It's been a good week for insignificance. Somebody's dug up a 65-tonne dinosaur in Patagonia and named it Dreadnoughtus because it was so large - a 30-foot tail, six-foot femurs - that it would literally have had no reason to fear any other creature on Earth. Elsewhere, if you want to know a little more about our shared neighbourhood, it turns out that we're residents of Laniakea, a cosmic supercluster in which entire galaxies form filaments stretching across hundreds of light years of space. Also, and somewhat less dramatically, I've been playing Alone, a game about being very, very fast and very, very small. It feels timely.
I'm fascinated by where the player exists in Alone, this new smartphone endless runner that is significantly more interesting than a new iOS endless runner has any real right to be. I'm fascinated because I think the player exists inside - inside the titchy, minimalist spacecraft, so insignificant on the screen of my iPhone 4S that I can't actually make out its exact shape. I couldn't draw a picture of it for you, but still: there I am inside it whenever I play it. I run my thumb up and down the screen (up and down are you only real control options here, and they're exactly enough) but I sense I'm behind the dashboard in a cramped cockpit, fighting with the stick as I ghost breathlessly between deadly hurdles.
The reason for this immersion, I suspect, is the fact that Alone's developers have done something wonderfully simple and ingenious. They've inverted the controls, meaning that when you want to move up, you shift your thumb down, and when you want to move down, you shift your thumb up. On paper, this sounds like meaningless confusion (and, over email, the two-man team at Laser Dog admits to me that there are certain players who just can't get it, so the option to un-invert is buried, begrudgingly, in a menu somewhere). Beyond a brief thrill of befuddlement, though, I suspect most players will find Alone's controls as energising as I do. They're wonderfully elastic, for starters, because your mind can't help but tie that up/down business to some kind of cable and pulley system. They bleed into the fictional world of the game in a subtle, yet crucial manner, too. They allow you to believe that you're operating futuristic machinery. If down means up, doesn't that hint at some mechanism buried beneath the controls you use? A world of pistons and levers and motors where hardware transforms your inputs into something else.
"Inverted feels awesome, right?" says designer Simon Renshaw. "It was a controversial decision. The original control method that [co-designer] Rob Allison came up with was actually non-inverted, but that felt wonderful too. He gave it the perfect sensitivity to give split-second control without feeling too predictable. Being a big fan of flight sims, I felt that it would be more natural to invert the controls to be 'push forward, dip the nose,' and 'pull back, pull up'. From the first moment we inverted the controls we both had a 'woah!' reaction. It made a massive improvement to the gameplay."
it's not just this simple tweak that allows Alone to soar, though. "In the back end of the game, we make sure that the ship isn't following your finger's exact movements," explains Renshaw. "This would be incredibly jerky and unnatural. The ship is always a tiny bit behind, just as it would be in real life. This enabled us to really smooth out the ship's movement."
And beyond that, the controls also tie into the way a jagged Alone level is constructed. "A whole load of work went into making the world generate in a way which makes you always just survive," says Renshaw before signing off. "We actually rewrote a lot of the level generation after watching The Empire Strikes Back. We wanted the player to constantly feel like a bad-ass while swooping between rocks."