Header illustration by Gareth Damian Martin
The Folsom Street Foundry is built of thick wood planks and concrete floors. Noise reverberates easily and the Internet is sluggish. The showpiece of the room is a long series of tables, benches to either side and where, tonight, 128 people will play Towerfall. While the Indie Olympics will host high-level play for a variety of indie games (Duck Game and Lethal League among them), Towerfall is undoubtedly the king of the event. This tournament will host eight pools of 1v1 play for around four hours, the laptop keyboards glowing with red LEDs.
This is the largest Towerfall tournament of the year.
This is the largest Towerfall tournament of the year, bringing together the Bay Area’s best Towerfall teams and players, as well as a community of game developers. The Indie Olympics runs concurrently to the Game Developers Conference, one of the largest game industry events in the world. The March 15th timing is convenient for some of Towerfall’s top players who aren’t based in San Francisco, including the game’s designer, Matt Thorson, who is in town for the conference. The Towerfall tournament will feature, alongside the competitive 1v1 tournament, the premiere of the eight-player variant of the game, meaning that the largest Towerfall tournament will feature the largest version of Towerfall (coming soon to a competitive circuit near you).
But how does a local-multiplayer only indie game from 2013, originally released on the much-maligned OUYA micro-console, manage to garner such determined top-tier play?
From its beginnings, there were a lot of things working against Towerfall developing a competitive scene. For starters, it was an OUYA exclusive—on a console starved for good games, it was the killer app. While some people played the OUYA variant, its audience was limited by the micro-consoles failure to connect with any audience. The game was (and still is) local multiplayer only, meaning that online matchmaking, a crucial component of most esports, was completely absent from Towerfall. Frankly, there weren’t many reasons for the game to do anything but fade into obscurity.
Except that it didn’t.
People joked, not inaccurately, that the OUYA was a $100 Towerfall machine. There’s a lot about Towerfall (and its definitive, non-OUYA exclusive expansion, Towerfall Ascension) that is really, really good. As the second-best Towerfall player in the world, Adrian “KingofElks” Sanders puts it: “If Street Fighter and Quake had a baby, and that baby looked like Mario 3, it would be Towerfall. That’s a magical, wonderful baby.”
Play is fast and spirited, even for new players.
Towerfall can be broken down to three simple mechanics: jump, dash, and shoot. This holy trinity allows for the quick traversal of the 2D archery arena shooter, where each stage has its own quirks, like moving platforms, falling lamps, and screen wrapping. Play is fast and spirited, even for new players. The game can be punishing for those who move too slowly, with few safe spaces to hide in on the stages. If the game drags on too long, a wall of miasma slowly fills the level from either side, rendering more and more of the gamespace inhospitable. The game is a specific variant of local multiplayer that is fun no matter your skill level.
What distinguishes high level players from neophytes is the ability to take those simple mechanics and conjure higher level techniques out of them. There is a vocabulary of play that starts with more complicated arrow variants (laser, drill, bomb and bramble can all drastically change how a game is played) and goes on to chaining those three initial basic moves into seemingly effortless techniques like the Standing Dodge Cancel, Koala Catch, Hyper Dash, and the Hyper Jump, all of which are lightning quick maneuvers that happen in spans of time measured in frames, a method of timing mostly familiar to speedrunning and 2D fighters.
“Despite the vocabulary for input being so simple in Towerfall, players quickly discover there is a lot of depth of strategy in the game,” says Fletcher “DrSkipper” Cole, one of the players on the Bay Area based TeamIFD and an organizer for the Indie Olympics. Keeping up with finite amount of arrows that you have, as well as being aware of your position on the map are easy enough strategies to pick up on as an amateur player, but top-tier strategy is about taking those moments and identifying the offensive openings they allow, as well as knowing the each of the maps in Towerfall and all of their peculiarities.
Take the showdown between Daphne “purple” Lam and Matt Thorson at the end of pool play at the Indie Olympics. It’s the third game in a best of three, and they’re battling it out in the Moonstone stage, where chunks of the level are made of glass; you can shoot through glass, but you can’t move through it, one of Towerfall’s unique mechanics. Several times throughout this section, arrows come from unanticipated safe zones. Outside of a few arrow types (drill and bramble among them) walls are as close as you can get to safe zones, but Moonstone makes those walls a liability rather than a strength. This is where you see upper tier strategy come into play, in moving beyond the confusion of the glass blocks.
“Probably the easiest way to define someone who plays at a high level is if they can hyper jump or not … a hyper jump is when you tap-cancels a dash into a jump. By quickly cancelling your first dash, you maintain your speed at the moment of the cancel. If you then jump, you go flying across the screen,” Sanders describes. The wiki header for the specific maneuver he’s describing lists “Tap-cancelling Dodge AKA Hyper Dodge, AKA Hyper Dash,” followed by eight different variants, which includes the hyper-jump.
Towerfall is a game of jocular shoulder-punching.
The downside to non-centralized play is that the names for things can get a bit confusing. What matters though is that top-tier players can all do the same play, even if they don’t all call it the same thing. You can see what Sanders is talking about in his final match with Kyle “kpulv” Pulver in the Grand Finals of the 2016 Indie Olympics. These high-skill maneuvers define upper tier play, and it creates some truly fantastic moments. At 4:24 in the second round of the finals, you can watch kpulv execute two back to back hyper-dashes across a flat level, faking out KingofElks and having him commit to a jump before pincushioning him with arrows.
By its nature, Towerfall is a game of jocular shoulder-punching. “ I’ve consistently witnessed groups of friends shouting and laughing and having a good time when playing for the first time,” Cole says of the games local-multiplayer accessibility. Even at the Indie Olympics, there were excited yells, screams of frustration, and the kinds of tactile experiences that are native to couch competitive games. The local-multiplayer could’ve been something that worked against the title. Browse the comments section of any Towerfall review or dig into the Steam forums, and you’ll see the complaints from the uninitiated who ask confusedly why the game doesn’t have the online, networked multiplayer that so many deem standard. The answer is network lag, which would feel brutally unfair in actual usage, but if you’re screaming about the lack of online-multiplayer in a comments section, you’re probably not going to listen to that.
Whatever the reason for Towerfall being local-multiplayer only, it seems to have worked in its favor. “Towerfall,” Cole continues, “as with a lot of (especially local-only) multiplayer indie games, was discovered simultaneously but independently by many groups of friends, coworkers, or other gatherings of people.” Without networked multiplayer, players were introduced to Towerfall through games with friends and colleagues, in lunchrooms and living rooms. “Friend groups discover the game themselves, and can learn together and get better and continue having a good time throughout their experience, rather than being thrown into an online pool of players at all sorts of levels of play all at once and risk getting stomped their first few times playing.”
The kinds of elements that should’ve hurt the game considerably in fact allowed the game to grow in a safe and sustainable way for new players. You weren’t pitted against some crazy good opponent from across the country, but your friend in some Kentucky living room. That’s how I discovered Towerfall, and it’s little surprise that it’s also how the game entered so many people’s lives.
“Friend groups discover the game themselves.”
Next year? Who knows. According to Cole, the Indie Olympics was founded to bring a light to indie esports: “We wanted there to be an opportunity for enthusiasts of indie games like Towerfall to really compete at a level that we felt these indie games deserve but which is usually reserved for AAA franchises like Street Fighter or Smash Bros.” In a few years, maybe we’ll find the end of Towerfall’s dominance on the independent scene, the way that those larger esports faze in and out of popularity. Except, well, there is that 8 player variant: “[8 player] is opening new doors in competitive play! 3v3 tournaments might be the next big thing in the Towerfall world, it’s super fun.” Maybe Towerfall has some staying power after all.