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: Tengami (ipad)

*Unreleased Concept art

If you have not yet travelled to Tokyo and experienced the burgeoning metropolis, amidst the neon paradoxes and glass architecture are pockets of sobriety; manicured gardens and shrines. They serve as the antithesis to the accelerated pace of the city. These restorative Eden’s are to reflect and slow down, to ponder the relentless influx of sensorial information. Tengami feels like the iPad equivalent of these gardens, the repulsion against the attention deficit apps we hysterically swipe our fingers through.

Envisioned by Phil Tossell and Jennifer Schneidereit, their UK-based company Nyamyam was actualized on the virtues of quality and attention to detail, cultivated from time at the former Nintendo devotee; Rare.

For their first foray as independents they have positioned themselves as paper engineers armed with delicate precision. Tengami is a movable book inspired by Phil and Jennifer’s Japanese excursions, manifested through a shifting visual surface replete with pull-tabs and pop-outs. The fastidious qualities of Japanese paper (washi) are felt with every opened fold and provoke the same carefulness needed for the tangible form. Esteemed recently as an indiecade finalist and as part of the official selection of Sense of wonder night, Tengami’s liquid sandpaper aesthetics are captivating all who touch them.

What perhaps isnt evident in the game is the subtleties of the creator’s dispositions. There is a kindness to this work, fused with carefulness and restraint, Nyamyam want you to be affected by their sources of inspiration; to get inside of the Japanese folklore, the trees and the water, for you to feel what they have felt. If anything, Tengami is a reflection of Jennifer and Phil and their generosity towards their audience. I have had first hand experience with this through a private meeting at TGS and now with the amiable donation of exclusive concept art (which has not seen light outside of the company). Tengami is not about clamouring for the most in-app purchases or cashing in on a 5 minute hook. It is a gift for the user to be alone with themselves to contemplate their surroundings, Nyamyam’s greatest talent so far is to capture benevolence and give it to the world.

Phil was kind enough to discuss some of the intricacies of the development process:

*Unreleased concept art

Please introduce Nyamyam’s philosophy; what do you want to achieve in the industry and what do you think needs changing?

I think there’s two parts to answering this question: what we want Nyamyam to stand for as a company and what we want Nyamyam’s games to achieve.

Whenever I hear the word ‘industry’ applied to games I instinctively recoil. I think this is because the word ‘industry’ conjures up in my mind vivid images of William Blake’s dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution. Days when factory workers were coerced into working inhumanely long hours, all in the name of progress, when of course what they were really doing was making other people very wealthy. And in some respects from what I’ve experienced in my latter years of mainstream development it really feels like not all that much has changed. You may as well substitute ‘game studio’ for ‘mill’. And so in many respects, Nyamyam was born out of our response to this overbearing, stifling and exploitative environment. We wanted Nyamyam to be more of a creative collective than a traditional company, a place where like-minded people can come together around projects that excite them, but without necessarily supplying a long-term commitment. For example, perhaps someone finds Tengami exciting, but what we do after that they don’t. It makes no sense to me to tie people into companies. Parenthetically, I think the way modern companies are setup and run is anachronistic and an unfortunate hangover from the early days of industry, and I really think it needs to change, particularly in the creative space. But I think most of all we wanted a place where everyone is treated and rewarded equally according to the amount of work they contribute to the games.

In terms of what we do, Nyamyam has a simple ideal that we strive for. That ideal is to create beautifully crafted games that express our individuality as creators, whilst also touching people’s lives in a thought-provoking and considered way. These ideas of individuality and provoking thought are central to why I make games. The conventional view in much of modern game development is that people can be commoditized and made to fit in convenient boxes, mostly so that marketing and business people can decide how we make things that will make these groups of people part with their hard-earned cash. But I refuse to see people that way. I believe people are wonderfully intelligent, complex, emotional and utterly contradictory, and so any attempt to fit people in boxes always fails because people are so complex. It’s these inherently human qualities that we want to appeal to with the games we make. Tengami is essentially us saying: “here, these are influences that have profoundly impacted our lives, we find them amazing and wonderful, and we hope that you do too”.

As Tengami is a self-funded project how much creative freedom do you retain amidst the pressure of needing commercial success, was external backing ever a consideration?

Creative freedom was one of the primary reasons that we chose to start Nyamyam in the first place. It is my firm belief that you can’t have creative freedom without financial freedom and it’s naive to expect that you can. So we were adamant from the beginning that we were going to do this fully on our own terms and take the financial risks ourselves. I think that those people who desire creative freedom, but expect someone else to pay for it are being naive at best, and charlatans at worst. If you do not believe in your own vision enough to put at least some of your own money behind it then I would suggest that it might be better to do something else instead.

Of course, this creates an element of pressure, knowing the clock is ticking and the money is running down, but I think this also helps you maintain a focus on what you are really trying to achieve. It’s important to us only that we make enough money to continue doing what we want to do, beyond that money and financial success is of no concern.

The construction of Tengami originated by learning how to make Pop up structures. Are there ideas that you have or want to include that aren’t physically possible to reproduce in paper form?

Paper is a frustratingly hard material to model using computers. It has so many interesting properties; you can tear it, cut it, fold it and curl it, to name but a few. So in part choosing pop-up was a slightly pragmatic approach since pop-up books are typically constructed from very sturdy card that doesn’t fold or bend easily. This is out of necessity owing to the mechanical requirements in pop-up construction. In the initial ideas phase when we were considering paper more generally we did look at these other properties of paper, but decided that they were mostly incompatible with pop-up books.

There are times when we construct a pop-up where it wouldn’t be strictly possible with real paper. Mostly due to the fact that the real paper wouldn’t be sufficiently strong to pull up another part of the pop-up. We model the pop-ups using a purely analytical mathematical solution. There is no physical simulation involved which means that the computer has no concept of the forces necessary to make a pop-up open and whether these would actually work in reality. But we do try to keep the pop-ups as authentic as we possibly can so that you would be able to re-create them in real life if you wanted to.

Whilst studying paper mechanics did you just settle on transformations or have you incorporated volvelles and tunnel book techniques as well?

I hadn’t actually heard of volvelles until you mentioned them, so I had to go and look it up! Volvelles and tunnel book techniques are certainly possible within the framework of more traditional pop-up books, and I think we have plans to incorporate more rotational elements like volvelles later in the game.

Overall though, we wanted to go for a ‘pure’ approach to pop-up books. Pop-up books in their simplest form only support a few key elements and we chose to do this with Tengami as well. We felt that this was in keeping with the overall philosophy of minimalism that the game has.

Has there been experimentation with the destructive qualities of paper as a gameplay element; tearing or cutting for example?

Early on in development, before we had settled on a final direction, we considered all the various qualities that paper has, and this included cutting, tearing and burning. During the process of refinement we kept removing more and more concepts to make the game simpler and more focused, and we ended up with only three primary mechanics: movement, pop-ups and pull-strips. We felt that fully exploring these was more than sufficient to make a compelling game.

With Tengami, we very much adopt a reductionist design approach, with all of the design, the art and the music. Often when you’re making something, the most difficult part is cutting things out. You end up with so many great ideas and you really want to show them all to the player, but its folly to do this. It’s better to keep cutting and cutting until you are left with the absolute minimum possible to make the game out of. Then, if you need more you can add them back in, but it’s rarely the case that you do need more. It was also important to us that all aspects of the game lined up, that the art complements the gameplay and vice versa.

How important is narrative? Tengami would be effective as a contemplative experience without a story.

The term narrative is a remarkably complex one and replete with many different subtly varying meanings. Recently I’ve been reading a book “Narrative and Consciousness” that brings together many different ideas about the importance of narrative to our sense of self. And in reading that it’s greatly expanded my ideas around what narrative is and how powerful it can be. In essence narrative is simply a logical sequence of temporal events that have importance and meaning to us either as individuals or collectively. I think so far that most games have tried to co-opt the explicit narrative approach of films, where the player is regarded as a viewer rather than a participant in the unfolding drama. Whereas I think we should be taking a more experiential approach like music or dance. For example, conventional wisdom says that music doesn’t really have a narrative, but rather the narrative derives from the listener’s own interpretation. The listener creates the narrative, and this approach seems to me eminently more suitable to games. Games are played, they are experienced, and the narrative is derived by the player through that experience. My favourite game of recent times, Limbo, does this extremely well; there is no story to speak of, only the events that happen to you whilst playing the game. And yet in my mind I have a very strong narrative associated with the game through a combination of the images, music and things that I did whilst playing it. With Tengami we try to take this experiential approach to narrative. There is no explicit story, only impressions from which the player can construct their own narrative.

How will the touch mechanics be incorporated in the PC and Mac versions? Have you thought about exploring a Wii u version, the game pad and the TV screen could make some interesting possibilities?

When we began pulling together the ideas that would become Tengami, we had decided from the outset that we wanted to make a game for touch and specifically for the iPad. This decision is what led to incorporating pop-up in the first place.

For some while we were adamant that the game would only work on touch devices and that we wouldn’t consider releasing it on other platforms. But it became clear after a while that there were a considerable number of people who didn’t have an iPad who were excited about experiencing Tengami. As a creator I want as many people as possible to be able to enjoy what I am creating and so we decided to look into the feasibility of making a desktop version. I think that the final game will still be best played on a touch device because of the tactility that it provides.

The intention with the desktop versions is that the mouse will replace the finger. The mouse already has strong corresponding analogies for the actions used in Tengami, so it should be a fairly straightforward transition. For example double tap can be replaced with a click and swiping can be replaced by dragging. Of course we need to validate these assumptions by actually testing them in the game.

It’s interesting that you ask about a Wii U version. Only last week we had a conversation with Nintendo about the opportunities available for bringing Tengami to the Wii U. The Wii U would definitely be a good fit for what we’re doing, so although we’ve not given any extensive thought to it yet, we are definitely considering it.

*Early concept render

Which design traits learned at Rare have been embellished at Nyamyam?

I think in many respects the design approach to Tengami is almost a counter reaction to the design approach that I saw at Rare. I very much like to reduce and simplify, whereas much of the design at Rare involved adding, often to the detriment of the final game. I considered much of the design at Rare to be too obvious, too much geared towards treating people as children rather than adults. This is not meant to be a criticism per se, since the games we were making were targeted at a younger audience. It’s just that these are not the kind of experiences that I want to make now.

What I did learn at Rare was how to make games, and more importantly how to make exceptionally high quality games. There was an extraordinary craftsmanship to the games that Rare made that very few games studios, even to this day, can replicate.

We discussed that you don’t really play that many video games anymore. Is that because they feel like work or more because of what the industry currently offers?

When you consider the short amount of time that we have available to us in life, I think it’s important that we make best use of the time given to us. This was really brought home to me a few years ago when my mum passed away suddenly from cancer. It made me think long and hard about what I should do with the time given to me. And so I feel that for me to want to dedicate the time to play a game, it has to be something exceptional, which will leave a lasting impression on me. There are so many other wonderful things to experience outside of games: art, architecture, literature, travel. So games have a tough set of competition for my attention. These days I get a lot of inspiration from art and architecture.

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.