Sometimes creators don’t like to talk about their past. Early works can be embarrassing to look back on, and sometimes even problematic. However, sometimes you find a creator that’s humble and willfully puts their history out there, showing off their highs and lows toward the path that molded them into what they are today. And today, we’re going to look at an example of that: GameDevDan vs Life.
GameDevDan vs Life is the collected works of Dan Johnston, half of Chequered Ink, over a 10 year life span. It’s 50 games of varying quality, from really simple experiments to fun arcade experiences, from mediocre platformers to competent puzzle games. It’s definitely not full of high quality works – but that’s the point. The whole thing is essentially a showcase of Dan’s growth as a game developer.
When you start the launcher, it defaults to “best to worst” games, according to him. II preferred sorting it from oldest to newest games, because it provides a timeline of his game development.
His first game, Hob’s Ash, made way back in 2007, was a look in the mirror to when I tried to play around in Game Maker years and years ago. Movement was clunky, the bullets you shot was off-center, just a whole bunch of really amateur stuff. Not that I’m one to talk.
As a result, I got a stronger appreciation of his later games because I could see just how much he approved. Like, Gyro Boss is a well-polished arcade bullet hell that’s perfect for pick up and play. A bit disorienting to play, but very fun.
But playing through the collection shows that growth isn’t a linear thing, especially if you’re dabbling in multiple disciplines. You can certainly get a sense of growth from Dan’s platformers, but there is the occasional step into a different genre in the timeline that proves to be a point of brilliance. The Mystery of Bockston House and WillO 2012 are 2011 games that Dan considers to be his best and heartily recommends. Meanwhile, while much of his more recent games are considered to be of higher quality in his eyes, there’s stuff like Dan’s Narcissistic Adventure in Jam Land and Maggot in a Frying Pan, which are among the more mediocre offerings.
In a quest for growth, there’s always room for experimentation, and sometimes those experiments can pay off and sometimes it just doesn’t.
Dan’s rankings on his games was pretty close to how I viewed his games in terms of quality. You’d definitely want to check out the higher ranked games, though diving into the lower quality stuff is good for getting insight into Dan’s history – as well as how you rank as a game developer, if you happen to be one.
The whole things culminates in Super Jam Land Kart Racing, the latest game that’s an exclusive to the pack. The game itself is a love letter to everything Dan made, with characters and settings recontextualized in a top-down kart racer that’s pretty alright. Much like the collection itself, Super Jam Land Kart Racing is an embrace of the past. The game speaks the collection’s definitive statement that your past works is not something to be hated, but something to cherish as a stepping stone to improvement.
GameDevDan vs Life is a humble look at somebody’s work history, and as an amateur game developer, it’s a reflective experience. There’s definitely some good games in this pack, but as a whole, it’s an experience that’s most enjoyed if you’ve been in the developer’s shoes.