When I booted up Steam to check my hours logged on Downwell I began verging dangerously close to shame territory – 23 hours spent on, as the website describes it ‘A curious game about a young person falling down a well, battling enemies with gun boots, and collecting treasure, and sometimes visiting shops’. That’s about as long as I’ve spent playing Cities: Skyline. Was this a damning indictment of my inability to exercise self-control, or a hearty endorsement of this sublime shoot ’em up? Honestly, it’s a little of both, but mostly the latter.
Downwell comes to us courtesy of Tokyo-based indie developer Ojiro Fumoto, who conceived the game as “Spelunky for your phone”. Much to my shame I’ve never really played Spelunky so the comparison is somewhat lost on me. Furthermore, it never even occurred to me that one might play Downwell on their phone. It requires the sort of pin-point precision that seems entirely at odds with touchscreen controls. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it would be to decipher the chaotic stream of bullets and bad guys when played on such a tiny screen.
Downwell is nothing if not a busy game. It’s simple, yes, but there is an awful lot going on. If you, like me, aren’t actually very good at videogames, it may take you some time to crack Downwell. Not a single line of text is wasted on explaining the intricacies of the mechanics, opting instead to encourage a “learn by doing” approach. In this context it works perfectly fine, rewarding players who really pay attention and not overly punishing those who don’t. There is a certain satisfaction that comes with pulling back the curtain and revealing the untold secrets of some apparently innocuous detail.
I’m not going waste anyone’s time with the tedium of explaining Downwell’s mechanics and systems in any great detail. Figuring out the game is half of the fun. It’s a randomly generated arcade style shoot ’em up: you have gun boots, you can jump, get upgrades, build combos, blah, blah, blah. When you die, the run is over and you have to start again. It’s simple, but deceitfully deep.
Blissfully ignorant of Downwell’s central conceit, I used a PS4 controller and a massive screen. I played until my thumb was raw from wrestling the D-pad; I could see the hot flashes of red when I closed my eyes; the musical loops played in my brain as though coming from another room, an echo of a happier time – a time when I was actually playing Downwell.
It’s a frenetic experience with just enough variety to be found in the upgrades and unlocks to keep each run different. These variables can significantly impact the way you play, and it quickly becomes obvious the importance of making small decisions. Do you switch out to an inferior weapon because the pick-up will give you an energy upgrade? Should you clean out the shop now, or hope that the next one will have better items? Is it worth taking some damage to keep this combo going, or end it now for some free HP?
Downwell is a game that requires lightning quick reaction as much as it does long term planning and the ability to make split-second micro-decisions. It’s a game that just begs to be perfected, for you to hone your skills and master it. It’s a game that requires a level of intimacy with its inner workings that, if it were human, the situation would become rather uncomfortable.
I hesitate to call any game addictive, and certainly don’t consider that a selling point. Whenever I see an advert for Age of Beach Storm Fire Clash (or whatever the latest crystal meth iPad game is) with the tag “Most addictive game ever!” I immediately reel back. That’s less than a single step away from the health warnings they put on cigarettes but done with a smile, rather than a picture of some guy with his throat hanging out.
The unfortunate truth is that Downwell is addictive and for people like me, that’s a problem. I was late for appointments and social engagements, sending text messages like “Just need to take a shower, be 15 minutes late” before promptly not taking a shower and playing Downwell until the last possible moment and then a little further still.
The key distinction I’d like to make, however, is that Downwell is addictive for all the right reasons. It’s not dangerously addictive like Runescape was for me at the age of 15 and then, much to my shame, again when I was 19. It’s a far cry from the dreaded Skinner Box, where numbers are your only motive. It’s addictive because it’s basically perfect and you keep playing because you know you can do better.
Downwell is such a finely tuned machine that each moment you spend with it is done so with the goal of improving upon you previous attempt. To, as Daft Punk so eloquently put it, “work it harder, make it better, do it faster, makes us stronger”. The catharsis of descending that mysterious well, with speed and deadly precision, bouncing expertly off the shells of turtles, hovering above a sea of ghosts and spraying them with the latest outlandish upgrade of you gun boots; the momentum of each kill taking you onto the next as your combo number rises… that is bliss in its purest form.