The game is a monochromatic 2-D alternate WWII-era combat flying shooter. Unlike other shooters (DoDonPachi, Ikaruga, Ketsui, etc.), the screen does not scroll and there are no levels. As the pilot of a ‘Rauser’ you are tasked with destroying as much of the enemy as possible in one screen while under a ceaseless onslaught.
The game mainly takes place over an unidentified ocean. At the beginning of the game your plane launches from a ship and immediately enemy planes and ships begin their relentless attack.
The sky has a ceiling which the Rauser cannot cross (depicted in-game by thick cloud cover) while the ocean is the lower threshold which you can dip into briefly.
Rather than having your typical ‘choose 1 of 3 ships’ present in many Japanese STGs (I hate the term Shmup. STG: Shooting Game), Luftrausers allows you to customize your ship by letting you unlock and choose the different parts: Gun, Body, Engine. The variety across the various parts ensures that no two builds feel even close to being the same and each time you launch with a new build, its name briefly appears on the bottom of the screen. The music also changes depending on the build.
You have no health bar and this is not a one-hit kill game.
Your indicator of health is the density of smoke coming off of your plane. The unique mechanic here is an extension of what we have all become used to in modern FPSes: Stop shooting to recover health.
Luftrausers forces the player to balance offense and defense by implementing a point scoring system similar to many action/arcade games. The more enemies you kill in succession, the more your score multiplier increases. The multiplier maxes out at ‘x20′ and will only last for as long as the player can kill enemies quickly.
The score multiplier is important for competition, but what drives the mechanical narrative of the game forward is not only how many enemies you kill, but also the completion of various missions.
Each of the three parts of your Rauser has a set of missions attached to it. One weapon might ask you to score more than a specific number of points in one game, while the body might suggest that you kill a number of enemies after death (it’s possible), and the engine might task you with taking down a particular kind or set of enemies.
Completing these missions allows the player to unlock newer parts which fundamentally change the way the Rauser operates allowing the player to grow as a pilot.
All of Luftrausers’ mechanical components act only to push the game forward in efficient and creative ways.
Vlambeer has not had an easy time of things the past year. Vlambeer nearly ceased to exist due to the extreme stress of fighting against a clone of their wildly successful mobile game: Ridiculous Fishing.
The anger and resentment at potentially losing everything had drilled down into their core. This sentiment came out recently when one of the people behind Vlambeer, Rami Ismail, published an article on Kotaku titled: ‘We Made This Game When We Were Angry.’
Rami discusses how he can no longer relate to the person he was when working on Luftrausers, the anger he felt just isn’t there anymore. At one point, he even declares that “Luftrausers is a game made by people who don’t exist anymore.”
The worst kinds of people are the kinds of people who never find growth after some hardship. The kinds of people who remain frozen in a single emotion, a single time that ends up slowly defining them over their lifetime.
It is especially important for game developers to allow themselves to feel and express a wide-range of emotion in what they do.
While I am happy that Rami and Vlambeer have grown past the anger and resentment that fueled Luftrausers, the game itself is a beautiful example of a game crafted from one emotion: Rage.
Before Luftrausers, the game which encapsulated rage most viscerally was God of War III. In it the anti-hero, Kratos, seeks vengeance on the Gods that toyed with and betrayed him.
The game gained notoriety for some of the extreme violence that took place. One scene had Kratos gouging out the eyes of Apollo during a QTE near the end of the boss fight.
The God of War series has always had a few problems. The biggest of those problems is the conveyance of Kratos’ rage to the player. The player never feels the anger, hate, or betrayal that Kratos did.
After playing through GoWIII and not feeling the impact of Kratos’ desire for vengeance, I went back and played through every God of War game before that to try and track the narrative again. I wanted to trace how Kratos arrives where he does in the third chapter.
Even after doing that, I couldn’t find his rage.
Where the narrative in God of War falters is that Kratos is already angry from the beginning. Where do you go from the point of rage? More rage? That doesn’t work.
The developers themselves acknowledged in an interview that after GoWIII, they wanted to scale back Kratos’ aggression because he was becoming an unrelatable, one-dimensional jerk.
God of War’s expression of rage is something the player is shown, rather than made to feel: An enormous catharsis machine churning alone, surrounded by mannequins. There is no edge or relevance here.
God of War was designed as a conveyance of aggression and spectacle rather than being a product of aggression and rage. This is why Luftrausers is the better designed game: It was born whole-heartedly from a darker place.
Luftrausers is angry, almost nihilistic.
In casting the player as the only pilot gunning against the swarms of enemies, there is an insinuation that your ‘side’ has already lost whatever war you were fighting. That at this point winning doesn’t matter: Kill everything you can.
This starkness is further enforced by the monochromatic color scheme which only shows the silhouettes of your Rauser and the enemy, almost as if everything is being drowned in the light of some setting sun.
I’ve noticed when playing Luftrausers that I start every attempt with the usual strategic logic only to very quickly be driven by some primal desire to take out as many of the enemy as I can. The music itself is a militaristic dark electro theme that pulls the id out of the player.
When jets go down, they go down in an arching silhouette of flame, eventually crashing into the ocean. When large battleships go down, they explode in massive fireballs and sink in ruin. When you can’t hit the enemy with bullets, you ram them and rip them apart.
In the Hagakure, Yamamoto Tsunetomo wrote:
” If one’s sword is broken, he will strike with his hands. If his hands are cut off he will press the enemy down with his shoulders. If his shoulders are cut away, he will bite through ten or fifteen enemy necks with his teeth. Courage is such a thing. ”
Luftrausers is courageous and asks you to be the same.
Luftrausers doesn’t show you what rage looks like, but it makes you feel it in your bones. Nearly every explosion has a weight that shakes the screen, as if every enemy killed is a minor victory.
There is a particular Rauser build that allows for a nuclear detonation upon death. The explosion is in the shape of a giant skull.
The only elegance and extravagance you are allowed in the game is the ability to maneuver. Different engines propel and turn your plane at different speeds with different effects. Movement is the only aspect in which the player can flourish and even then you can use movement to destroy enemies through momentum.
All of these features are present in Luftrausers normal game, but just as the games design unlocks the primal conciousness of the player, the game itself dives further into its own nightmare once the player unlocks ‘SFMT Mode’ which spawns enemies at a near impossible rate.
The music is replaced with air raid sirens.
In SFMT, Luftrausers does away with all mechanical and design courtesy, it is simply a beating of the heart in the void.
Luftrausers is a masterpiece of game design. I have never seen a game like this.
This game was built from the ground up to express a single emotion in a very compelling, engaging way. Everything from the game mechanics, to the music, to the art all work together effortlessly to drive rage deep into the bones of the player.
In my previous post on war, I stated that at some point in war you just stop caring who is winning and who is losing, you just become angry at everything.
Luftrausers isn’t about winning or losing, it’s about expressing yourself one last time. It’s about burrowing deep into the soul of the enemy and flourishing in the dread.
Vlambeer have done something amazing here, and while they may have moved on and grown past the milestone that Luftrausers represents, it will always be a testament to their resiliency and the strength of their self-reflection.
Above the valleys and the lakes : beyond
The woods, seas, clouds, and mountain-ranges : far
Above the sun, the aethers silver-swanned
With nebulae, and the remotest star,
My spirit! with agility you move
Like a strong swimmer with the seas to fight,
Through the blue vastness furrowing your groove
With an ineffable and male delight.
Far from these foetid marshes, be made pure
In the pure air of the superior sky,
And drink, like some most exquisit liqueur,
The fire that fills the lucid realms on high.
Beyond where cares and boredome hold dominion,
Which charge our fogged existence with their spleen,
Happy is he who with a stalwart pinion
Can seek those fields so shining and serene:
Whose thoughts, like larks, rise on the freshening breeeze,
Who fans the morning with his tameless wings,
Skims over life, and understands with ease
The speech of flowers and other voiceless things.
-Charles Baudelaire (Trans. Roy Campbell)
I HAVE A RENDEZVOUS WITH DEATH
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.