Vision: FRACT OSC

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Format: Windows/Mac, Steam, Humble Store, GOG,

Developer: Phosfiend Systems

Of the numerous attempts to make the film Tron interactive, few have deviated from an action experience. Content mined from the movie; the light cycles, recognizers and the solar sailers are an obvious fit for a traditional game. But for a location that is so ripe for exploring, it is a wonder that we are ushered so quickly into battle on the grid.

Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Rez also assimilates a computer generated world. But again, astonishing as that game is; we are pushed through levels like a virtual tourist; penetrating firewalls in visceral furore. Rez may send us to synaesthesia but perhaps at the expense of recalling what happened along the way.

tron       rez

What is apparent when you first enter FRACT OSC is that the incandescent aesthetics are inspired by the above. Effulgent light boxes draw you in like a moth, but here they can actually be enjoyed at your own pace. Pools of liquid energy hum and lustrous machinery sits beneath glowing towers. They would not be misplaced in the Metroid Prime universe; on a sonically procedural planet. Surprisingly Fract is also reminiscent of Dear Esther, not in theme but in its sense of place, its verisimilitude and its effort to convey singularity with the surroundings.

You begin your journey without understanding what is required of you; FRACT does not hand-hold but is more effective because of it. Perseverance does pay off and the reward is mesmeric; you learn that the entire world is built from modulations.

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The terrain is amalgamated with a giant synthesizer that the user not only traverses but interacts with and uses to compose an overarching soundtrack. Each part of the composition is isolated inside a puzzle and their completion not only unlocks other areas but also adds a phonic layer to the melody.

Phosfiend gives a nod to Myst through these enigmas but they are a lot more organic than its inspiration. You never feel funnelled into a pattern of puzzle upon puzzle, the world is interconnected with audio and visual cues, stimulating as you explore. Even when a problem does block progression the challenge is conducive to experimentation; incorrect guesses are washed away in what feels like a natural creative process.

You become immersed in metrically accented beats and spectral envelopes, elevator platforms literally rise with tonal pitches, and all of this is built with textures of sound. The whole world feels like Boards of Canada remixing John Carpenter and Vangelis soundtracks. The difference is that you control their amplitude planes and time signatures. Using these techniques is all the incentive needed to push forward, especially as these small actions build a much bigger composition.

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In a stroke of genius Phosfiend have also included a separate music editor. Unconsciously, you would have already become adept at using it; just by playing through the main part of the game. The combined puzzles you solve are the bones of the editor.
Despite all of FRACT’s references, it is not a product of them. You cannot explore the code of Tron or Rez like this, there isn’t a phonic planet for Samus Aran to chart and Myst: Neon edition has yet to be released.
FRACT is something unique but it is hard to quantify; it is like a phonic art creation tool but also a music generator and then there is the exploration, the platforming and the puzzles elements.

Sometimes when we cannot articulate or convey what we experience it becomes the highest form of praise. We stumble upon the neoteric in the unknown and the aberrant, even originality and innovation are based in the unconventional. This is very much genre-less work which needs time to be contemplated and discussed.
What I do know is that Phosfiend have created something that I never knew I wanted. But now I have experienced it I need more of it.

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Buy FRACT here

Buy the soundtrack by Mogi Grumbles here

Connect with Phosfiend: Twitter, Facebook, Website

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Prevision: Among the sleep

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In Hamar Norway, Krillbite studio quietly works on evolving the first person space. Among the sleep is a unique vision that ventures into the hallucinatory depths of the imagination. Touching on Achluophobia (fear of the dark) and hinting at Automatonophobia (fear of anything that falsely represents a sentient being) Krillbite wants to bring you to your hands and knees. Literally; because Among the sleep is entirely viewed through the eyes of a two-year old child; from the struggles of scaling household obstacles to the manifestations of childhood fears.

Adrian Tingstad Husby vehemently discusses why it is important to challenge conventions. He and the team at Krillbite stand poised to offer something we genuinely have not experienced before.

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Among the sleep delivers a great hypothesis especially next to traditional First person experiences. How are you approaching user interaction, will the environment generate emotional content similar to what Dear Esther did?

The environment will definitely follow the surreal nature of dreams and imagination, constantly mixing the real world with mental elements. But our interaction is more similar to Amnesia for example rather than Dear Esther, because we want people to interact with the environment not only analytically, but also very physically – with actions like push, pull, climbing, open and closing doors and drawers. We really want to get players immersed and feel part of the world, so we are working hard at optimizing all these mechanics so they don’t break immersion.

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How will the child’s perception manifest into something unsettling? Will it be through the unseen or through everyday objects that exhibit sinister nuances?

A combination of both! You will definitely encounter familiar objects that take an unsettling form, as well as creatures and environments where the imagination has twisted it into something completely unrecognizable. Some things will be clearly visible, and others might depend on you to fill in some gaps.

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Everyone has these ambiguous memories of being scared when they were a child, but are any of the team parents? As a father I had this paternalistic feeling when I watched the gameplay trailer.

Unfortunately, no one on the team has their own children yet, so our firsthand experience is mainly with our nieces and nephews. But we are consulting people with both academic and practical competence on the field of young children’s development and psychology, which we hope will provide some valuable insight into these topics. I guess the paternalistic feeling is inevitable in many cases, but we hope most players will be able to fully immerse themselves and think “I should avoid this danger” as opposed to “I should help the child to avoid this danger”.

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How significant is the teddy bear as a gameplay element or is it more of a companion?

Teddy will have a significant role as a story-driving companion, mostly hanging on your back and occasionally talking. But at times he will also factor into the gameplay to a certain degree. We are still playing around with these elements though, so we don’t want to be too specific on this point yet.

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Please talk about your design philosophy. Why is this medium important to you and why are you exploring ideas unfamiliar to the conversant?

I’ll speak for me personally, but I think most of this reflects the rest of the team as well.

We all grew up glorifying the entertainment video games provided, and over the years it became an important and really substantial part of our childhood and personality. If we ask our parents about their childhood they light up, and I think it might be hard for many to imagine us having the same feelings towards video games. Strangely though, because I find it the most interesting form of communication ever devised by humans. Action is our basis, and the interactive nature of video games really has the potential to reflect the human mind. In other words, if I think I have something important to say, if I want to drive a change in attitude, if I want to inspire and engage, and in the end (at the risk of sounding pompous) if I want to change the world – games is an important and effective place to be!

Unfortunately, a lot is sacrificed on the altar of the industry mindset. Future civilisations will analyse our culture to decipher what we were thinking about, what was important to us, and what problems we faced – what will they find? 600 versions of Medal of Dutyfield and Angry’ville?

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I think it is easy to rebuke mainstream developers for their lack of innovation. Do you feel that maybe it is the consumers who should have a responsibility to support iconoclastic ideas, after all, isn’t the mainstream just supplying consumer demands? How can we enlighten them?

I think this is kind of a “chicken and the egg” problem. The responsibility comes with power, and it’s debatable who’s got the most power in a consumer/business relationship. If consumers organized in groups with a potential for substantial impact, we could absolutely be able to change a few things. We’ve seen a number of fascinating examples of this recently, especially regarding the symbiosis of social networks and financial alternatives like Kickstarter. But big business possesses great power as well, and should not be able to cynically disclaim all responsibility without resistance. The people screaming the loudest while milking their annual cash-ins will probably continue to reach their market. But as long as the diversity of games continue to grow I’m satisfied, and we are already starting to see signs of the indie scene influencing the direction of the mainstream.

The team at Krillbite are passionate about creating for the advancement of the medium. Please follow their blog to see how they intend to do it.

For further insight into Among the sleep view some of the early concept images

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Visionary: Dan Pinchbeck (Dear Esther)

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Epistolary first person adventure; Dear Esther has surpassed the 100’000 sales mark and has been a huge success. I asked creator Dan Pinchbeck about his future projects; the wildly ambitious Everybody’s gone to the rapture and Amnesia: a machine for pigs, a collaboration with Frictional games to produce their next asphyxiating horror.

Dear Esther has clearly proved that it is commercially viable to create something neoteric in an over saturated genre, especially one that typically has a gun on the screen. Was there anything in Esther you wanted to explore further or has your vision been fully realised?

I think you always have things you want to do, but they are not always suitable for a particular game, and you have to draw a line. So for me, Esther is finished- everything that needed to be there to make it work got in, and I wouldn’t add anything else (originally, Rob had added in some more traditional gameplay but they got removed again as he figured it diluted the experience too much). But you get a load of new ideas about the next game whilst you are finishing one off, so there’s quite a bit of new things going into Rapture, many of which were inspired by ideas from Esther – things that wouldn’t work in that context, but were clearly good avenues to explore.

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Something I found really intriguing was temperature fluctuations in Esther, both visually and phonically. The tones of Nigel Carrington’s voice provides a type of warmth in response to the cold landscape. The soundtrack also shifts between callous and friendly depending on your location and its temperateness. Was this deliberate in order to make the audio and landscape coalesce into one?

I guess, although it’s often much more of an instinctive thing than that, particularly if you are working as a team. You always try and create a journey that has arcs, and diversity to it, and so inevitably, you are looking at how you fuse all the aspects of the production to both enable that, and enable the elements to play off against each other. I think that both Jessica’s music and Nigel’s voice-over add a great deal of warmth to the experience, certainly a very human emotional depth, which contrasts to the often stark beauty of the environment. The island is captivating in it’s desolation, the voice personalises this loneliness and the music gives it this flow. So yeah, deliberate, but very instinctive. You tend to not say things like “this area needs more warmth” or “should be more callous” but you kind of talk in slightly more abstract terms about those things.

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Everybody’s gone to the Rapture is the spiritual successor to Dear Esther, which is based around six characters in the moment of an apocalypse. Will these characters be explored through dialogue or through the narrative of the landscape and will they meet each other?

All of the above, and can’t say right now about the last! We’re keeping that sense of holistic storytelling from Esther- it’s what games do really well, but one of the differences is that these are distinct, separate characters – you really believe and invest in them as people, and they have individualised relationships with the landscape and the player. And maybe each other. That’d be telling.

You are trying to engage the user in an open world setting with no control of what the user will do. Will you be employing an adaptive soundtrack, similar to what Ed Key has been experimenting with in Proteus, and how will you lead us to explore?

Yeah, not generative, but responsive, a multi-layered composition that has a great deal of control over the interpretation of the dramatic experience. It’s a huge challenge, as we’re looking at a soundtrack that is as deep and cinematic as Esther, avoiding being more abstract, keeping it quite narrative and focused in tone. That’s really, really hard to do – we’re lucky to have such a great composer with Jessica. As for exploration, it’s always a big challenge working signposting in an openworld. It’s involved a lot of testing, a lot of trials, making sure there’s always a visual point of interesting, an event, something leading you or rewarding you wherever you go and whatever you do. That’s often just a case of pushing through it, trying a lot of things out, tweaking and polishing. Unglamorous donkey work really.

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You are also creating a follow-up to Amnesia (Amnesia: a machine for pigs). What are the lessons you have learnt from Korsakovia and the Conscientious objector that you are applying to this new entry?

Well, I think the key thing we got from Korsakovia is that the unknown is far, far scarier than anything else. So not falling into the trap of telling the player too much, trusting their ability to cope with abstraction, ambiguity, confusion. And in a similar way to Esther, that often the most frightening levels are those where you are waiting for something to happen, and stringing that sense along for as long as possible. That’s an old trick really, but it works super-well, and where Korsakovia failed was not following that rule enough. But the visceral, strange, confused sense of story in Korsakovia is something we’ll certainly mine for ideas. Conscientious Objector is a different one really, for me, it’s a really funny, not scary as such. But the sense of powerlessness of the player made it pretty frightening for lots of people, and that’s a direct fit with the type of gameplay ideas that are classic Amnesia.

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Amnesia had such a brooding, suppressive feel to it. How are you delivering that atmosphere yet creating a unique experience for people who have played the original?

That’s a really hard question to answer. Again, it’s a lot of donkey work, just refining and testing. We’re definitely bringing our own stamp to it, but I can’t really talk too much about that without giving too much away.

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You ask a lot of questions, of your-self and of your audience. Do you think it is important that consumers keep their minds open to new ideas? At times it feels like we are in a perpetual groundhog day of people buying and playing the same things.

I actually think it’s a pretty exciting time. Quite niche, different games are doing really well at the moment – like Journey, Esther, Proteus, and you also have things like Antichamber coming, a new Tale of Tales game… there’s a lot of experimentation and a real hunger for it, so there’s definitely a fair bit more going on than is often talked about. And I’m a complete AAA junkie. I love the groundhog day in many ways, I like the experiences I get from AAA titles. It’s not a problem for me. I’m playing Mass Effect 3 and Prototype 2 at the moment and loving them both. Games so often get accused of being derivative, but seriously, turn on your TV, go to a cinema, open a book, listen to an album. The overwhelming majority of any media form is a variation on an established theme. It’s OK. We don’t need to panic about that. But an open-mind in any situation is a good thing, or you are going to miss out on cool stuff and have a boring life.

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Because of the history within first person perspectives, it is easy to forget that it is simply a viewpoint of a space. Do you think consumers sometimes have expectancies of what should be put into these spaces and what they should do in them?

Sure, although I think it’s important to respect the fact that FPS games have been honing a design template for over twenty years (well, the first FPS was in the 1970s, but let’s stick with Wolfenstein and Doom). There’s a very particular experience about first-person, the way it pitches you into the action, into the world. It’s very very good for certain types of experiences- visceral, emotional, tense, filled with sudden moments and spectacle, and although that derives from the viewpoint, it’s also a way of maximising what it gives you. So FPS games are not so good at platforming (Korsakovia is a case in point) which leads to a certain type of play, of approach to play, which helps define the kinds of experiences, worlds, etc, you have, and that’s something to remember. And it’s also fundamentally about simplifying an environment in the classic design template, and shooting is the simplest, most rewarding way of doing this. The act of exploring, shooting from a first-person perspectives has such resonance because it’s phenomenally powerful and effective. So it’s not wonder there are expectations around that. Most of the deviations from that pattern have been less effective.

Who else is examining the fabric of videogames and what was the last game that generated something you had never experienced before?

Wow. Ummm. Lots of people, I don’t know if I could begin to answer that. There are obvious more radical studios – Tale of tales, Stout games, Ed Key, Die Gute fabrik, Ice pick lodge, Bennett foddy. Too many to mention. I’m not sure about the last part of that question. I don’t go looking for new for new’s sake. I’m much more drawn to games which deliver a great experience, even if it’s a variation on an experience I’ve had many times before. Mass Effect 3 is a brilliantly crafted game where I care about the characters, I’m drawn to the world, I’m hooked on the leveling up and I love the action. That’s plenty for me. I’m happy with that. It doesn’t have to be radical or innovative or even inventive to be worthwhile and enjoyable for me. I loved Rage.