Road to the IGF: XRA's Memory of a Broken Dimension

We talk to Ezra Hanson-White about Memories of a Broken Dimension as part of our Road to the IGF series.

Memories of a Broken Dimension is a difficult thing to parse on a first impression. White noise and digital artifacts jumble about on the screen, creating a sensation that's part nausea and part intruiging. Because there's shapes in that mess of white and black, emerging into understandable geometry and a cohesive space, until you don't see the white noise so much any more, replaced instead by a complex and deteriorating world. 

It's no wonder, then, that Memories of a Broken Dimension has been nominated for Excellence in Visual Art at this year's IGF Main Competition. It's a powerful technique, and one that's just as novel as it is beguiling. Throwing you into a visual representation of a collapsing digital archive, Memories of a Broken Dimension is a game that has a strong cohesion between context and mechanics, each feeding back and informing the other. 

As part of our Road to the IGF series, I talked to Ezra Hanson-White, about how to understand the visual chaos of Memories of a Broken Dimension. 

What is your background making games?

It kind of originates from software like Klik & Play and level editors/mod tools. I'd always been curious about what’s inside things, taking apart electronics and all that, so it seemed to translate into more of wanting to mess with games and try to see their pieces.

The Doom 1000 level CDs really got at that, pretty mind bending when I first discovered them. I didn't have internet or even know about the internet actually, so to discover that stuff out in the wild was pretty significant. I'd spend a lot of time just looking at all the art content with the wad tools they had. There were other ripping tools I got a hold of and it became a ritual to run any cheap shareware game from the bookstore through them to see if anything coherent could be viewed.

Much later I got involved in a couple art disk groups and eventually the art side of the cracking & demo scene. That’s had a big influence on me in regards to exploring computer art and having a place for those interests to flourish during that time.

There was also modding, I can't remember how many failed mod teams I've been part of, but at some point saw people were getting jobs at game companies. So I started trying for that too and sending examples of levels. Eventually that kicked off a long stretch of doing level design professionally for first-person shooter games. Which I got tired of many times, but the first-person-stuff is ingrained.

What development tools did you use?

Unity 3D, it is great and I’m not sure when this project would have evolved without it, probably at a later time. I’m a bit paranoid sometimes about it, since it’s the most invested I’ve become in a game-related tool & programming language.

The other main tools are Substance Designer, Sketchup, 3D Coat and Renoise, I love those. They’re all in the generally low-cost range and feels like a few are still in the unique experimental phase; you know, before software hits the comfortable plateau and gets too preoccupied with how to re-brand their version number into years.

How long have you been working on the game? 

Well, there was a devlog created on the TIGSource forums for it in 2011, so based off that being the official start, it will be 4 years soon.

The only way for me to rationalize spending that much time on this is just thinking of the first couple years as an experimentation and learning phase, and not like on the clock. It started as something I’d work on mostly at night, my interest/focus jumped between different things. Basically an outlet from work during the day without any clear end goal.

In 2014 the project got restarted, rewriting just what was needed, since I’d been slowly learning to program better and it was getting troublesome to build on top of what was there. That was also when I quit work and went full-time on it, I’d been waiting for the right time and saving for about two years prior. 

So again with rationalizing it into a warped view of reality, in my head it feels like I’ve only been in a year of full-on production, hopefully it wont be much longer.

How did you come up with the concept? 

There was some type of projection UV mapping that people used for turning flat images into scenes with depth, it also reminded me of some perspective tricks I’ve seen in paintings. The idea got stuck in my head and eventually I was wanting to apply it to 3d levels, having the environment dissolve and re-emerge to something different with each viewpoint. I finally messed with that during Ludum Dare in December 2010, the prototype started to warp into the game concept as I experimented with Unity.

That fragmenting puzzle stuff has become less important as a mechanic now, instead I'm trying to think of mechanics in MOBD like one would think of the weather or other natural phenomenon, the orbits of planets, broad scales, slow cycles that cause change. There has been more space, archaeology, communication/data related concepts coming in as well, it's all stuff I'm interested in but have slowly pieced together over time.

So overall, the most beneficial thing for seeing the concept emerge is keeping sketchbooks, and writing along with drawing in them often. I used to not write down any thoughts on things, so stuff would just stay stuck up in my head. Once I started doing that it was like a mental stress relief.

When designing a game with such aggressive visual effects, how do you make sure that it will still be intelligible to the player? 

The earliest builds were pretty harsh and disorienting, but it’s what felt right. I’ve had more chances to explore what non-harsh visuals look like in the game though. So now I know the range on the dial, I can use it to emphasize things as needed. It’s a nice range from unintelligible to slightly hazy.

I’ll have to see how it goes over with people, I’ve just been trying to pace it out and also keep some of the heavier stuff linked to proximity in the environment, a bit like pushing through a thick fog or storm, so that people feel like they can move past something if they stay determined.

One important thing though is creating atmosphere that leads people to start seeing things, their brain searching for familiar shapes and images. I’ve had that happen while people were checking out the build, one person exclaimed “I see an eye!” and it was right when I was also thinking “..that looks like an eye”.

I think that’s a characteristic games often lack in favor of clarity, readability and smoothing out the experience. I’m interested in the unknown murky details, having to navigate a space to understand it from different angles and patch it together in the head. 

When using a limited color palette, how do you keep the visual elements of the game interesting? Do you ever have something akin to snow blindness in the player? 

There are intentional areas where you’re wandering through walls of noise trying to make out shapes. Similar to the pacing thing, I try to keep in mind how long someone might be in certain areas and where they could have came from prior. There doesn’t seem to be many constant rules, aside from people always taking longer than you expected on their first time to navigate a level. So if it takes me five minutes, expect that to be like thirty or more for someone new.

The thing I do stay very conscious of is keeping points of opportunity/possibility in sight or hinted at, as needed. When you’re feeling exhausted or bored in a level it’s usually because you’ve got a long way to walk and nothing else is posing a question nearby.

With the monochrome palette, I’ve been focused on texture and how details appear in limited lighting, really honing in on the roughness or smoothness of surfaces. I’m depending heavily on indirect light, so cutting in openings when I need light rather than placing light sources. I think it has a side effect of further-describing the size of the environment which might help with orienting yourself when traversing it. I’m also hoping to provide just enough environment variety, to be able to identify and tell areas apart from one another.

I pull a lot of inspiration from the ink wash style of painting, and practice painting sometimes as well, both influence how I go about trying to capture things visually. A lot of it has this great sense of depth and infinity, smokey details emerge from the texture of the brush strokes, landscape paintings from the Song Dynasty are a great example.

Also some painters from around when mid-century abstract expressionism was popular used ink wash and sumi-e techniques, their work appeals to me a ton, same goes for the movement and repetition found in futurist paintings.

So I think bits of all that sort of stuff have creeped into the the environment's look, with how it emerges from the dense visuals and forms shifting compositions.

In Memory of a Broken Dimension, the visual design is a representation of the theme of a deteriorating program. Did this limit what you could or wanted to do in any way? Did it take you in any unexpected directions? 

Originally I was planning it like you were playing as some other character, and you would be first-person in their apartment. Then sit down at the computer, and also go first-person into the deteriorated OS & environments inside it.

I got hung up on who the character was, trying to fill in the what & why of everything. There were some cool devices to indicate the narrative moving along, like making the corrupt virtual environment start leaking into their apartment, and then bringing bits of the apartment into the virtual space.

That’s why some old footage of the game has a couch in it (Which also found its way into Mirror Moon).

I switched over to it being about yourself using an obscure computer emulator, because it seemed like it could simplify things and also shifted the experience off a bit from what games commonly do. Ideally, people exploring the RELICS desktop might feel like they are stumbling into a digital urban legend, discovering secrets themselves; having the game’s tension seep into their immediate environment, disrupting the comfort of their chair or wherever they would usually use their computer.

It did take me to some unexpected directions, recently what it means to beat/complete a game, and what it means to complete MOBD (or successive playthroughs). An excessive example is like, say after you finish a FPS game, the next time you play, everyone you killed are still dead. That sounds a bit ridiculous, but I think theres some interesting stuff around permanence.

A lot of the limits encountered that come to mind are more fiction/believability stuff, especially with how the game’s operating system behaves. I’m still feeling out a good balance for that. Started where it was command prompt only, then made a GUI desktop in the spirit of Windows 3.1 crossed with an early Mac OS. But now I’m exploring something a bit more in-between terminal and desktop just so I can reign in some of the interactivity people might assume.

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

Yeah I’ve played a few of them, Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Become A Great Artist In Just 10 Seconds and Oqonie. Also honorable mentions like Fotonica and Nuclear Throne. I enjoy all of them for their own various reasons and am looking forward to checking out the other finalists during GDC.

The one that stuck with me most recently is Oqonie. It does the type of thing I like (and occasionally frustrated by) where nothing is forcefully explained, you’re left to figure it out and hypothesize. So the overall experience I had stumbling through it stuck in my head long after completing it.

It’s also funny looking back after that, since I think it is a straightforward and innocent game in its presentation. And that is wonderful, considering how it slowly draws you in, the looping thought processes and actions you ended up putting yourself through in order to progress and figure it out. 

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