes to delight rather than to scare, and while there are definitely a lot of skeletons, there’s very little repetition in terms of tropes or micro game activities. Also, skeletons are extremely funny and cool, turns out.
Pype and Van den Boeck attribute their clever micro game stylings to their main inspiration for Spookware: film. They and Kraus may not have intended to base the skeleton trio on themselves and their regular movie nights together, but to an extent that’s what happened. Pype says that now, when the three get together for movie nights, they’re constantly thinking about ideas for new micro games based on the films they watch.
“Just in terms of coming up with a good idea for a micro game, I think at least I try to look at movies a lot and find small, memorable things,” Van den Boeck says. “For example, in the school you have to grab the paper boats — that’s a very famous scene from IT. I feel like that’s always a good way, you take horror movies or movies that fit into the chapter’s genre, and then think about memorable moments, and usually there’s very simple actions.
“We try to limit micro games to one or two actions, because people need to be able to understand it immediately. Then on that basis, we try to create something easy and quick. You don’t want micro games to be long — I think the longest one we have is 15 seconds, hard max for a micro game.”
While the three were obviously inspired by WarioWare, Pype says they wanted to use micro games in a new way: to carry a story. Like the micro games, the chapters and overarching stories themselves are inspired by film. For instance, the school chapter is based around Mean Girls and Clueless. An upcoming chapter set in the city is reminiscent of Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally. Every chapter features a different type of film, which then in turn gives each chapter different mechanics.
“Mostly at this point I'm trying to come up with new ways to do things with the buttons,” Pype says. “At the beginning, I was mostly coming from: 'What's a good horror hope?' and then there could be a micro game. But now it's more like: 'What's a kind of input or mechanic that we haven't done before? And then can we turn that into a whole joke or something?' Because after a while you don't want every micro game to just be spamming left and right.”
Aside from its micro games, what’s most striking about Spookware are its sound and art. Kraus tells me he takes inspiration from anime sound effects for the sound of Spookware, looking for “weird pitch wobble things going on” and aiming for something that’s less realistic and more cartoonish, but feels really satisfying.
As for the art, Pype has a rather unusual explanation for why Spookware looks so unique:
“It's very easy to make, like it's all public domain images,” he says. “And it's all projected onto low poly models basically, which is nice because a lot of the lighting information is already in the texture. Even if it doesn't make sense that the lighting in the texture comes from [one direction] but in the scene [the light comes from another direction], just because it looks all very much like HD kind of, you get a lot of like fidelity for free, which makes it like really quick to do stuff because we can really be very sloppy about it.
“And we have a lot of post-processing on there. There's like a slight painterly filter going on and the thing wiggles a little bit, and there's rain and film grain and so much stuff happening. If you just look at the thing, you'd see the resolution is completely different and all over the place. Because the paint filter is on there and the color grading and everything, it does everything together, which makes it look super clean and polished.
“It's the best look you can get for the least effort,” he concludes with a laugh.
Spookware is an episodic game, so while the chapters is out for PC now, there are four episodes planned in total, and the team is working on episode two now. Pype says he hopes that Spookware inspires more developers to work with micro game sets in the future, something he doesn’t see all that often despite their seeming simplicity.
“I hope more people will try to do the Wario Ware thing, because Nintendo has the [monopoly] on it,” he says. “They shouldn't; there's no reason why all the people shouldn't be trying to make stuff like that.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.