Back in August, Ludum Dare ran its 27th game-making competition, and the unifying theme was 10 seconds. Ludum Dare always turns out a fascinating bunch of projects, of course, but Andrew Shouldice's Probe Team, which beat over 2000 other entries to win the event, is really special.
The set-up suggests a murky kind of space-truckers horror. Through the dim sodium yellow glow of an old computer terminal screen, you control a robotic probe as it seeks to explore and repair a complex system of vents and pipes. Or rather, you control a series of robotic probes, since each individual machine has only ten seconds' worth of fuel to move themselves around with before they come to a halt.
What emerges, in pacy bursts of speed, is an exploration game in which you move in short hops, using one probe to get you to a lock, say, that might open a door for your next probe to push through and continue the mission. Like The Swapper, it's a sci-fi game adventure revolving around sacrifice - but the tone this time is incongruously up-beat.
Although the spaces you travel through are derelict and industrial, and although each advance is won at the cost of another probe, the chirpy bleeps and tweets coming from your cog-like robotic charges suggest a kind of eternal optimism that's wonderfully at odds with the ominous rumble of distant machinery and the floating corpses of former colleagues that you constantly pass on your journey. The story, meanwhile, unfolds in stoical little pep speeches scattered between one probe's outing and the next, and the wandering, blinking eye set within each vessel adds a further dash of sweet innocence to proceedings.
Despite the clever conceit, Probe Team isn't a puzzle game as much as an exploration game that has found an ingenious way of measuring out its revelations. It's short and simple, and it's worth working your way through to the very end. If you want to see the more menacing aspects of Probe Team's atmosphere amplified, incidentally, check out Shouldice's own HIde, which is a far grimier experience all round. For now, though, prepare yourself for a gentle tale of bravery and robotic selflessness.