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Downpour is a new app that turns your photos into games



In the past, when Lunar New Year rolled around, I would occasionally make a rude bingo card to ease the generational friction created by many disparate relatives suddenly spending too much time together. I didn’t share the bingo cards with everyone, but they were a small, silly way to let off steam and commiserate with like-minded victims enduring hours-long reunion dinners and polite family visits with very difficult people. This year, I was armed with something far superior: I made a (fictional) choose-your-own-adventure game in Downpour called Dragon Me To Hell that involved communing with my grandmother’s late dog, possibly committing a small crime, and escaping to our freedom.

Downpour is a new app that lets you stitch together pictures on your phone to create simple interactive games with no programming or game design experience whatsoever. It’s the brainchild of V Buckenham, an indie game veteran known for creating the Cheap Bots, Done Quick! tool that gave us nearly a decade of fantastically creative art bots (until Twitter revoked large-scale API access in 2023). And with the touch of a button, you can share that game online. 

Right now, Downpour games are bare-bones — only photos, no movies or GIFs — and delightfully quick to put together. As with Cheap Bots, Buckenham is taking a “cost more to build, but cost less to run” approach. When it launches on March 6th, Downpour will be free on iOS and Android with a small $4.99 / month subscription tier for extra features. (The aim is for these subscriptions to fully fund the app.) “I want this to be a thing that people can use and that sticks around, and it feels like there’s a better chance of that happening if it’s just me,” they say. 

“I want this to be a thing that people can use and that sticks around”

I decided that my second effort would be a tour of Lunar New Year goodies, many of which are unique to Southeast Asia. I spent time during family visits taking pictures and putting together a mini-review gallery; this took around 30-ish minutes of dragging and dropping photos, typing blurbs, and linking pages together via interactive boxes. (You may find, for instance, that the “prosperity box” in my food tour has a hidden clickable spot.) As a quasi-luddite, all of this feels like the closest I’ll ever come to making anything more involved than a basic Instagram post. As the day went on, I added more treats to my snack gallery; even now, I’m brimming with ideas for more food-related experiments, perhaps ones that can offer a glimpse into my corner of the world.

Downpour isn’t just about making and sharing a game but also offers a new way to explore and engage with your own ideas. For one thing, there’s no algorithm to recommend games — so far, it seems that Downpour really shines as a place for works in progress where creators can add new surprises on the fly or use it as an interactive journal to expand on existing ideas. “I do pottery, so I often use it as a kind of notebook when I go in,” explains Buckenham. “I’m adding to it over time, like a selfie diary.” As a result, the “feed,” or landing page, is just the latest thing someone has posted, which really helps if you like to use Downpour as a reference tool. 

The immediate need to share my Lunar New Year game with others, though, was powerful. It is easy to see that Downpour has the potential to become a formidable niche for a new form of spontaneous, interactive social media art that can be done in minutes. As such, Buckenham has had to add moderation features to the project since they’re doing everything solo. “It’s a lot of thinking about it as a social network, and trying to prepare for that, so if it does take off, then it’s not going to be completely flooded with terrible things immediately,” they say.

One issue I had while making Dragon Me To Hell was that my searches for fair use dragon images returned an overwhelming amount of anemic AI-generated art. The idea, of course, is for you to use your own art and photos on Downpour, but that’s asking a lot from a one-click culture weaned on instant reaction pics. I ask Buckenham if they’re worried about Downpour becoming overrun with AI art. “I feel a little bit conflicted about it,” they say, acknowledging that it’s difficult to have productive conversations about generative art without attracting art bot jockeys who conflate prompts with skill. “I don’t know how much of a live issue it’s going to be, but I don’t want to have any blanket bans against it,” they add. “There are people who genuinely enjoy doing that, and I don’t want to take that away from them, but at the same time I’m not really keen on it myself.”

“It’s a lot of thinking about it as a social network, and trying to prepare for that”

In previous interviews, Buckenham has cited inspiration from Flatgames, a genre of simple 2D games informed by DIY zine culture. It’s clear to see the common threads between Downpour and Flatgames, though the latter also involves simple movement controls and a single track of sound (usually field recordings or ambient noise). I ask Buckenham if they’d like to introduce sound to Downpour in the future, to which they give a resounding yes, with the caveat that adding audio often comes with a whole new world of potential licensing problems. For now, though, the most exciting thing about Downpour is that you can make an interactive story without any special effort or training and share it with the push of a button.  

In some ways, working on my two little projects conjured the same vibe I get from the slow food movement — highly localized experiences that require just a little more time and thought than the average social media post. It’s that tiny extra bit of interactivity, the simple act of choosing to click through, that makes all the difference. And for the first time in years, I feel like I want to make art again. “Some of the best feedback from beta testers is actually people who are like ‘I downloaded and played with this, and it’s really exciting, and then I went off and made a load of art, intending to put it into a Downpour game, and it really revitalized my relationship with art,’” says Buckenham. 

Downpour is also, quite consciously, a tool made with accessibility, approachability, and versatility in mind. “It feels important to me that you can download [your games],” says Buckenham, who wrote a tutorial on how to put Downpour games on Neocities webpages; they plan to do a guide for how to put the games on Itch.io, too. Buckenham is also active on Cohost, where it is possible to use iframes (or in Cohost parlance, chiframes) to embed a Downpour game in an HTML post.

“I’ve deliberately not added that many features to [Downpour], because if I can get it launched and it has this base functionality… and it’s easy to use… then people will be excited for new features that can get added,” they laugh. “Right now, my mindset is really looking forward to launching it, so I can get back to developing it.”

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