Road to the IGF: Carl Burton's Islands: Non-Places

Carl Burton takes the player to ordinary places, showing them offices, parking lots, and hotel lobbies through a surreal lens in Islands: Non-Places.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Carl Burton takes the player to ordinary places, showing them offices, parking lots, and hotel lobbies through a surreal lens in Islands: Non-Places. Players will watch as these everyday locations come to life through Burton's animations, seeing them transform and reshape themselves through a lens of deep colors.

Burton sought to capture the particular feeling of a place as it becomes so common it is almost forgotten, and the mindspace these locations occupy. Through seeing these places come alive with hidden meaning, they become special and noteworthy, leaving players to wonder about what secrets lies beneath the mundane in their own private world.

This journey earned Burton a nomination for the Nuovo Award in the Independent Games Festival, and Gamasutra sought him out to talk about what drew him to show a hidden, beautiful side to the places we dismiss in our daily lives.

What's your background in making games?

I worked with Sheldon Brown at the Experimental Game Lab at UCSD, but my primary background is in experimental animation. 

How did you come up with the concept?

I was making animated GIFs on my tumblr and I wanted to see if I could create an interactive space that captured a similar mood. My previous work was an animation called Shelter and I think there is a connection with the idea of a familiar space that reveals a hidden structure. Some influences are Marc Auge's book Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity and Chris Watson's field recordings.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Unity, Playmaker, and Cinema 4D.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

6-8 months.

What made you want to explore mundane places with Islands: Non-Places? How did you seek to capture a beauty about them?

They have an uncanny, strangely neutral feeling. The environments in Islands are all based on places you might pass through without thinking. They all blur together in memory, which makes them feel dreamlike. I wanted to see what would happen if those transitional spaces revealed an unusual depth or system behind them. 

This isn't explicit in Islands, but part of the idea was that what you see happening is something that might happen every day in the world of the game. The 'surreal' behavior is mundane from the point of view of the world itself. 

Rich color adds a great deal to the experience of Islands: Non-Places. What thoughts went into your choice of color in the creation of each scene?

This is just intuitive. Sometimes the color can suggest temperature, like blue for refrigeration or orange for the warmth of a tropical forest. In other scenes it's more literal, like a dark purple for night. 

Each place flows from the mundane into a surreal, dream-like space. What were you looking to make the player feel as they followed this transition? In seeing these places change through the lens of your game? 

I wanted to create an intuitive, 'easy' experience that led the player through something that was more surreal and idiosyncratic than you might expect from a 'casual' game. I'd like for the player to find the environments strangely compelling in a way that feels open-ended and hard to describe. 

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

Inside, Everything, and Mu Cartographer.

What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?

It's hard to generalize about this given the range of people making games, but for me, personally, the biggest obstacles were time, money, and not coming from a background in coding. As for opportunities, similar to being able to upload animated shorts to Youtube/Vimeo, I'm drawn to any medium where you can distribute work online to a wide audience.

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