'Things we create tell people who we are': Designing Zachtronics' TIS-100

Gamasutra speaks to Zachtronics founder Zach Barth and compatriot Matthew Burns about why they've launched the arcane assembly language puzzle game TIS-100, and what value they found in telling its story.

I think contemporary game developers face a real discoverability problem these days; with so many new games released every week, and so many established, endlessly replayable games vying for people’s time, launching something fresh seems like a crapshoot -- especially if you’re a small-scale indie developer.

Zachtronics (Infinifactory, SpaceChem) founder Zach Barth doesn’t agree, at least not when it comes to Steam. He and a few collaborators quietly launched the assembly language programming puzzle game TIS-100 on Steam Early Access this week, seemingly without regard for whether the wider world would notice or care.

“It's not like we have a discoverability problem; we have a ‘getting people to buy our shit’ problem.” Barth tells me this week when I call him to ask where the heck TIS-100 came from.”I think one way to cut through that is to make something with an irresistible value proposition. For us, that's a game with a 14-page technical manual that we designed, printed out, marked up and scanned back in again.”

Written by Zachtronics programmer Keith Holman to evoke the spirit and tone of early ‘80s micro-computer manuals, the TIS-100 manual is a core component of the game’s design; players are told to print and keep it handy to consult as they figure out how to solve open-ended programming challenges using the TIS-100’s unique assembly language and, in the process, puzzle out the story of the mysterious virtual micro-computer that lends the game its name.

The eponymous TIS-100 never existed, of course; it’s ephemeral, a relic of a made-up world that tells the story (penned by Shadegrown Games’ Matthew Burns, who also did sound design on TIS-100 and, before that, Infinifactory) of a Silicon Valley also-ran through text logs and environmental clues scattered throughout the TIS-100 and its manual.

“The manual has references which imply things about the world, the computer itself has features which imply things about the world,” says Barth. “It’s a virtual artifact, you know? The things we create tell people who we are.“

An aborted Second Golden Age

The story of how TIS-100 came to Early Access this week starts where many development stories end: with an idea for a sprawling, grandiose game that proved too impractical to live.


“Years ago, I came up with this game idea called The Second Golden Age,” says Barth. It was basically a cyberpunk thriller set in a future Middle East crawling with nanotechnology other weird future tech.

“You'd be an engineer, and you'd be dabbling in all these different technologies; you'd be designing all these tiny little devices that could like, go into your bloodstream, and it'd be a super-cyberpunk engineering game,” says Barth.

The idea was to build an open world filled with different kinds of puzzles for the player to solve, a bit akin to Myst. Multiple systems of puzzles would be in play -- all of the chemical engineering puzzles in SpaceChem would be akin to one distinct subset of puzzles in Golden Age, for example --  and players could learn things about the world and advance themselves by mastering various puzzle mechanics. as the player could explore a virtual world filled with different kinds of puzzles to solve. Recently, Barth took a shot at making his idea a reality.

“We were really deep in production on Infinifactory, and I really wanted to ‘go indie’ -- even as an indie developer -- and make something on my own, to prove I could still do that,” recalls Barth. “Because now I don't make anything by myself, right? We have between 4-7 people on our team full-time, plus a bunch of external people. I wanted to see if I could make something -- not by myself, because I still didn't -- but at least with a smaller team.”

So Barth set out to try and recapture something of his past by crafting his Second Golden Age with some collaborators, designing a game with a story and five different puzzle games within it before realizing "Oh god, I can't make another game. There's so much work here! It doesn't make sense, it will cost a fortune to make the art, I just...I don't have time for this." 

But out of that aborted attempt came a piece of game design that would become the foundation for a game he could actually make, a game about solving puzzles with assembly code.

“One of the puzzles I designed [for Golden Age] was exactly TIS-100,” says Barth. “The original story of The Second Golden Age was going to involve, as you're going around this future city in the Middle East, you can stumble into this junk shop where you find this old computer.”

It's busted, of course, but the player can fix the broken portions (a series of coding puzzles) to breathe life into the computer, which turns out to be an artificial intelligence.

“So when you finish all these puzzles you have this AI buddy you brought back online, and maybe you go on a heist together or something, I don't know,” says Barth.

Barth and Holman use this Mondo 2000 tongue-in-cheek infographic to sum up their failed Project Gibson. It is, admittedly, only tangentially related to the development of TIS-100, but the author is a big Mondo fan

He’d implemented part of the puzzle before abandoning the project and realized that it could be built into its own standalone game. Barth was also inspired to try and convey the weird satisfaction of solving low-level programming problems after trying (and failing) with Holman to build a computer from scratch; after briefly debating about doing something weird like building a game into a briefcase so it could only be played by whoever had the case, Barth says he and his team figured "Fuck it! Let's make a game and just release it on Steam."

The funny thing, he adds, is that TIS-100 is already doing pretty well in light of what it cost to produce. “I think a large part of it is just because of how audacious it is,” says Barth. “Like, having a tutorial that basically says ‘Hey, read this 14-page manual, asshole,’ seems like it would be a really bad thing for your game, but apparently it's actually pretty effective.”

It might also be because Zachtronics has established a track record of producing complex puzzle games, though Barth likes to say he basically "threw out" much of what he learned from developing Infinifactory on Early Access while making TIS-100 -- that it reflects who he used to be.

"This game is kind of a throwback to the kinds of games I used to make," says Barth. "Before I started Zachtronics, before I worked with other people; just these really rough, kind of abusive engineering games."

Burns suggests TIS-100 is doing well precisely because it goes directly against the grain of popular game design (Barth interrupts him here with a little shout of “Yeah!”) and focuses on catering to a very specific, niche audience: programmers.

TIS-100 as a game almost pushes you away,” says Burns. “It's arguable how fun it is; I think it's fun to a small subset of people, but it's not designed to be this widely-accessible game that anyone can play. And that's something that I like about it; I was very attracted to the idea of this game that is not necessarily trying to be all things to all people. It's so in it's niche, and it serves that niche really well.“

“What Matthew says about [TIS-100] being niche is absolutely true, but like...niches are big nowadays,” adds Barth. “There's a lot of programmers, it's easy to reach them because they're all playing computer games for the most part, and they all have money! So it's not a bad niche.”

Sure enough, the game’s Early Access page is littered (for the moment) with positive Steam reviews that say things like “Great game if you like low-level programming” and "I work in assembly language all day, and solve puzzles like this as my day job, so I might already be crazy." But that also begs the question of whether Zach and his compatriots -- or any game developer working on similarly niche projects -- should even try to craft a story; if the game capitalizes on conveying the satisfaction of mastering assembly language, what’s the value of going beyond a pure puzzle game?

Players are encouraged to print out this 14-page manual before starting​, and studying it carefully reveals not only how to solve the game's puzzles, but clues to the narrative itself

“In a very practical sense, when you're making a game, having a story helps you confine your puzzle design and direction towards something that enhances the story,” says Burns. “Otherwise you're just exploring this big abstract puzzle space, and you could go anywhere. Having a little story gives you an arc that you can use to explore the puzzle space in a way that kind of ties everything together.”

Trying to capture something that never existed

I get that. A friend of mine likes to throw shindigs with themes (“Time Traveler’s Ball”, for example, or “Dance Party at the End of the World”) and I think his ability to tie together thematic music, drinks and food makes the entire evening stand out. It becomes an important part of my life story.

Barth agrees; “I throw a lot of parties, and do exactly the same thing.”

“Yeah, he does throw a lot of parties,” says Burns. “We had that cyberpunk party…”

Turns out computer engineer Zach Barth’s favorite movie is Hackers. He designed a party where attendees would watch a supercut of the movie with a bunch of ‘90s “tech nostalgia” stuff spliced in, “and I made everyone dress like characters from Hackers,” the programmer tells me. “We did shots to like, the AOL dialup sound.”

TIS-100 is just like that Hackers party, says Barth; both are designed to draw together sensations of a specific cultural experience -- what it sounded like, felt like, tasted like, to be a computer hacker -- and use them to tell an interesting and cogent story.

“One of my favorite design exercises is, ‘How do you turn a movie into a cocktail?’” says Barth. Like a game, a cocktail is made with distinct components that can be blended in a way that tells a story; the trick is to figure out how to find the right mix.

Barth offers the example of a Jaeger Pilot cocktail he made for a recent Pacific Rim party, which was basically orange juice and Jagermeister...with a twist.

“It's better than it sounds,” Barth tells me. “The key thing was that you have to drink it with a buddy. So you have to cross arms and drink it at the same time, because you have to drift, you know?”

The oddball design of that cocktail and the remarkably obtuse design of TIS-100 are much akin in Barth’s eyes, because they require extra effort -- linking arms with someone at a party, paging through an arcane fake computer manual for clues -- in order to tell a story. By comparison, something like Infinifactory is relatively straightforward: it has puzzles; it tells its story through cutscenes.

TIS-100 is almost more like those Pacific Rim cocktails,” says Barth. “It's trying to capture something that never existed. It's from a world that is not ours, that has never existed. But it tries to breathe some life into that idea, make a piece of it real.”

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