This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Circle0 is a game that's designed to break down - an experience in incomprehensibility and chaos that grows more distorted and unpredictable with every interaction.
Gamasutra sat down with the team at yesyes, developers of the Nuovo Award-nominated game, to talk about their inspirations in making a game that purposely degrades, the challenges and pleasant surprises of finding bugs in a game that is supposed to break, and the beauty that comes from accepting where Circle0 wishes to take you.
Bertelsen: I’m Corey Bertelsen, I did sound and music and some other code things. We all went to New York University’s game design MFA program. This was our second-semester project. Before that, I personally did some hobby games and music visualizers.
Carr: I'm Dennis Carr. The initial idea for the game was mine, and I handled certain programming tasks, especially the NPC system. I also tried to keep everyone on the same page during development and helped make sure the different systems programmed by everyone generally worked together (but not too well).
I started making games at art school after getting bored with drawing and painting. Over time, I got involved with the community at Glorious Trainwrecks and made a bunch of small, experimental games.
Li: My name is Longxiao Li. I am responsible for 3D assets of this game alone with part of interactivities.
My interest in new media and interactive art started from my undergraduate years majoring in photography. In the beginning, I want to explore the possibilities and boundaries of photography, but gradually ended up conceptualizing a “game-like” art: a semi-competitive fart evaluating device named Fartality.
Liu: I am Shiyun "Vanilla" Liu. I also handled programming, mainly the core character controller. I also tried to help track the whole progress, design iteration.
I majored in game programming as an undergraduate. I got a lot of experience developing games of different genres on a small team. In our school, we have programmers (like me) and artists, but no game designers. Therefore, I also worked on game design, sometimes. Then, I found out that game design is extremely hard, but I still wanted to learn more about game design. That’s why I went to NYU game design program.
Guided chaos over planning
Bertelsen: Our design challenge was to create an “anti-game” inspired by the “anti-art” Dada movement of the early 20th century. Circle0 evolved out of that initial idea.
Carr: We were especially inspired by the tension between intention and chance in Dada art. I think there is a general idea in game development that it is best to plan a game out as much as possible beforehand; for instance, by creating an extensive design document, and then executing on that plan as accurately as possible. I wanted the process of development to feel more like guiding chaos: make things in a way that invites problems, and then deciding whether those problems are worth keeping. This way, the end product feels indifferent to the player and to its creators in a way that I find appealing.
Li: Ironically, part of the anti-art creations became arts, eventually. Or rather, they are arts from the beginning. Therefore, we realized the manifestation of anti-game could very well be a game.
The mechanisms of an anti-game
Bertelsen: Unity for the Game Engine. The audio was made in Ableton and Adobe Audition.
Li: 3D assets are modeled with Solidworks. Some of them are tweaked in Maya.
Liu: We also used Github to do the version control.
The challenges of making a game that purposely deteriorates
Carr: There were two types of difficulties - experiential and technical. The experiential difficulties came from trying to determine how much chaos was desirable, and to ease the player into the game and encourage them to tolerate the more unpleasant parts of the experience. Liu pushed very hard for tutorialization, and I think that paid off.
On the technical side of things, it was very hard to make sure that everyone’s code worked together given our more improvisational approach to development, and that the game didn’t crash too early or in uninteresting ways.
Liu: There are also some practical difficulties in game design. In the very early stages, we brainstormed about what kind of specific way to demonstrate the concept. After developing the prototype, we were thinking about how we could the scale of the game. What elements could help convey the concept?
What to do with unintended bugs in a game that's built to break
Bertelsen: If we feel like the unintended bug adds replay value, it gets to stay. It’s easier than making DLC.
Carr: Some of the ways that the game breaks were intentional from the start, and some are bugs that we decided to intentionalize. I’m most proud of this game when it breaks in a way that I didn’t know was possible, though. In a recent playthrough, I became unable to move, and my avatar began to continuously bounce up and down next to the massive, fog-shrouded corpse of an NPC. Eventually, the visuals abstracted down into a mass of overlapping, deformed models and it was impossible to tell what was actually happening. Then the game crashed.
I see this as an ideal playthrough, because it’s a situation that I would never have been able to envision and put in the game intentionally. One way you can think of Circle0 is that it’s an engine that generates experiences which would never have been created with human intention.
A continuous battle against comprehensibility
Bertelsen: Our team had a “yes, and” philosophy to including ideas and assets in the game, which explains the origin of the team name. Some play elements came from an intellectual or aesthetic space, sometimes it was out of a sense of humor. The audio design comes from a collage approach, like the visuals. I tried to compose mellow music as an antithesis to the visual chaos, and it eventually gets supplanted by a more chaotic soundtrack built from fragments of the game’s audio files.
Li: Randomness is a vital element in our design philosophy: the terrain is randomly generated, NPCs appear randomly and say random lines, and functions of items are somewhat randomized as well. We believe the surprise factor has a meaningful impact against the comprehensibility.
The beauty of the crash
Bertelsen: Most computational failures are not interesting. Stuff just doesn’t run. But, if you start with an app that runs alright and has it slowly fall apart, it’s closer to how other human artifices break down over time, and that can lead you into unexpected territories. The physics engine, animation, and mesh glitches are usually humorous and sometimes surreal. Frame drops alter your sense of scale and weight. Overloading the audio engine creates pockets of eerie calm.
With Circle0 in particular, there’s also an endearing quality about an app that seems to be trying to be a typical, fun game, but just fails at every turn. You kind of want to give it a hug for being a good sport.
Carr: For me, the true form of Circle0 doesn’t emerge until it’s in an incomprehensible, near-unplayable state. The rest of the game just serves to ease the players in.
On asking the player to give up their control over interactions
Bertelsen: Some combination of calm, intrigued, annoyed, and hungry. If they’re at GDC, they’re probably going to be tired, so I hope they have just had a good time.
Carr: As the game breaks down and the player loses the ability to interact with it in an intentional way, I think it’s very easy for them to become frustrated. I hope that this game encourages the player to push past that frustration and give up the need to have complete control over their interactions. Hopefully, they reach a point where they throw up their hands and start to find beauty and humor in the chaos around them.
Li: I want players to feel surprised, confused, and then curious towards their next encounter.