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Creator Karolis Dikcius discusses the "high-concept, medium-fidelity" motto that drove this unsettling but distinctive title.

Joel Couture, Contributor

April 6, 2023

8 Min Read
A surreal screenshot from the game depicts a strange green moon with a human face against a black and purple smoke background.

In Strange Aeons, a cult has summoned you from digital hell. To complete your escape, you'll need to converse with a surreal AI in a world born of early '90s CGI.

Game Developer caught up with Karolis Dikcius, creator of this unsettling experience, to talk about the creative choice to use older software in the game, how having to physically speak with the surreal being created a special connection with the player, and how a single puzzle from Grim Fandango was a major inspiration for the work's personalized, generated music.

What inspired the creation of Strange Aeons? What drew you to create this conversational escape from hell?

I think it was a continuation of the game mechanics of my first two games, which were text adventures (Desert of Vice and Ladderhead). I feel very passionate about this sort of player-game interaction where the physical action of using the controls closely matches what happens on the screen.

In the case of the text adventures, the story is presented in typed text. So, having the player type words and actions makes for a very literary feeling experience where it seems as if the player is actually participating in weaving the story.

In Strange Aeons, I think this goes a step further. The game is almost entirely based around conversations, and it has you speak into the microphone (or type text, optionally). This is close to a 1:1 mapping of physical actions to digital actions in the game. I think this sort of direct mapping of interactions is a big part of the general appeal of VR gaming, too.

I got most of the idea during one short car ride. I thought about what I would want to make if I participated in a game jam. I thought it would be interesting to make a game where you would have to chat with a 3D figure of a head powered by an AI. Then, I thought it would be cool if you could use a microphone and speech-to-text. And then I thought it could all be weird so that the crude and less-than-stellar AI output would make sense in the world of the game. This was in 2017, and season 3 of Twin Peaks had come out a few months prior, so I thought that the Black Lodge would be a great reference point.

Strange Aeons screenshot

What thoughts went into the visual design of the game? Why this look that captures the eeriness of '90s 3D art?

I had recently found love for the furniture designs of the Memphis design school. I liked postmodern buildings from the '90s and the early CGI pre-rendered tech demos you could find archived on the Internet. I think, in part, it was because they reminded me of this very weird pre-rendered educational game I had on my computer when I was a kid (I don't remember its name, but I can find the CD in my parents' house).

Another part of the decision to use an outdated look was that I wanted the player to feel as if they'd found a piece of cursed forgotten software—sort of a digital Jumanji board. Like you'd found a game inhabited by sentient NPCs. I think the look of ‘90s software works in this regard, as software was allowed to be a lot weirder back then than it is now.

Strange Aeons is capable of responding to what you say or write to it. How did you design such a system? What interested you in having this kind of 'real' conversation?

Well, as I mentioned earlier, the 1:1 mapping of physical player input to the actions happening in the game was something I wanted to explore in my games.

In terms of how I did it, I leveraged a lot of free and open-source software. I used PocketSphinx, Festival Lite (flite), and Tensorflow. I chose to use Godot as it was open-source, too. I actually open-sourced the text-to-speech and speech-to-text plugins, and you can get them in the Godot asset library.

Your companion often responds cryptically. What thoughts went into designing the surreal, eerie ways it would speak back?

The prompts said by the player's companion are pre-scripted, but some of the answers are generated by the neural net chatbot in real-time. And they had to match.

The best chatbot I could use was an AI with a 2017-level-of-sophistication (because back then, it was all you could get), and that meant that the conversations you could have with it were quite shoddy. The speech-to-text software I incorporated is from the 2000s, and its accuracy is not as great as the virtual assistant in your phone.

I incorporated these limitations as a creative choice. The setting is a strange underworld, the companion you speak with is a bizarre inhabitant that speaks in a cryptic, ritualistic manner. The prompts you answer are fairly straightforward.

There are Brian Eno quotes on how current limitations of technology could be used as creative strengths and I went with it. That, and also to make it "high-concept, medium-fidelity", which was sort of a motto when making this game.

How does the ability to speak what you wish to say alter the player's reception of the work? Why do it this way rather than have pre-written responses? How do you feel this affects how people connect with the game?

I think it adds a whole new layer of immersion, but it's also smoke and mirrors to hide the scripted nature of the game's story. But I did not want the player to get stuck for too long and get out of the immersion, so I added keywords you can optionally and easily look up in each scene.

Strange_Aeons_Music.jpg

What drew you to use procedural music for the game? What ideas went into its design?

It was part of the "high-concept, medium-fidelity" mindset I had for this game. Once I had Python running in Godot (through the Godot's Pythonscript plugin), I realized I could aim a bit higher and have procedural music.

The biggest inspiration for the procedural music section in Strange Aeons was the beat poetry puzzle in Grim Fandango. I don't know the exact reasoning in design choices Tim Schafer had for the game, but as far as I can tell, it might have been a puzzle that was solely in the game for the "Grim Fandango" poem. It's really good. It's one of my favorite video game scenes.

In Strange Aeons, the music played by the floating trumpet in the Saturn scenes is generated from a seed calculated by assigning a numerical value to the player's speech input. The player is expected to speak poetry, but they are free to say whatever they like.

The entirety of Strange Aeons creates an eerily personal experience for the player, given the ability to say what you want and the procedural music. What challenges did you face in creating something that would feel unique to each person and take shape in a special way for every player?

As you put it, I wanted it to be something that the player felt special to them as the music was generated on the words that they came up with —a small creative collaboration between the game and the player. And it's an interaction that doesn't have a win-lose puzzle state as the game goes along with whatever you say. I think it all goes back to the Grim Fandango scenes I mentioned earlier.

Initially, I wanted to use AI tune generation and have the melodies generated from ancient Mesapotamian and ancient Greek song MIDI files. It worked, but that would have doubled the game's install size, and the system resource usage would have been higher. In the end, the non-AI Python library I used worked just as well, though.

What difficulties did you face in getting all of this work offline?

I designed the game to work offline from the get-go because I did not want to break the player's trust by sending the user's speech to some Google or Amazon server (I think that would have been unethical). So, I never had to redo/reimplement things for it to work offline.

The biggest challenge was that I needed to learn a lot of new things—how to write Godot plugins that integrate C libraries, a lot of learning different APIs, compiling and recompiling things for them to work with specific versions of other components. Microphone input under the hood in an operating system is something that, to me, looks like a big headache, but I only had to deal with it somewhat.

What do you hope players take away from this exploration of the occult and technology? Do you feel you took something away from the subjects by creating Strange Aeons?

I hope that players forget they are playing a game and that it's not some forgotten social interaction software from the '90s that evolved into something more sinister.

While I wanted to make Strange Aeons as immersive as possible and to make it feel as a delve into a world with its own strange rules, it's all smoke and mirrors. It's a piece of art I made and there's life outside it. Though, I feel humbled if this thing I made resonates with the player.

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