Noah Swartz seems to specialize in abstracting adorable games and distilling them into text adventures. He’s turned colorful ball-roller Katamari Damacy and cutesy cat collector Neko Atsume into text-only command-line games, which have a curious charm of their own.
“There’s hardly any gameplay in Neko Atsume, all you do is get fish to get more fish,” explained Swartz in an email. “So I figured if I made a command-line version, I could write a script to collect money and buy food for my cats.
“Also, I hate fun.”
These command-line reimaginings are part of a genre called “demakes,” where developers create stripped-down, low-tech versions of existing games. They can be text adventures, such as Swartz’s or a throwback DOS console version of Gone Home by Jason Alan Dewey. Or they can take something painterly like The Witness and give it a Nintendo Entertainment System makeover, like Dustin Long’s The Wit.nes, which Swartz calls “inspiring.” Some, like the Alone in the Dark demake called Alone in Pico, transform what’s already arguably a retro game into something even more surreal and low-fi.
“Part of it is that people say books are better than movies because you get to imagine what the characters look like — so why not do the same for cute cats?” said Swartz.
In his Neko Atsume demake, you type in commands like “place toy” and “leave yard” or simply just “cats.” “What do you want to do?” the game asked me. “Cats,” I typed. “I’m sorry that cat isn’t in your yard!” Oh.
I never saw a cat, but maybe I wasn’t patient enough. That’s one thing with these games — you have to accept their pacing. In the Katamari demake, you basically traverse the whole map with cardinal directions. When you arrive in a sector with things to pick up — like a 5-yen coin or black crayon — you have to type “roll up” and then the object. You repeat this for each object.
It becomes almost meditative, and even though the objects you’re discovering are mundane, there’s still that familiar feeling of exploration like in the multiuser dungeon (MUD) games of yore. The minimalist version of Katamari peels away its bombastic style and quirky music, leaving something more mysterious in its place.
Swartz says that he was inspired to demake Katamari because of a piece of fanfiction featured on the website Boing Boing. He ended up working on it during an event called Stupid Shit That No One Needs And Terrible Ideas Hackathon, which he helps organize in San Francisco and is based on an event of the same name in New York.
Because the demake was hacked together so quickly, it’s still incomplete.
“In the end, there’s not much playable content — just two unfinished levels,” said Swartz. “I eventually gave up development on it because I was hoping to make a roguelike version of it — much in the same vein as Doom-RL.”
Swartz says that these days, he’s more interested in roguelikes than interactive fiction or text adventures. He runs the Roguelike Celebration conference, which will take place later this year on November 11 and 12. Last year, it featured speakers like Tarn and Zach Adams, the creators of Dwarf Fortress, and Zack Johnson, the creator of longtime browser-based multiplayer game Kingdom of Loathing and the more recent RPG West of Loathing.
Both Katamari and Neko Atsume are still available for free on Swartz’s GitHub, a platform which is often used for open-source collaboration. Even if he’s moved on to roguelikes, he encourages people to contribute code and content to them. Katamari, he says, is still one of his all-time favorite games.
“I totally fell in love with it, and it’s one of the few video games from the [PlayStation 2] that I still have,” said Swartz. “I’d love to see people make more demakes, and more interactive fiction! Hopefully I’ve inspired people to do so!”