Here’s a timely look back at Woah Dave!, the minimalist masterpiece from Choice Provisions (formerly Gaijin Games).
For fans of indie gaming, news of another beloved studio’s shutdown is never inexplicable. It’s a tough business for indie devs. On April 7, 2016, Choice Provisions (formerly Gaijin Games), makers of the legendary Bit.Trip series, announced it will be closing its San Francisco office. The Santa Cruz studio will continue to operate. As a tribute, let’s look at one of Choice Provisions under-appreciated gems: the neo-retro masterpiece Woah Dave!, developed by MiniVisions. Released in 2014, updated in 2015 as Woah Dave! Deluxe, Woah Dave! is everything I love about indie gaming. (This article refers to the Classic mode, unless otherwise noted.)
Woah Dave! in its original form is a single-screen action game reminiscent of post-Atari, pre-NES arcade games. You’re Dave. Dave is a yellow square with blue pants and big eyes. The PC version of the game features an option for a second player to take control of a second Dave. Each Dave has one hit point and no pennies. Eggs and explosive skulls fall from the sky. Eggs hatch aliens, skulls explode. Dave’s only method of self-preservation (and/or little green spacemen-murder) is to pick up either an egg or a skull and throw it.
Items and enemies drop pennies. As Dave, your job is to get rich and you will die trying. An intact skull can smash an egg on contact. An egg cannot smash another egg. Throwing either a skull or an egg will slay a hatched enemy. Exploding skulls destroy eggs and Daves but not other intact skulls. The lava at the bottom of the screen enrages aliens Super Crate Box-style and destroys anything else. Occasionally, a Whoa box appears, which, when thrown, wipes the board clean and leaves the pennies for Dave to pocket. If you require more “game” than this, then you might prefer the Deluxe mode which disguises the same gameplay with new characters, enemies, hazards, vehicles, and portals.
The genius of Woah Dave! is in the timing of its First In First Out spawn patterns, indicated by blinking visual cues, and the subtle polish of its controls and physics. If you hold the jump button, Dave kicks his legs and descends more slowly. Eggs and skulls have mass. They don’t bounce around like turtle shells in the Mario Bros. series. These details are essential to the game’s success. What could be a run-of-the-mill action-platforming game becomes something akin to a real-time resource management sim with twitch gameplay and action-platforming elements.
“Put this egg over here, put that skull over there, collect these coins, wait to collect those…”
In his Destructoid review of Woah Dave!, Johnathan Holmes points out the hallucinatory aspects of Dave’s adventure, how when Dave dies the world around him loses its absurd and menacing qualities. The lava falls away, buildings appear in the background, the aliens go back to their day jobs. I share his view and would add to it the following: While the juxtapositions of Woah Dave!’s imagery may be nonsensical (eggs and skulls falling like rain, arbitrary lava traps and disappearing platforms), the images themselves belong to archetypal symbolism. Eggs represent life, fertility, beginning. Pennies, which are ultimately of no consequence to the way the action plays out), represent futile earthly pursuits of status, wealth, fame. The blinking patterns represent the irreversible passing of time. Aliens are the menacing Unknown. Lava is lava. And you already know what the skulls mean, don’t you?
The skulls in Woah Dave! serve the same purpose as they serve in the memento mori tradition in medieval art. A memento mori is a fetish, nicknack, or emblem, oftentimes in the shape of a skull if not an actual skull, a commonplace reminder of one’s mortality. It says to onlookers, “Everything that lives will die.” Sisyphean in his resolve, Dave sees the terrible signs and forges ahead, anyway. Indie gaming needs more Daves, not fewer.