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Monday, July 15, 2024

A Little to the Left’s Tidy Puzzles Are a Soothing Brain Balm

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Every cat owner knows the feeling: you’re tidying your desk, everything is in order, and then suddenly in a floof of fur, the cat flounces in to wreck your neatness paradise.

In A Little to the Left, Annie Macmillan and Lukas Steinman have wonderfully encapsulated the elation of tidying a space to a level of aggressive order, contrasted with the occasional dose of cat chaos. It’s a delightful puzzle game encompassing numerous little neatness challenges, where you adjust picture frames, stack books, and sort colored pencils into perfect position to continue. Playing it feels like bathing your brain with a gentle, warm sponge.

Macmillan and Steinman’s organizational puzzle game has its roots in their relationship: their studio, Max Inferno, is named after a corner they used to meet at when they were first dating. The corner had a garage with a flame mural on it; hence the name. “It’s just a really sincere, sweet thing, but I just love how tough it sounds,” Macmillan says.

But before they thought of becoming game developers, they were art students. They met in school, where they signed up for a game jam together with the theme “out of control.” And A Little to the Left was born.

“We immediately thought of somebody who was coping with the feeling of being out of control by trying to have extreme control over minute details in their environment,” Macmillan says.

Steinman adds: “And it was something that we had noticed in our own behavior as well. It was relatively early on in the lockdown from the pandemic. And so we were stuck at home and we were dealing with our anxieties by reorganizing furniture and stuff and just being really aware of what was around us.”

We were dealing with our anxieties by reorganizing furniture and stuff and just being really aware of what was around us.

The prototype had around ten puzzles, but the two had no lack of inspiration. As they looked around their house, their yard, their environment, they began to see more and more possibilities, and started building out the game. While the puzzles began as fairly straightforward organizational tasks, as they added more, many of A Little to the Left’s puzzles became a bit…“unnaturally specific,” as Macmillan puts it. Things like sorting items in a drawer like paper clips and pencils into very precisely-shaped slots. Or turning picture frames so that diagonals in the photos are straight, instead of the frame itself. It’s a bit silly, but in the context of the game, quite clever.

And most of all, the whole game is just so satisfying.

“Everything has a place and I think that there's something inherently satisfying with that,” Steinman. “When we're coming up with the puzzles, there's kind of multiple avenues that we take to be able to get to the puzzle, to craft the puzzle mechanics in the solution. And I think every time that we come up with a puzzle, we check it against…is this fun? Is this satisfying, is this interesting? Is it surprising? And it needs to check a lot of those boxes for us to keep it.”

In 2021, A Little to the Left featured in the Wholesome Direct showcase, and the overwhelming positive reception encouraged Macmillan and Steinman to quit their day jobs and form Max Inferno.

“It was a huge, life-changing event to be in that showcase and to have such positive reinforcement,” Macmillan says. “I don't think we realized that there was such an audience for this game. And it was really exciting because we just want to work making things together.”

Max Inferno itself is just the two of them. Macmillan works on art and animation, while Steinman handles the bulk of the programming, and the two have contracted others for support on other elements, such as music.

…okay, there’s actually a third member. Rookie the cat. Who, per Steinman, “never shows up to the meetings.” He does, however, inspire little moments of chaos in A Little to the Left, where a clever little cat paw or tail shows up to demolish whatever you’ve just organized.

“The cat kind of tells you to take it easy, let go of the control,” Steinman says. “And in some cases you can do something about the cat, but in other cases the cat kind of imposes itself and you have to be like, ‘Okay, well that's life. We’ve got to keep moving ahead.’”

A Little to the Left was Macmillan and Steinman’s first commercial foray into game development, which meant that a lot of the process was new to them. Specifically, they tell me they didn’t always know how long it would take to accomplish things, and it was difficult to avoid scope creep with how many ideas they had for puzzles. Steinman adds that balancing marketing and production needs was also tricky as a first-time developer.

“We want to be able to tell everybody about the game, but it takes a lot of effort, focused effort,” he says. “And so to balance that with just the two of us also handling the production, that's been an interesting challenge. And then there's also just a lot of aspects to the business side that from the outside you don't really know about until you're in it. There are a lot of layers to game development.”

A Little to the Left Screens

While many small puzzle games with similar vibes are very much one-and-done efforts in terms of release, A Little to the Left has the potential to stick around for a while. It includes a “daily tidy” puzzle that is procedurally generated, unique to each player, and changes daily, so there’s an incentive to return. And Steinman says he hopes to keep adding content, such as special events or holiday related puzzles.

For now, though, A Little to the Left is out in the world, and the two say they just feel accomplished to have finished a game together and released it. When we spoke, they didn’t have any specific plans for future games or what might be next. They just want people to enjoy tidying up, and maybe even feel inspired to follow a path similar to the one they took with Max Inferno.

“The fact that [A Little to the Left] is so mundane, it's not something that you see explored that often in video games,” Steinman says. “Often video games tend to be very spectacular, and so if anybody's inspired to want to make a game about their everyday life, I think that that would be a success in my mind.”

Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.

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