A mountainous, billowing cloud hovers, tinted pink and blue by the unseen sun, enormous even in the distance. In front of it is you, a tiny red fighter jet, most likely supersonic—the speedometer is unlabelled, but the pace at which the environment passes by gives you the impression that you’re going somewhere between “really fast” and “really, really fast.” Almost immediately, you’re met by a deadly swarm; a dozen-and-a-half metallic nightmares whose sole purpose is to send you hurtling to an early death wrapped neatly in a ball of flames. You only have one method for survival: Dodge the hoards of robots, charge your ship’s core power, launch yourself as high as possible, and then… cut your engines. Your ship sends power to the guns and automatically fires off a stream of lasers-like ribbons— a rainbow of colors tears through the sky towards your enemies, disintegrating them one by one, as you plunge back down toward the ground…
Aerobat is an absurd, yet beautiful, shmup-like, and will be the first game released by artist/developer Matthew Yeager. Conceived during Ludum Dare 26, Yeager was stumped by the event’s theme (“minimalism”) until he came up with the idea for a mouse-only shoot-em-up. Inspired by the “tumbling-while-shooting” of the original Luftrauser (a game which shares the concept of aerobatics), the “throw/catch rhythm” of Solipskier, and the imaginative chaos that comes from battling Lego spaceships as a kid (where every shot miraculously hits its target), Yeager came up with Aerobat, a game designed around a simple motif: tense-and-release.
Holding your mouse-click will send power to your jet’s engine, with longer holds mounting more power. You’ll need to weave through a slew of robotic enemies while charging, as any crash will reset your meter and drop you down a few feet; tense. Once charged, you’ll need to fling the jet as high as you can, so that you can displace power from the engine to the weapons and fire a stream of multi-coloured lasers one-by-one at the oppressive robots, earning you combo points as you free-fall; release. The result is like a fireworks show, or the literary arc of rising tension to climax, or—
“Sex, if you want to get all Freudian about it,” Yeager jokes.
But he’s not that far off; the explosion of gorgeous colors is a climactic (and all-too-short) reward for the hectic, exhaustive dodging (almost bullet-hell gameplay) that leads up to it.
“Shooting is your reward for not dying”
The game doesn’t end there, however. Any time on your way back down, you can send power back to the engines and stop firing, return to whatever robots have remained unscathed, and then repeat the whole process until you finally crash. Chase high scores and enjoy the rewarding display of lasers and explosions to your heart’s content. Aerobat may seem simple, but what went into it was nowhere near.
It took Yeager a year to get to where he is now with Aerobat, working only evenings and weekends when he’s not busy with his day job writing financial software for suits. It was May last year when a public beta of Aerobat was last released, but Yeager has continued to work hard. While the gameplay has mostly complete for years now, Yeager’s been doing some fine tuning to graphics and stability, and comparing each subsequent build with the one proceeding, it’s immediately noticeable how much polish is going in.
Yeager has the vibe of a perfectionist: He discusses frustration with input lag (his main reason behind a PC versus mobile release), the importance of perfect controls, and a sheer dedication to every detail. It comes out in Aerobat’s design, too; Yeager is apprehensive to add new mechanics, as he wants to maintain the game’s balance.
If he can make it work, he hopes to add a Japanese bullet-hell mechanic called “grazing,” where the player’s hit-box is a small area inside their sprite, rather than the whole sprite itself.
“My original idea was to let grazing keep your combo meter full. So you could jump and get like a 12x combo, and then graze like an insane person while boosting back up so you can start your next jump at 12x. Basically manuals from Tony Hawk.”
He describes the mechanic in detail, explaining how it may break the game, and putting forward his knowledge and love for the shmup genre and Japanese arcade games in general—a passion that comes out in Aerobat’s ’70s sci-fi/military aesthetic. Yeager also expresses his desire for a soundtrack akin to Daft Punk’s work on Tron Legacy: “Not strictly retro; more of an homage.”
With such a purposeful atmosphere at play, the intelligence and strength of Yeager’s vision for Aerobat makes it surprising that the game will be his first release.
“I tend to think about games from an art-first perspective, which is a really easy way to end up with a ton of awesome art and worldbuilding and then go, ‘aaaaaand… the gameplay’s a platformer… I guess?’ Aerobat was designed first and ‘arted’ second, which is why it exists.”
Yeager is a painter at heart, but he says he loves that he’s finally able to sit down and develop a video game project that he can call his own. After graduating college with a degree in Computer Science, Yeager expected to go work for a AAA game studio, but he was instead offered a job as a software developer. And then Aerobat happened, and now he’s devoting everything outside of work to game development.
“I have to be making stuff”
“I’ve got all this stuff in my head all the time, and the only way it can live is if I set it down in a medium… like these worlds are relying on me to let them exist like I’m their dad or something.”
Yet, Yeager is making a game about fighter jets and explosions—hardly a life-changing allegory or an expansive world. Despite this, Aerobat still means something: It’s his.
“Games are the closest we can get to creating reality,” Yeager says. “I want to live in one of these crazy utopian art universes… where the only problems are ones that can be solved by the power of friendship and hitting things with swords… games are one step closer to that than paintings or films.”
Yeager says that if he had the time, he’d be making “Zelda meets Dark Souls meets Kingdom Hearts.” Nonetheless, he’s happy to be creating Aerobat.
“A 48-hour jam project is actually going somewhere.”
This article was original published on indiegamemag.com on May 05, 2014, and any dates have been edited accordingly.