This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.
Space Hole 2020 is a vibrant journey through space and time, manifested through sumptuous colors and swirling visions. Distortions, surreal shapes, and brilliant lights abound as the player move through this vision, finding their own path through this beautiful existence.
Game Developer sat down with Sam Atlas, developer of the IGF Nuovo Award-nominated title, to chat about how the game's meaning kept shifting, changing, and growing like the cosmos over the course of development, how it draws from a single dot to create its striking visuals, and the beauty of a journey where you don't get to see everything.
Who are you, and what was your role in developing Space Hole 2020?
Sam Atlas: I'm Sam Atlas. I did everything except the music (which was done by the very talented Saint Salo!) for Space Hole 2020.
What's your background in making games?
Atlas: I started game work in mapping! I started with Hammer, making maps for Half Life 2. My first love is still level design. I switched to Unity for the first Space Hole game, and since then I've been bouncing back and forth between making visualizers and games. Space Hole 2020, more than any game I've worked on before, is at that intersection.
How did you come up with the concept for Space Hole 2020?
Atlas: Space Hole 2020 began as a project called Dot. Dot was going to be a game about a cosmic timescale, the title referring to the first "dot" separate from nothingness at the beginning of reality. Each level was going to be a different drawing game—Kid Pix crossed with research chemicals.
When the pandemic started, my art and music visualization work seemed even further away. I needed an outlet, and Dot merged with a few recent art projects (some remain in the game!) such as City, Lantern, and Rivers. This new project became Pandemic Fever Dream. After a few months, that title was less fun, and at some point the space shuttle from Space Hole 2018 found its way in, and I realized I was clearly making a new Space Hole. I couldn't settle on a subtitle, so I didn't (see the in-game title screen).
I wanted to make a game whose core mechanic was exploration & movement without punishment, precision, or (mechanical) challenge (mechanics that had already been explored in the first 2 Space Hole games). I was also thinking about the idea of a mysterious machine—software whose purpose and content is obscure or occult. In my mind, Space Hole 2020, in its released form, is still a game about cosmic timescale, and a concept of logarithmic time I use to structure these sorts of things I call "G" (like the Kelvin unit, where 0 is the coldest possible level, 0G would be the absolute beginning of all things).
At some point the whole game was a sexual metaphor about arousal, intercourse, and reproduction; I moved "away" from that theme once I realized it was (in the abstract style of the game) the same theme as cosmic timescale anyways (but in a smaller frame of reference). There are still sexual references, and a penis in the Altar level (you pass through it to get bigger...).
Another interpretation I hold dear is that Space Hole 2020 is a game about a biological entity evolving in parallel with an extremely advanced technology. Either way, the game represents a long cosmic march from nothingness to overabundance, from chastity to reproduction, from the big bang to the final end, or from the first drone sent off world to the final subjugation of the cosmos. Or any other metaphor. In my mind, those stories (represented in this abstract way) are equally valid.
What development tools were used to build your games?
Atlas: Unity! The standard render pipeline allows for these sorts of visual glitches. I also recorded footage from around Seattle which is used in a bunch of places (if you're local to Seattle, you might recognize some locations!).
Space Hole 2020 is filled with vibrant, almost overwhelming colors and visuals. Can you tell us a bit about the work you did in creating these procedural visuals and effects?
Atlas: The fundamental tools I'm using are post processing, uncleared buffers, recursive render textures, video, camera layering (with multiple post processing effects), and dynamic post processing changes (e.g. adjusting settings based on audio). I've been interested in this uncleared buffer effect for many years... There's a few examples in Space Hole 2018, but I went a lot further in 2020.
The pulsing patterns you see in Space Hole 2020 are mostly generated by post processing a camera facing nothing, but set not to clear; so that camera pointed at the void will adjust its image according to a wild set of post processing settings, but since there is no image, the first imperfect pixel (the first "dot") gets stretched and mutated and ghosted until it becomes a self-replicating pattern.
A simple example would be: imagine a camera has a bloom effect and is facing nothingness. A single imperfect pixel at the center is made brighter than its neighbors; this triggers a ring of bloom around the pixel. This ring is then ghosted against the uncleared background, and each "bloomed" (pixel that is now lit which wasn't before) blooms itself. On top of this blooming, a very chaotic color correction curve is applied. As these pixels (are made to) brighten from black to white, they instead go along a rollercoaster of different colors.
Initially, these sorts of effects end up strobing or flashing. Then, I carefully adjust multiple parameters, and blur multiple frames, until I find a nice, not painful to look at, effect. Then I save the configuration (i.e. post processing settings) of that effect as a "bag." Applying these effects (generated in a camera) to a render texture lets you repeat the effect by placing a second camera facing an instance of the render texture. There is no hard limit to this (each camera can post-process again!), and if people praise Space Hole 2020 too highly, I'll take it further next time. This is a threat.
What appealed to you in creating a means for players to go on unique visual journeys through these striking experiences? To create systems that would make the journey largely unique for each person experiencing it?
Atlas: I love the idea that everyone sees something a bit different. I think games in general are that way; I wanted the effects to feel chaotic and to emphasize the mystery and wonder of the setting. I also think there's an interesting parallel to imagining what very small or very large objects might actually look like. The more we learn about quantum positions and whatnot, the more it seems like stillness is a human invention.
I wanted to capture the aesthetic of both galaxy scale and subatomic scientific photos. I think the procedural nature of the visuals enhances that, in the same way that technical and striking scientific visual styles (such as the black and white of an ultrasound machine, or a telescopic photo of a distant nebula) feel natural.
There's also this idea of altering the world as you pass through it. If you are some amoeba of cosmic destiny (i.e. a video game protagonist) yearning for change, then passing through the environment ought to change it. Change is certainly a theme.
What thoughts went into creating the structures that players would see and explore throughout the game? How were they shaped by the idea of this being a "journey through time"?
Atlas: I think of the structures as examples of a much larger unstated setting. The middle part of the game represents highly advanced society, so in my mind those structures are man- (or aliens or whatever) made. The structures and props get more detailed as the game goes on, representing that progression. By the end, there are cars, for example.
What challenges did you face in creating multiple paths through the game? How did you overcome them?
Atlas: The structure of Space Hole 2020 is that the beginning is a bit of a maze, and the later parts are more of a sequence. Just like the unpredictable visual effects, I wanted some variant ways to pass through the game. I think knowing you didn't see everything makes your own experience feel personal, and the world feel bigger. I love feeling like there's more out there.
You gave the player the ability to create "dynamic visual effect bags" through the game as well. What drew you to put this tool in the player's hands?
Atlas: It brings it full circle for me—inviting the player to remix the visuals themselves. If you modify key bags such as A and P in the Freeform Machine, you can significantly alter levels like Space and the Cyclic Frontier... But even not doing that means you chose the default, which makes the possibility space feel bigger, which is part of accomplishing the mysterious feel.
How did you choose the sounds and music to go along with this visual experience? How did you find music that fit the themes and feel of the game?
Atlas: I don't understand music and usually follow my instincts on it. I think it goes back and forth, where I'll be inspired by music, and then music can be influenced by my visual style, too. For however chaotic and hard-to-explain my visual generation is, I think the way I approach audio is even more intuitive and iterative. I sometimes pivot wildly during development on audio style until it feels right. I love all kinds of music, but I don't play an instrument or sing, so I approach music as a magical force I can harness, as opposed to something I understand (like code).
What were you hoping to evoke in the player through this experience? Through this journey through space, time, and color?
Atlas: For me, it's a zoomed-out view starting with the big bang, wandering forward as the universe becomes more complex. I don't think I have a special authority on what the game means. I wanted to make a game that had no right or wrong way to play it, and hopefully that extends to the meaning.
When I was afraid and alone in 2020, Space Hole 2020 happened through me. Making the game was a raw outlet at a time when I really needed such a thing. This game, more so than any other game I've made, was developed in a stream of consciousness style. I hope that intuitive feeling comes across. I hope other people can feel some of what I've felt making Space Hole 2020. I hope the game is concise enough that people can bring the experience with them.
This game, an IGF 2022 finalist, is featured as part of the IGF Awards ceremony, taking place at the Game Developers Conference on Wednesday, March 23 (with a simultaneous broadcast on GDC Twitch).