Tormishire is a game independently developed by James Whitehead. It is an adventure platformer with quasi-experimental gameplay. Tormishire draws similarities to Cave Story, Super Metroid, and Turrican, but it’s not quite like those games, and it’s not lacking in action; it’s best described as Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow meets Metroid.
Astrada, the world where Tormishire takes place, was inspired by Whitehead’s own local caves and landmarks. A resident of Saddleworth, England, Whitehead lives near several natural—and constructed—caverns and mines. The Speedwell Caverns, the Titan caves, and Dovestone Reservoir have all been cited as inspirational, albeit romanticized to some degree. Naturally, Tormishire takes place in a large cave system.
With so many sources of inspiration for both visual aesthetic and gameplay, Tormishire is the coolest indie game you haven’t played.
What makes Tormishire so cool?
The first thing you’ll notice about Tormishire is the art style. This is fantastic pixel art. Everything stands out while remaining subtle. Whitehead’s style is visually distinctive. It serves, and is mutually served by, the environments. Even the enemy designs are clean. Not only that, but the water falls look fluid in motion and even produce a bit of mist. Bugs are attracted to light sources, and you can see them flutter around a bit. From the caves to the forests, from the waterfalls to trees, and the bug things to the bosses, there’s an entire fantastic ecosystem in those caves. It’s great stuff. Just look at the screenshot to the right!
The second cool thing about Tormishire is the music. The soundtrack for Tormishire was composed by James Whitehead and Alex Sumesar-rai, aka MrPineapple. It’s very atmospheric and lends itself well to the sense of mystery of Astrada. It’s not all subtle and moody, as the various boss music tracks kick things up to eleven and rock your face off.
Typically, the only thing notable about the physics in a platformer game is the presence of gravity when players jump. What helps set Tormishire apart is the physics system. You can throw bombs, which will then explode and can open up new areas in the environment. You can set enemies on fire. Rocks can fall and crush your enemies. When you dive into (or out of) the water, your momentum will be transferred. It all comes together to make the game look very fluid.
Comparisons to Super Metroid aren’t unwarranted, as the level design is open ended with several routes you can take to get around. Unlike Super Metroid (or its derivatives), you can still get around and complete the game if you’re missing what would otherwise be a critical item. So much potential for hidden content to reward exploration.
Lastly, there is a multiplayer component to it. Throughout the game, the player will be joined by an AI-controlled helper named Tsol. This allows a second player to hop right into the game and play co-op locally. Additionally, there is a Challenge Tower located near the end of the game that features a set of rooms—a tower—filled with combat, puzzles, and more. The Challenge Tower is also linked to an online scoreboard, allowing players to compete for the best times for each tower like a time trial.
So why haven’t you played Tormishire?
Because in 2009, Whitehead stopped working on it. One of his last updates about the game said he was at around 70% completion. I’m not sure why Whitehead put Tormishire on hiatus, but I can tell you a few things about the game.
For instance, one of the last updates had mentioned there were 195+ rooms at the time. The size of the world was 70,000 x 35,000 pixels. For comparison, Super Metroid had 247 rooms, and the map was 16,900 x 14,300 pixels; both games use 32 x 32 pixel tiles, so Tormishire has a very large world. In the following map from June 9th 2009, white areas were completed and grey were planned. Take note of the scale in the bottom right: the player is less than one pixel!
Whitehead’s goal for Tormishire was to work on it as a project for school. One of his first updates stated he had 4 months to complete 25% of the game for school, and a later update projected the game would be finished by October. Of 2007. The project kept growing and that date kept being pushed back, until it was put on hiatus.
The game was being created with Multimedia Fusion 2. MMF2 is one part API and one part SDK, and each line of code is triggered by an event. One update mentioned that Tormishire runs on nearly 2000 events, and uses 20% of the CPU and 22MB of RAM. Whitehead mentioned several times that he had to optimize the code and make the various effects scalable.
Whitehead developed his own weather system for the game. One update included a video showing five different effects, while mentioning that there were more that weren’t shown. Wind, particle size, and color could all be set and adjusted on a per-area basis.
In order to get those neat lens flare effects on the explosions, Whitehead took photos to study lens flares. The lens flares in Tormishire are actually based off a Canon EFS 18-55mm lens. He also went through at least two overhauls of the art style to get it looking as great as it does. He had stated he was aiming for a style similar to games on the Commodore Amiga, such as Turrican. He also recruited other people to assist him.
A 19-track sampler of the OST was released—I’ve had it on loop as I put this article together. An earlier update had mentioned that 30 tracks were in game, while 15 had yet to be implemented. The soundtrack eventually grew to 60 tracks, with each one being 1-3 minutes in length.
Perhaps this is a cautionary tale
Games are canceled and put on hiatus all the time. The now-defunct 38 Studios’ Kingdoms of Amalur MMO Project Copernicus, GRIN’s Final Fantasy spin-off Fortress, Ubisoft’s Beyond Good and Evil 2, Blizzard’s Starcraft: Ghost… the list goes on and on. It stings more when a game has been announced and updates come out, only for it to be canceled later. Perhaps this is why we don’t hear about games in progress until the last 8 months of their development.
While Tormishire’s story is unfortunate as it currently stands, it doesn’t have to be this way. As far as the audience is concerned, games are made by a soulless conglomeration of faceless drones. An informed person could tell you that artists, designers, and programmers all work together to get it made, but that doesn’t really tell us about the game itself. Only people who have worked in the industry really know how games are made.
If there is one thing to learn from Tormishire’s story, it is that keeping the audience informed also helps keep interest for the craft of games alive. It’s possible to talk about the technical hurdles and the design considerations of a game without spoiling the game itself. All we really know about Tormishire is that the player gets lost in a cave and discovers there’s a whole world down there. We don’t know anything about the inhabitants, or the reason the player is in the cave, or what the central conflict of the story is.
Rival developers aren’t going to care about another studio’s trials and technical hurdles; if a game uses a cascading shadow map, competitors won’t care because they’re implementing their own shadowing system to meet their own needs. The average consumer won’t care about that bit of trivia, either. However, for people who are fascinated by how games are made, or for the people who actually want to get into making games, then those bits and bobs of technical knowledge will inform them. In fact, it’ll help dispel the notion that making games is easy, because it rarely ever is.
Reading about how a game is made, the highs and lows, the thoughts driving design and production, and the rationale between cutting content or what inspires new ideas—that is all exciting stuff. It humanizes the developer, telling us more about them while we learn more about the game. Even now, as I pore through the archives of Tormishire’s development, I keep feeling this itch. I want to try making a game of my own, and have my own adventure in production. I believe that anyone interested in game production would feel the same way.
If there is anything to learn from Tormishire’s story, it is that games should be discussed as they’re being developed. Simply releasing trailers of how the game plays, or concept art, is not enough, because all that will do is tickle our fancy. We’ll see that a game is being made and how it plays, but we won’t learn anything more about the game. We won’t learn about how games are made, just that a game is being made. We see what could have been but wasn’t, instead of learning how or why it wasn’t.
Of course, there’s still hope. In May 2010, Whitehead had claimed that Tormishire hadn’t been abandoned. Just a few months ago in early October, the trailer above was posted along with a comment stating that Tormishire isn’t dead yet. As of December 10 2012, the Boss Baddie website has a teaser featuring several elements very reminiscent of Tormishire.