Prevision: Memory of a broken dimension (PC/Mac)

What was the last videogame that left you completely immobilized, when you stood before something incomparable, that defied categorisation? Questioning not only what was happening visually but how you felt within the atmosphere it generated? The type of sensation that is usually reserved for something unprecedented; like those key revelations that chart the advancement of the videogame.

The summation of my writing has been to ask a simple question; is the videogame still evolving? I search for that answer without equivocation, Ezra Hanson-White of datatragedy has responded to that question and his answer has hit me like a brick.

Originality and innovation are two of the most abused words used in the gaming press, permeating fickle scores and hollow reviews, I would like to use those terms with the sincerity they deserve. This is what originality looks like and how innovation feels, this is Memory of a broken dimension.

Part of the official selection of SOWN (the Tokyo game show’s Sense of wonder night). MOABD’s theme and content, surprisingly, has originated from real world elements. This may seem implausible unless your vocabulary consists of; Hyperspectral imaging, or erudite ramblings of the heliosphere and solar radiation bursts. The images here depict oceans of static transmissions, of information broadcasts and the mining of data, data inspired by NASA’s interplanetary footage amongst others.

Ezra has created a first person tool that allows you to tune into broadcasts, radio signals that need exact synchronisation to capture images. These images forge a landscape which you traverse and explore. The slightest directional movement fragments the similes and you are constantly re-evaluating where you are. The sensation is like having infinite epiphanies; not understanding anything around you but for fractions of seconds; everything solidifies and becomes clear. Tuning in TV channels seems appropriate, but imagine walking inside of them as you are doing it. The feelings this generates are often antonyms of one another; shades of claustrophobic openness or relaxed intimidation. Most of the time I did not know what I was viewing but what I recognised, or thought I recognised was all the compulsion needed to see more. Videogame history has a lot of diverse experiences, but I have never seen anything like this. It is fitting that MOABD was featured at a Sense of wonder because that is exactly what this is; a sense of wonder.

Ezra divulges some more information on this already exceptional work in progress.

Your vision is about radio propagation and hacking into satellites to view data signals.
How did this idea materialize?

Its been a slow process, the first bits of inspiration were from experiments with 3D modeling tools, shattering primitives and mapping textures to the camera’s viewpoint. A couple of years ago I started writing design thoughts down in my sketchbook, up until then I had no habit of doing so, over time I began noticing how different fragments of ideas actually tied together with prior ones. That led to the concept coming together as well as discovering how my creative process can work.

MOABD received astonished reactions at the Lunacade exhibition in Sydney. Some of the audience did not know what it was or what to do with it. I view this as a positive thing, we don’t hear that very often; videogames are often derivatives of familiar sources. Was the distinct aesthetics something you imagined or are they true to the source of satellite signals?

It’s cool to consider the aesthetics as being true to the source of satellite signals, thinking of how glitched out data can look when the methods of reading it are unknown, but overall the aesthetics are imagined. Some inspiration comes from the deterioration introduced while making copies of copies, like VHS tapes or types of compressed audio & video. Other things like NASA space footage interrupted by solar radiation bursts, buffering artifacts of late 90’s 160×120 RealPlayer streams at 5.3KBps, half-emulated features of systems.
I’m wanting to get the entrancing effect of watching a fire or waves crashing, fields of tall grass billowing in wind. I’m probably also chasing expressionism or even impressionist ideas, but I don’t think the visuals are there yet, experimental visuals are something I want to see more of in games and interactive media, maybe when Geometry Shaders are standard in all hardware?

Interaction generates a bizarre feeling of travelling immense distances but equipoise by not really moving. A Loss of signal makes the world disappear leaving only the wire frame grid around you. Does the world solidify as you tune into it or is it constantly unfastened?

Most of the world is fragmented and as the user synchronizes with it, becomes physically interactive. I’m playing with having certain rules where parts of the world break apart again when out of range (inspired a bit by WiFi signals). There’s also places that overlap in the same point of space with the user tuning between them. The level in the Lunarcade build is pretty claustrophobic, there will be wide expanses to balance the experience.

How are you going to explore narrative and what do you want to communicate? As the visual elements are so effective is there a danger of diluting the experience with more ‘game like’ elements?

Currently I’m approaching the narrative as a kind of alternate-reality device. The user is interacting as themselves, as they would at their computer. Running the game is fictionalized as running an emulator, the user is booting into an obscure operating system where a haunting PSX-era chime would seem fitting on startup. They scan directory structures for hidden files, exploring the software contained inside while unveiling its purpose. Then the emulator establishes phantom connections beyond the local network and strange things occur…

There isn’t a sense of cutscenes explaining narrative or the Player playing as a character, which is something I had planned on doing at first. I’m a huge FPS fan, ever since finding wolf3d.exe on a shareware disk in the mail, so it seemed natural to treat it entirely like an FPS- disembodied hands walking into the character’s living space, walk up and activate the computer…dive into screen… it probably would work fine but the thought of treating the game as an emulated system just stuck in my head. I like how it wraps up all the common game-stuff, menus and things, and makes them fit into the fiction.
The funny thing is, I added view bob, which helps make it feel even more organic and reactive…so who knows, maybe I will end up putting some disembodied hands in (Fotonica nailed awesome VR hands), maybe part of it ends up being a game in a game or a scientific virtual reality research tool…?

What developments have you made from the code you previewed at
Lunacade?

I’ve been busier with work recently so I haven’t gotten too many major developments, overall just making adjustments based on feedback and also working towards having a set of different interactions that I can structure levels around. The Lunarcade build didn’t include any form of a map system so that is another thing I started prototyping. Since I work on the project in spare time, development is either at one extreme or the other depending on what is happening, crazy accelerated binges or just slow & steady progress.

I am intrigued by a question you posed in the TIG forum: “What if you could access any range data transmission. What is out there that is being studied and not public knowledge? (+ a ton of fictional stuff). Could you elaborate on the relationship of the real world based elements mixed with the fictional?

I feel like I need to restrain myself from elaborating, it’s a mix of real world elements that I’m pulling from, random things you hear from science journals, about the heliosphere, clouds of galactic fluff, the cosmic background radiation, etc. Then the reality that a lot of stuff is transmitted in the electromagnetic spectrum almost invisibly to us, using various devices to observe specific ranges. Researchers use techniques like Hyperspectral Imaging to view into the earth and detect various minerals, similar techniques are probably being used to analyze material on the surface of Mars right now and observe behavior of the Sun.
I guess fascination with stuff like that started with radio when I was younger, that all these different stations can be accessed from a point in space from a small device.. In some ways microscopes had a similar effect, I’d take a sample of muddy water from off the street, drop it on a slide to track down and chase all sorts of weird objects swimming around. I never found out what the different things swimming around were, I didn’t care, all that mattered was that they were in a tiny drop of water pulled from a bigger puddle of water, what else was in the puddle that I hadn’t discovered?
That kind of captures where the question came from and what the fiction of the game floats around with, I’m hesitant of how thorough it will be explained in MOABD, overall I’d just like it to be a contemplative experience that doesn’t over-explain itself, the mystery and strangeness is important for the type of experience I’m creating.

You have expressed that you want the user to feel like they are using a tool. Is this a tool for general observation or will it be imbued with emotional content?

The introduction to computers and DOS had a sense of unknown that was new to me, you’d type in commands and not know what would happen, trial and error, digging around in directories and trying to get games to run with boot disks. The introduction of the internet made this all even more mystical, does the information superhighway exist on this AOL trial disc, what is this thing, a new type of CD-ROM dictionary? The weird sense that your computer is connected to the entire world, what? The internet is pretty common to many people now, and I’d like to create an experience that has a bit of that unfamiliar-technology mystique. So, much like the first time running minesweeper.

Phonically the vision sounds like you are inside an electrical storm, is this purely the sound of the apparatus or do you want the experience to be menacing?

A mix of both, I want the audio to enhance the impact of the visuals, so it is more on the imaginative side, I have no idea why the user can hear all this noise! So far I’ve been avoiding putting in common sounds that would be identifiable a lot of the effects come from FM synthesis which I really like for the digital sharpness it can have. The Lunarcade build was pretty menacing sounding, looking back at it I’d want to make parts of it more serene, I don’t want the experience to be too abrasive all the time and wear down the user.

The menu screen is a really effective introduction, it feels like pirate television. Have you experimented by exploring that as a gameplay element in itself?

Currently the command-prompt style menu ties everything together, the plan is hitting ESC at any time drops out to it, where various programs can be accessed. I’d like the user to have a sense of multi-tasking. Like you’re chilling in a neo-Houston control bunker watching the telemetry feeds and piloting a craft, all while your virtual shadow hangs submerged in the data streams and packet-loss exhaust extending from it…!
The user might have to delete files or rename things as a gameplay element, there is a lot that I want to explore, the map system for example is inspired by the concept of defragmenting drives.

What lessons have you learned from Protekor and PRΔY that you have applied to this project and what do you hope to explore in the future?

Protekor started from a prototype done for Experimentalgameplay.com Drawing theme in Dec 2010, it was the first project I took beyond prototype in Unity, I used it to learn a lot about Unity’s workflow. It turned into a fun exploration of what I consider classic arcade-style balancing, all the waves and difficulty ramping being algorithmic based on the Player’s performance. PRAY is still a super-early prototype, I’m looking forward to continuing with it at some point, it is also a project that I’d use to explore procedural generation in level design.
MOABD has a bit of a generative approach, mainly with the visuals and audio. The visuals are chaotically shifting and organic, different results occur for different players dependant on their position and changes to the environment. The audio behaves similarly, with aspects of it subtly modified by the Player’s mouse input velocity. There’s a chance I might introduce more generative or systemic design into the game, to me, that is one type of perfection in design to strive for. The game that you can keep coming back to that plays out differently each time but behaves under a known set of rules, I’m not sure if MOABD is the perfect fit for that, maybe the next project…

Early experimental footage.

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Vision: TRIP (PC/Mac)

If you could walk through the mind of an artist would you need distractions to validate that exploration?

Quests, stories and collectibles prompt our journeying and ultimately sustain our desire to ‘win’, but what if there were no pursuits or anecdotes and what if the feat of collecting didn’t return any tangible assets? The foundations of traditional games rely on the inputs of interactivity; jump, push, pull, hit etc. and there is a tendency to disdain visions that do not tick these boxes. But if the obstacle courses and challenges are removed, why would you need them? If we reduce interactivity to a minimum would we still label the work as a game?

TRIP is the projected mind of an artist named Axel Shokk, and it explodes through the screen in aesthetic delirium. The creativity Shokk has explicated on-screen is startling and officiously stands atypical next to other games. Riotous hues punctuate the senses with geometric spikes and impossible stellations, even blades of grass are composed of bar charts that sway gently in the wind. These visuals demand your attention by force feeding you colour and Shokk emphasises this through a pared down interface. Your sole interaction is movement in first person, there are no quests or challenges. You have to look at TRIP because that is all there is to accomplish, but more importantly, that is all you want to do.

LSD Dream emulator, Myst and Journey inspired to deconstruct the controls, leaving only the chromatics and audio to play with. “If it weren’t for them I wouldn’t have been bold enough to strip all gameplay mechanics, games like those pave the way for creative individuals to try new things. I’m just one of those guys trying out something new just for the sake of experimentation.”

There is a creative resonance here with the experimentation of early ZX Spectrum games; like the obtuse forms found in Jet Set Willy and Manic Miner. TRIP features familiar yet Ineffable characters with unique personalities. I question if a lot of this creativity has been lost in the pursuit of realism? “There was a creativity drought in the industry not too long ago, thanks to the recent explosion of indie gaming I see a lot more creative and fresh ideas being tested. These are very exciting times in the world of video games.”

Shokk has stated that Trip is more of an art piece to be observed rather than a game with traditional gameplay. But as developers such as Tale of Tales and The Chinese Room have proven; observation can be a powerful form of interaction, and isn’t the act of discovery a gameplay element in itself? “I strongly believe so, however the audience is still hung up on what constitutes a game. One of the reasons I created TRIP was to shake that ground and bring up the question, at what point can something be considered a game? I’m trying to open boundaries for other developers to get crazy without worrying about backlash, I feel games created in a ‘fuck it’ mentality speak most to me. I don’t think that these games will ever have a broad appeal, but I would rather make one person extremely satisfied than to mildly amuse a hundred.”

In a medium that does not have any real limitations it is hard to comprehend that imagination would not have a broad appeal. The landscape in TRIP inspires curiosity and exploration and there is a fervent desire to see what is around the next abstraction. From caverns and mountains to the brilliant sea of words, TRIP is a cohesive view of the familiar wrapped up in arbitrary geometries. There are sparse collectibles but Shokk states they serve no purpose, even though reaching them inadvertently offers a reward; a new view of the landscape.

If there is one thing missing it is the ability to see the whole of the terrain in its entirety, no matter how high you climb there is a desire to see more, the central mechanic of souvenir would serve the game well if only to accomplish this. Shokk had various ideas he wanted to incorporate to accomplish this; “I actually wanted several mechanics in TRIP like NPCs taking you places and showing you things, I was very limited by my complete lack of programming so I had to improvise. A lot. I’m slowly teaching myself programming so hopefully at some point I will be able to provide a much more interactive experience.”

This also expands into making TRIP open to user-generated content. “Oh how I’d love to, but I’m not sure how moddable Unity engine games are. If my dream of having a development team comes true I’ll definitely make the majority of my games open for user-generated content. I got into game development by making unreal maps and half-life mods.” As an incentive for a succesful kickstarter bid, Shock offered to create an area in-game under the backers specifications. It would be interesting to see various parts of other people’s minds amalgamated together.

The glue that binds this world together is the soundtrack, it is quite buoyant and upbeat but manages to deliver an ominous feeling over the abstract imagery. “My good friend Benjamin created the soundtrack, he suggested to create a melody that would be cohesive throughout the whole game. I told him to go for it, when he started the game world was kinda bare so I sketched up sound waves and gave him a list of key words that would inspire what each song would sound like. For example the city area I sent Ben images of sewers, metal, industrial areas, and gave him keywords like clanging, banging, clicking and to imagine an oppressive sound of steel and machinery.
When he showed me each track I was blown away at how well it fit the game world. He’s a real talented individual, and I’m not just saying that because I’m his friend!”

Critics have been trying to shoehorn TRIP into the appropriate mould and the difficulties with the term ‘game’ rears its head again; “The response has been mixed; thankfully most critics seem to praise the visuals. They find that TRIP works better as a piece of digital art than as a game.” I can’t help feeling that Digital art is misplaced, if only because traditional ‘game players’ might brush TRIP aside incredulously . We are familiar with all of the elements present here; the viewpoint, the type of landscape, spectrums of colour… so the only non-game like component is structured activity. As I said at the beginning, do we need distractions to validate exploration, TRIP is an opportunity to traverse the mind of an artist, does it need to be anything else?

What can we expect in the future From Axel Shokk? “My next project is Kat Attack, an action-oriented visual novel. I want it to be like an interactive motion-comic. It’s not nearly as experimental as TRIP is but I’ll be putting my storytelling and cartooning skills to the test, you’ll see a lot of my illustrative work in this comic which is something I’ve been meaning to show. Hopefully proving that the visual novel is a medium with a lot of potential.
Kat Attack takes place in a dystopian future as a space rock opera, centered around Kat – a space pirate wielding a guitar cannon which she also uses to surf through space with.
I will try to get this project kickstarted sometime August so keep an eye out!”

Check out Kat Attack’s development blog.