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Exploring the subliminal spaces between strobing lights in Gaël Bourhis' Kristallijn

The developer of Kristallijn share what interested them in exploring the space between the blinks of a strobe light, and what questions the game aims to ask as players see what lies in the moments of darkness.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

Kristallijn shapes & shifts reality between the blinks of a strobe light, stitching places, times, and spaces together as the player tries to follow a dancer.

Gamasutra sat down with Gaël Bourhis, creator of the Nuovo Award-nominated experience, to discuss what interested them in exploring the space between the blinks of a strobe light, the challenges of working with this kind of light, and what questions the game aims to evoke in the player as they see what lies in the moments of darkness.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing Kristallijn?

My name is Gaël Bourhis and I am the author of Kristallijn. It is a personal project and my role consisted in the development of almost the entire experience, with most of the sound design produced by Romain Enselme, with whom I already worked on other projects.

I started to get interested in the medium of video games in 2012. I had just graduated in fine arts, and my work already featured virtual spaces then. The possibilities for expression in video games seemed endless to me and not much explored by the industry. I have since created a few experimental games, some of which have been exhibited, the most recent ones taking the form of first-person games exploring the potential of a camera left to the player’s free control. In 2016, I notably released Genius Loci, a short experiment using camera fade as a gameplay and exploration mechanic.

How did you come up with the concept for Kristallijn? 

After Genius Loci, I began to reflect more generally on the ‘translation’ of cinematographic techniques and the emotions they convey in an interactive environment. Among other things, I looked at the cut. But switching abruptly from one shot to another didn't work in a first-person game, where the player has direct control over the camera. The result is sterile and just creates a rupture in the immersion, whereas in the cinema the cut triggers associations. I had to find a way to make this effect both tangible, but without breaking the illusion of continuity of action necessary for immersion in this space. This is when the idea of a cut hidden in the interval between two flashes of light appeared to me.

What development tools were used to build your game?

To build the game, I used the classic indie toolkit: Unity, Blender, Gimp, some DAW (or their cracked counterparts).

A lot of energy has gone into making a custom lighting system and a sequencer for the strobes.

What interested you in exploring the space between the blinks of a strobing light?

This floating, undefined space acts like the gutter between the frames of a comic book. This is the interval in which the brain fills in the voids and links one image to the next.

Everything seems possible there, and that’s why time sometimes seems to expand or, on the contrary, to contract there.

And in a simulated universe, where space, time, and even a character's movements are malleable - where reality can be bent, those opportunities become endless.

What feelings do you think come up in the black space of a strobe light? In that moment of nothingness before our eyes can give us information again? 

It is a moment of apnea that induces a wavering, a doubt in our perception of our surroundings.

A loss of landmarks that affects our most influent sense, and can lead space to collapse under our feet.

But with each new flash, space around us gets back to its original shape, placing us once again in a tangible position, a split second before everything crumbles again.

What questions did you want to evoke in the player with your work? With showing them what can happen/change in that nothingness?

I wanted the player to question their conception of reality and the continuity of their existence.

The world is a sensory illusion, and it only holds together because we dream it and fiercely hold onto this illusion every moment.

One second of distraction and everything can falter:

That nothingness is the blinking of one’s eyelids at the precise moment of an accident,

the space between the last memory before a blackout and the start of a huge hangover,

but also perhaps the advent of an inexplicable event, a rip in the fabric of space, a flicker of time...

Strobe lights can be quite taxing on the eyes and head. What challenges did you face in using these effects in the game without making the player too sick/disoriented?

The concept had to be modulated so that it could be experienced without being too harsh.

During Kristallijn’s development, I often attended concerts and was much inspired by stage lighting where strobes lights sometimes act in an almost subliminal way. 

A mechanical and uninterrupted repetition of strobes can be very intense, but by using different rhythms and lengths, we can introduce some breathing and fluidity.

A moment in a strobe light can only give us a bit of information. What thoughts went into designing exploration, locations, and events that would only be seen in short bursts?

The effect wouldn't work without the environment going completely dark.

Kristallijn's spaces all reflect this possibility, and materialize in places where this effect seems natural; clubs/industrial spaces/dance studios/art galleries/etc.

For me, it's all about placing the player in a space that seems familiar at first glance, allowing her to project herself there, to find her way around, not to doubt what she perceives.

At that precise moment, once this reality is accepted, then we can begin to alter tiny details, and later on dive deeper and deeper.

Following the dancer can be a disorienting, confusing experience. What do you feel we gain from looking deep into these feelings through an interactive experience? 

Kristallijn explores a strange link between video editing and interactivity

The camera is in the player’s control, yet the content of what appears on screen, and its progression, ends up being dictated by the game.

And yet, by hiding these transitions in quick flashes of light, the feeling of control and continuity (i.e. the immersion), is preserved.

It is in this paradox between control and loss of it that the apnea mentioned above occurs and that doubt sets in.

This game, an IGF 2021 honoree, is featured as part of the Independent Games Festival ceremony.  You can watch the ceremony starting at 4:30PM PT (7:30 ET) Wednesday, July 21 at GDC 2021.

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