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Road to the IGF: Paralect

Gamasutra talks to the aptly-named Paralect Team about its Independent Games Festival-nominated Paralect, which is up for the Excellence in Narrative award.

Kris Graft, Contributor

March 6, 2014

9 Min Read

Culture shock, adaptation, transformation, and finding home -- these are the themes players explore in Paralect, which is up for the Excellence in Narrative award at this year's Independent Games Festival. Paralect comes from the aptly-named Paralect Team, made up of creative lead Loan Verneau, designer Bryan Edelman, narrative designer Avimaan Syam, and producer Andrea Benavides. As part of our ongoing Road to the IGF series, we talk to the team about their game development backgrounds and the inspiration behind their unique, narrative-driven game.

What is your background in making games?

Loan Verneau (Creative Lead): All of the team members were students when we started the game. Most are at the University of Southern California, but from many different schools: the Viterbi School of Engineering, the Roski School of Fine Art, the Thornton School of Music and of course, the School of Cinematic Arts (SCA). I do not remember when I started making games, but my parents tell me that I decided I would make games as a living when I was 12 years old. When the Interactive Media Division was created at USC, I knew I wanted to go there, and was fortunate enough to be accepted eight years later. As a graduate student in that program, our last year of school is centered around a thesis project. We are given absolute freedom with that project, as long as it pushes the boundaries of Interactive Media. That is how Paralect started. Bryan Edelman (designer): I started making games about three years ago, before coming to USC. I've been playing games my entire life, and I'm very happy that I finally made the jump into creating them.

What development tools did you use?

Loan Verneau (Creative Lead): For Paralect, we decided to build our own engine using the openFrameworks visual libraries. Many of our initial ideas, like non-euclidean space, required more freedom than most engines would afford. Using openFrameworks also enabled us to create our own visual style and game feel. Of course, it comes at the price of having to deal with optimization issues that we would not have otherwise. We also had to create our own tools, but thanks to our amazing programming team, we were able to create our own level editor so the design team can modify and test the levels of the game easily.

How long have you or your team been working on the game?

Andrea Benavides (Producer): Loan came up with the initial concept for the game probably four or five months before production started, in April or May 2012. He used that time for prototyping so that by August we were ready to build the team and get started. Some people came in later during the production timeline, either because we weren’t ready to create that part of the game yet (music) or because certain skill sets were harder to find (graphics programmer). But most of us worked on the game for an entire school year, or about 10 months. Ever since last May we’ve been slowly finishing the game, but it’s hard because a lot of people’s schedules changed after that first year. I, for example, am now working on my own thesis project, so that keeps me pretty distracted. We’re still working on it though and look forward to getting it out there for the masses to enjoy.

How did you come up with the concept?

Loan Verneau (Creative Lead): Paralect started as an exploration of concepts and paradigm shifts I experienced as I moved from one country to another in my youth. I moved away from my home country, France, at the age of eight. From there I lived in many other countries and cultures, including Switzerland and Japan. This has been described as the 'global nomad' phenomenon by some, people with no national origins due to them living in so many cultures. The title, Para+Lect, is constructed from two different roots: Para meaning "through or beyond," and Lect meaning "the ability to aggregate meaning." The title represents the ability to read beyond cultural bias. I wanted to talk about how my experience changed my way to look at differences. While the game started as a very personal piece, it evolved beyond that as our team grew and the collaboration started in earnest. Because of the support of my team, I had the opportunity to explore three big paradigm shifts. They serve as the conceptual transitions between the chapters of the game. The first one is the discovery of the outside world. It's a very common concept, that anyone leaving his hometown to go work or study in a different part of the world can relate to. Suddenly everything feels bigger, different in a way, but it also comes at a price. You leave behind a form of innocence that you cannot get back. You cannot forget how much bigger the world is than your hometown and you cannot look at that place the same way again. The second one is what I call the rule of three. When you have two things to compare to each other, two cultures for example, you start talking about what is better or worse in one or the other. You start judging them in a very Manichean way. When I moved to Japan, my third country, I stopped looking at things in such a linear way. Things simply became different instead of better or worse. Suddenly, context became more important and I tried to understand why things are different instead of comparing them in a linear fashion. The last transition is still being worked on, so I will keep it a secret for now, until we finish our last chapter.

A lot of people approach narrative in video games differently. What was the overarching philosophy for narrative in Paralect?

Avimaan Syam (writer/narrative designer): With Paralect I wanted to celebrate the affordances interactive media gives me as a writer rather than dwell on its restraints: that's why we as a design team almost immediately hit on the idea of platforming through the dialogue. It's interactive media after all -- let's interact with the text! When Loan referenced Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita as a huge influence for Paralect, I knew I had to write for him. The concept for the game's progression was to mirror the different counties Loan had lived in and how they had shaped his life, and as the narrative designer I wanted to craft a surrealist fantasy world to contextualize that journey in a way that satisfied Loan and I's shared subversive side. That's why you have wild characters like Her Honored Princess Scattered Leaves and The Once and Future Bruhaha chattering at you about the cyclic nature of life in iambic pentameter, or the Clockwork King literally communicating in a programmatic language to convey the definitive approach of his world. If you have to explore text, we wanted to make it something you really wanted to explore, something frenetic, something to be deciphered, something wild and crazy and different, something that always evolved.

Some people argue that narrative and games do not mix well. How does your design argue against that notion?

Avimaan Syam (writer/narrative designer): Honestly narrative and games have not mixed well in the past because designers have not focused on their synergy. As a writer and a narrative designer, I am very hopeful of the coming of an era where narrative and game design are intertwined from conception through production. For the narrative design of Paralect, I was reacting to the same ideas at the same time as the level designers. There was a mutual understanding that the level and narrative design should reflect the same tone, and being able to get that reciprocal feedback so early and often along the process was integral to what we came up with. I don't think I would've been able to so freely shift from a Joycean mashup to iambic pentameter to metronomic, coded phrasing without such an integrated design process.

Your team shares a lot of background on the development of the game via the website. Why is it important to take the time to do that?

Andrea Benavides (Producer): To be honest, when we first created that website our goals for it were very different from what they might be if we were creating the website now. When it was first made, we needed a tool for recruitment and a way to quickly show people what the game was about. But at that point, the game was a process, an idea, and a philosophy more than an actual game, so that’s what the website showed. It was all about the foundations for Paralect, why we knew we were making a game worth spending time on, and then showing progress to prove that we knew what we were doing. At this point, I hope that the website shows people a little bit of what went into making the game, mostly because I know that a lot of our teammates will be trying to find jobs after they graduate. Having a transparent pipeline gives individuals on the team more to talk about when they show people what they’ve made.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

Bryan Edelman (Designer): I've played bits and pieces of Papers Please, SoundSelf, Don't Starve, Towerfall, Gorogoa, and Save The Date. I remember playing Save The Date over summer and greatly enjoying how it toyed with my expectations as a player. I'd rather not say more about it, though; I don't want to spoil such an interesting experience for anyone who hasn't tried it. Overall, I'm familiar with most of the finalists, and I think they're all amazing pieces. We're all honored that Paralect is among their ranks. Andrea Benavides (Producer): I’m a big fan of The Stanley Parable and Device 6, so I’m super honored and excited to have worked on a game that’s on a short list with them. Loan Verneau (Creative Lead): I have had the chance to play The Stanley Parable, Crypt of the Necrodancer, The Yawhg and Corrypt and I am so proud our work is being compared to these amazing games. I am really happy in particular to see how many different platforms are represented among the finalists, as I am myself now working on iOS games.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

Bryan Edelman (Designer): Indie games are my go-to for new, innovative, and/or fun experiences. I'm continuously blown away by the creativity of the community and how welcoming it is on a personal level. Developer collectives such as Glitch City and Indie House are showing that strength in numbers can help everyone involved, and trailblazers on next-gen platforms are setting the tone for developer relations with Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. Indies are embracing new ideas with faster iteration periods and less overhead. Although the indie scene has become more competitive over the past few years, it can only lead to better experiences for the players.

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