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GDC: Sound and Perspective in Experimental Games

Less intimate than last year's standing-room-only session, this year's Experimental Gameplay Sessions introduced the audience to a number of new innovative games, including gameLab's Out of your Mind, and Kuju's upcoming PSP platformer Crush

Game Developer, Staff

March 9, 2007

9 Min Read

Whereas last year's Experimental Gameplay Sessions were crammed into a standing-room-only meeting room, resulting in a nightmare for the fire marshal yet a powerful experience for the audience, this year's sessions were moved to a huge, dark presentation hall.

Although the audience turnout was larger than ever, and host Jon Blow had more participants to introduce, the meeting somehow felt less intimate and more low-key than last year's.

As before, the event sprawled over two and a half hours with a short break in the middle. Where last year's sessions had a general theme of interpreting complex emotions and ideas through familiar game models – evidenced in games like flOw, Cloud, Braid, and Everyday Shooter – this year's entries tended toward novel uses of sound and perspective. Perhaps half of the event was devoted to various game festivals, while several of the remaining presentations were of high-profile commercial games.

The Sound of Indie

Chris Hecker, Heather Kelley, Phil Fish, Damien DiFede spent the first quarter going over the latest Indie Game Jam and the first GAMMA festival, both of which revolved around the use of sound to effect gameplay.

Most of the ideas were silly and lighthearted, from a "Brady Bunch" game that showed sleeping pictures of the Game Jame competitors and required the player to move the mouse in time with their snoring, to Ears of War: a first-person shooter in which the player moved forward by muttering the game's theme song and shot by mimicking machine-gun noises. Furthermore, the general giving the player his orders was particularly foul-mouthed; a sub-game involved the player's censoring the audio message to match ESRB guidelines.

A particularly involved game by Sean Barrett resembled Frequency or Amplitude (or, going further back, Tempest), except the gameplay was completely MIDI-based; each "lane" down which an offending object might tumble corresponded to a particular note on a scale, such that playing the game resulted in actively performing a piece of music. Another game, Rainbow Surfer Live, was a neat cross between Excitebike and Vib Ribbon.

Doodling In Plain View

Kim Swift of Valve went into detail on Portal. Though Valve had first considered incorporating the game's eponymous design element into Half-Life 2, ultimately they decided it would be too distracting.

Valve therefore developed a control study to explore the mechanism in isolation; the fewer the objects and rules in play, the more Valve could explore the causal potential of the portal mechanism. Swift showed a small grid of all of the game elements, that illustrated how object each might interact with the others.

To be worth adding, each new element had to have a certain breadth of utility for the player. Energy balls interact with both boxes and doors, so they are more practical than an object that the player can only use in one situation.

Next, Alex Butterfield of Kuju Entertainment explained the problem-solving involved in the development of its upcoming PSP game, Crush. The central mechanism involves changing the dimensional properties of the game world to allow the player access to areas that would otherwise have been impossible to reach. Depending on how the camera is positioned, 3D space can be "crushed" into a side-scrolling platformer view or a 2D overhead perspective.

Like Braid, Crush relies on familiar game elements – buttons, collectibles, enemies – in order to make the game's more perplexing ideas easier to digest. Even so, there were several logistical issues to tackle.

For one, if the player were to do an overhead-view "crush", there would be nothing to stop him running straight to the end of the level. The solution lay in assigning different block types, that would react differently in 2D.

"Ghost" blocks would become insubstantial, background elements; "hollow" blocks would become like the blocks in the first level of Super Mario 3, that you can either run in front of or stand on; "solid" blocks would retain their standard integrity.

To avoid the player becoming disoriented, everything "behind" the game camera – thus impossible to see – is "cut" from a "crush". Likewise, if a "crush" would leave a player in a precarious position, the game will show the danger then revert to 3D, to prevent accidental deaths.

For future speculation, Butterfield pondered how the game might work the player were able to "crush" in four dimensions, or if the game were multiplayer. In the latter case, he figured, each player would need control over his own perspective, resulting in two to four different subjective interpretations of the same space.

Arts and Entertainment

Winding up the event before the midway break, Petri Purho of Kloonigames discussed the inspiration for his quick-turnaround game development blog. After seeing some of entries in a past Indie Game Jam, and looking at how slowly he was used to working on games, Purho decided to set a seven-day limit on his next project.

The result, a match-three game called Jimmy's Lost His Marbles, was perhaps not the most interesting of the games shown, but, Purho said, he'd finished it three days faster than expected.

From there he learned more with each project, until eventually he began to put out games with some real inspiration, such as the interplanetary vengeance game Pluto Strikes Back and The Truth About Game Devlopment, a farce that involves killing development staff and lowering quality in order to increase profits.

After the break, Rod Humble discussed his explorations into whether game rules themselves can carry an artistic message, apart from the explicit depictions of sound and visuals. His first experiment, A Walk with Max, was a study on taking his son for a walk in the park. The goal was to ensure the boy was both as excited and as exhausted as possible before the trip home. The problem as he saw it was that the game could very well be illustrated in a traditional manner. The circle representing his son could be replaced with a sprite or 3D model, and so on.

Humble's next game, The Marriage, was more refined in that it was absolutely and innately abstract. Squares representing a husband and wife – each with its own priorities – grow, shrink, and interfere with each other through interactions with each other and external interests.

Rather than playing a character, the player takes the role of Love, with a capital "L", guiding the husband and wife toward and away from each other in attempt to hold the marriage together to (an abstracted) old age. For his next trick, Humble said he was working on a "metaphysical representation of power politics".

Life in the Abstract

Greg Trefry and Nick Fortugno, each of some present or past tie to Gamelab, were at hand to discuss their Come Out & Play festival, an attempt to engage people in "real life games" held all over Manhattan – with the ultimate goal to suggest alternative ways of perceiving and interacting with the world.

The variety is pretty broad, from "augmented reality" projects to simple games of urban mini-golf. One game involved taking orders – such as going out of the way to compliment random strangers – from mobile text messages. Another was a form of "zombie tag", where runners wore orange ribbons and zombies wore yellow. When a zombie touched a runner, the runner had to switch to a provided yellow ribbon. Yet another game involved staking out turf through pay phones. The next Come Out & Play festival will be held in September, in New York.

Based on his Indie Game Jam experience, Darius Kazemi of Turbine, Inc. spun off yet another developer bash, this one based in Boston. Rather than sound, his theme was the more vague idea of "shift". The results were typically mixed. Squish, by Al Reed of Demiurge, employs the staple crates in a simple 2D physics simulation-cum-brawler, where two opponents attempt to crush each other under falling boxes. Add in some inspired sound design, and the game is quite entertaining.

On the artsier end is Max McGuire's Shift, a game in which the player shifts terrain on a highly abstracted 2D planet in order to alter the mechanics of group interaction and thereby change society.

Flash in the Panel

With Sopranos A&E Connection, Frank Lantz of area/code (and again formerly of Gamelab) has created an unusual social space that turns out to be more poignant than it sounds. The player is given a grid in which to place pieces representing characters, objects, and locations within the Sopranos universe; for the week leading up to the broadcast of a rerun on A&E, the player is free to shift the pieces around for optimal placement.

Two hours before the show airs, the game board goes into lockdown; as the show plays, the pieces on the board light up and the score counter increases as the represented nouns appear on-screen. If side-by-side pieces appear in the same shot together, the player gets a higher score.

The curious thing is the deconstruction a player must apply to the series in order to play well – a person need understand the relationships of the characters, the way the show frames information in a shot, the way its narrative works. The game forces a form of postmodern analysis of the program, and of television in a broader sense. Lantz described it as "cracking open the show's narrative and finding a game within it. The mentality is easy for even non-gamers to sink into; Lantz showed an e-mail from one woman who described the game as feeling like she was taking part in a psychological thriller.

Then there is the strange way the game plays out: the player has a week to perfect his strategy, and then when it comes down to it must simply sit and watch, along with everyone else, to see and study how things played out. This pattern inspires a wealth of conversation and analysis amongst players, adding another level to the enjoyment of the program itself and highlighting television's role as a social device.

Finally, Eric Zimmerman, CEO of Gamelab stepped up to actually show off a Gamelab production, a drawing-based flash game called Out of your Mind. He and his team went into extensive and enthusiastic detail on the game's planning, production, gameplay, character art, cinematics, storyline and level design. The game essentially involves drawing lines to scoop up monsters and sludge.

Jon Blow took stage again to shut down the proceedings, as everyone stretched, shuffled away, readied to learn just how many awards Everyday Shooter would win this year.

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