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"Humor, in its most basic form, is a subverted expectation, and the stronger the expectation, the easier it is to subvert."
January 18, 2023
7 Min Read
The Professional is a game about a daring heist. Just climb over the box, sneak through the laser trap, grab a diamond, and get out. The tricky part is that this is a physics game where you have to control the thief’s individual limbs and joints, making for a long, arduous, goofy journey to steal that gem.
Game Developer spoke with Torfi Asgeirsson, developer of this silly thieving game, about exploring the interesting depth of human movement, what thoughts went into choosing the degree of control the players had over the thief’s limbs, and creating a surprising difficulty curve with an innocent-looking set of stairs.
Game Developer: The Professional tasks players with guiding every limb of a burglar on a diamond heist. What inspired this idea for a game?
Torfi Asgeirsson: It started as a submission for a game jam, the theme of which was "lights." I had some ideas about doing something with lasers. Those laser grids you see in heist movies came to mind, and I thought it would be funny to have to navigate those with a physics-based character.
The games of Bennett Foddy are obviously big influences on me. Many people compare this game to QWOP but Getting Over It was more of a direct inspiration. I thought about it a lot as I was working on The Professional. Another game developer I greatly admire, Stephen Lavelle, has made a couple of games with similar characters, You gotta get off the train and Flagstaff. Toribash, a game I find myself constantly trying to remake in some form, was also somewhere in the back of my mind.
You've worked with human movements and the silliness within before (A Firm Handshake, Klifur). What draws you to create games that explore human movement in funny, lighthearted ways? What new thing did you want to explore with The Professional?
I don't remember the exact quote or the context, but I remember hearing Bennett Foddy talk about how much there was to explore within simple movements like walking that most games reduce to a simple button press. I'm definitely drawn to that idea, and I like zooming in on things design-wise.
Both A Firm Handshake and Klifur were, to some extent, built around the interesting movement that arises from the combination of inverse kinematics and physics simulation. A Firm Handshake started as an attempt at doing crowd simulation on top of that, but then I ended up making a handful of scenarios with the player character interacting with a smaller group of characters in the scene. All three of these games could be described as attempts at getting away with not doing any animation, and The Professional is maybe the logical conclusion of that idea. The player has to animate the character entirely themselves. That idea appealed to me.
How did you decide on the control scheme for the game? Why give the player control over the burglar's joints and limbs?
I wanted the player to have very fine-grained control over the angle of each limb. From the beginning, I was envisioning the player carefully inching themselves forward while hovering between the lasers. That was the moment I was focused on creating, so mouse control made sense. Mouse input also makes it so that you have a very wide range of possible movements; you can carefully adjust a limb by a few degrees but also swing hard into the ground and try to launch yourself. I wanted people to be able to experiment with both.
I had some ideas for adding some kind of symmetry mode to let you control left and right limbs at the same time, but in the end, I preferred the simplicity of only letting you move one limb at a time.
What ideas went into the physics of the game to get the most use/silliness out of the joint and limb movement?
I think I found a good balance in how controllable the character is. I wanted you to be able to be very intentional with your inputs and for the challenge to be primarily in decision-making. The limb you are moving should always do what you are telling it to do, but obviously, the consequences of that movement won't always be obvious, and I think that's where a lot of the funny/infuriating moments come from. It took some tweaking of the joints and the physics setup of the whole character to get it to feel that way.
What thoughts went into the level the player needs to get through? What were your considerations while creating the trapped room?
The box was the first thing I added once I had the character implemented. I just wanted to see how the limbs would interact with another physics object in the scene, but then it ended up being a pretty fun obstacle to try to get over. Originally, you could push it around, but being able to push it into the lasers caused too many problems, so I made it fixed in place.
Then, I tried making stairs because I thought it would be funny to see the character walk up them. They ended up being much harder to climb than I thought but in an interesting way. You can be really close to getting to the top, but then one wrong move sends you tumbling backward.
Then, I finally added the lasers and they went through a few iterations. At first, they would reset you to the beginning, but that was a little bit too annoying. It took some time to come up with what should happen instead, but I think I found a good compromise in having you get electrocuted. Your limbs get random inputs, and you get pushed backward slightly. Sometimes you get lucky and end up in a better position than before you touched the laser or even get launched past it, which makes it a little bit more forgiving.
The Professional dances between being hilarious and enraging. What design ideas go into maintaining that balance and keeping things from tipping too far into annoying to be funny? Do you find that a lack of balance increases the hilarity?
I was worried it was too hard when I released it, but I also thought it felt fair and learnable. The game tells you exactly what you're going to face in the level at the start, the limbs do exactly what you tell them to do, and the level gives you some room to experiment. The character still does unexpected things, and that's where a lot of the humor comes from, but it always happens as a result of your input and is fairly consistent.
The level also has a good build-up of tension. The box is tricky but low stakes. The lasers probably seem higher stakes than they are at first, but are still very tense. Then, the stairs seem very innocent but are actually the hardest obstacle and you are so close to the diamond at that point. They can even throw you back toward the lasers, which suddenly makes them feel very high stakes. Then making you go back is the last little joke but is actually easier than getting the diamond. I think that cadence works well and draws people through the game despite the difficulty.
Do you feel there is a connection between anger and humor in a game like The Professional? Why so, or why not?
Watching other people get frustrated and angry is funny, particularly at something trivial like a video game. I think a certain kind of person is also able to find humor in their failure, especially when it's of their own making.
What do you feel appeals to players about stilted, silly movements? What do you feel draws players to these kinds of 'silly walks'?
Humor, in its most basic form, is a subverted expectation, and the stronger the expectation, the easier it is to subvert. I think because we are so intimately familiar with how people walk and climb stairs, it's easy to get a laugh out of doing it in a silly way.
Likewise, what do you feel draws an audience to watch someone work through these kinds of games? I love watching them myself but I a curious about your thoughts as to why we love watching people play through challenging physics games.
I think people like to watch heightened emotions of any kind and this style of game gives a good performer many opportunities to have a strong reaction, positive or negative.
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