Gutwhale by Stuffed Wombat
Gutwhale is one of a few bright spots to have come out of the COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding lay-offs.
“I made up Gutwhale almost entirely from scratch after knowing I would lose my job,” says developer Josh of Stuffed Wombat. “While I have tried many times in the past to develop a Roguelike, these projects never really got too far, [but] I make a lot of prototypes basically all the time, and when I decide to start work on an actual game, I have this kind of library of concepts and mechanics I can use for that project.”
Falling Down the Whale
The mechanics in question revolve around falling and shooting. Each of the game’s three short levels involves a series of rooms occupied by underwater-themed enemies like jellyfish and regular fish.
Finish each room, and the floor drops out and you fall to the next, but helpful arrows point out enemies below so you can target them even as you plummet toward them.
Downwell is a clear influence with its downward-dropping, enemy-shooting focus, and Josh also cites Super Crate Box, which makes perfect sense, given Gutwhale’s series of single-room, high-octane challenges.
I also saw a hint of GoNNER in the lo-fi, surrealistic approach to graphics – the game takes place, like the Biblical story of Jonah, within the digestive system of a giant sea creature – but Josh says, “GoNNER feels a lot slower and more deliberate than Gutwhale to me, but I am a big fan of [GoNNER developer] Ditto’s work and have learned a lot from him, so I guess I just stole some of his vibe without really meaning to.”
The other key mechanic in Gutwhale is that your gun only has a single bullet. Shoot an enemy, and you’re completely vulnerable until you recover it.
While there are exceptions – like hats that can be purchased between levels and left-over bullets from previous lives – the single-bullet mechanic provides a sense of frantic vulnerability in comparison to other one-room shooter games like Super Mutant Alien Assault or the aforementioned Super Crate Box.
It also provides for opportunities to shine: recover a bullet in mid-air, then blast more enemies before you land to score combo points. While this is easier in theory than in practice, even I was able to rack up some combinations after spending some time with the game.
That’s another point about Gutwhale: deaths come easy and often but don’t feel unfair. It’s an important and often-overlooked element in “hardcore” games that frequent deaths shouldn’t mean less fun, and thankfully, I laughed at my own deaths more often than not, even as the game’s difficulty ramped up faster than I could keep pace with it.
A Whale of a Time
Part of that, I’m sure, has to do with the brilliantly balanced mechanics, but Gutwhale’s presentation is no less charming than its jellyfish-blasting action.
Rendered more in muted reds and browns than the blues and greens you’d expect from an oceanic-themed game, since it’s set inside of a whale rather than outside one – it manages to combine the bouncy, floating, falling feel of an underwater game with the claustrophobia of having been swallowed. On the game’s art and setting, Josh says:
“One of the reasons it is set inside of a whale is that I wanted to convince [pixel artist] Franek to help with the art. And Franek loves whales. And then there is the whole ‘Jonah and the Whale’ myth! Someone being inside of a whale has a lot of symbolic weight. To make it work from a gameplay perspective (and to make it a bit more interesting) the game takes place in a building that was swallowed by a whale, but this is never really explained in the game. In general, we handled the fiction of the world in a very loose way. Nothing makes sense, but that’s OK.”
I was also immediately struck by the game’s score, composed by Britt Brady.
“When he joined,” says Josh, “I had no clue about how Gutwhale should sound and he wanted to try out some new drum machine he got, so we experimented with that. We compared the music we each like, found some overlap, and then he just went nuts on it.”
The result is a propulsive electronic score incorporating dubstep elements that combines darkness and tension with an understated funk that had me absentmindedly nodding my head to the groove even as fish and floating skulls munched my poor protagonist over and over again.
That sense of propulsion is no accident, as Josh says: “I am kind of new to making decisions about audio and music, but the word I kept saying the most was probably ‘drive.’ I wanted something that would push the players forward, that would make them want to play fast and risky, and Britt absolutely delivered on that.”
Journey to the Bottom of the Sea Creature
With only three levels, Gutwhale is a comparatively short game – especially if you’re more of a natural at falling and shooting than I am, apparently – but more than worth playing. And as rewarding as the journey is, so is the destination, as Josh states:
“Gutwhale is actually built around one specific moment that people only reach when they 100% the game and this moment was kind of pulled from a different project that never really got anywhere. The whole shooting jellyfish gameplay of Gutwhale is just something that makes this specific moment possible.”
Without giving too much away, it’s worth persevering even through the levels with the floating skulls and those horrible spinning blade enemies to reach that moment of pay-off. Plus there are frog hats and other weird secrets to discover along the way.
Definitely pick this one up, especially if you like your twitchy action with a heaping side order of weirdness. The world is pretty unpleasant at the moment, but people like the Stuffed Wombat folks making games like Gutwhale is a reminder that there’s still good happening, too.
Gutwhale is available via Steam.
Watch the official Gutwhale trailer below: