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Interview: The Secrets of SYNTH, 'Weirdest Video Game Ever Created'

Continuing our series of interviews with intriguing or offbeat developers, here's a talk with Rhys Paul Hovey about his very odd, rather inspiring abstract game SYNTH.

Game Developer, Staff

April 14, 2009

7 Min Read

[Continuing our series of interviews with intriguing or offbeat developers, here's a talk with Rhys Paul Hovey about his very odd, rather inspiring abstract game SYNTH.] Rhys Paul Hovey’s SYNTH is an experimental game in many ways. It introduces itself as a strategic action title wherein players hunt for an exit, but that goal is hidden in levels full of elevators, trees, multiple pathways, teleporting altars, and fences that need specific color-coded power-ups before they’ll move aside. Amid all of this, the player gets a laser, bombs, and a device that can serve as a vacuum or a blower. SYNTH also looks a bit different from the typical modern independent game, as its visual style is rooted in the less familiar territory of mathematics. The soundtrack also follows unorthodox rules; like Rez and some other music games, SYNTH changes its background beats with each keystroke a player makes. Even the game’s stages can be generated by what the player types. SYNTH remains a work in progress, though a demo is available now. We decided to get some additional insight into this offbeat game by tracking down its creator: You've emphasized that SYNTH was programmed and runs "entirely with math." How did that differ from the usual methods of programming a game? How does the mathematics angle make SYNTH feel different? Well, usually with 3-D games, the graphics are made by artists, with modeling software and touchpads and touch screens. With SYNTH all of the graphics have a mathematical language formulation. In the end, it looks very different, as where human artists tend to mimic reality, math looks very abstract. How would you describe SYNTH's gameplay in terms of other genres? Is it influenced by games like Rez or Vib Ribbon? Honestly, I feel that SYNTH's gameplay, once you figure it out, is sort of an RTS-arcade game mixed together. I add RTS in there because in SYNTH, unlike most other arcade games, there is not always an "immediate danger," so it becomes more about the resource management strategy associated with the game’s "powers," being Red, Green, and Blue, which stand for Bomb,Life, and Wind. Part of SYNTH was supposed to be figuring it out; some people like this, some don't. I must honestly say that I've never played Rez or Vib Ribbon. I did most of my playing of games on older machines. I'm a C-64/Amiga gamer, although I have worked professionally in games at EA, Ubisoft, Rockstar, Climax and some others. How does the gameplay in it compare to the typical RTS title? Like I said, SYNTH is barely an RTS, but if you actually try to get to the 40th or 50th level on SYNTH, then it does become very strategic, because in SYNTH it is very easy to waste your power. Basically what happens in SYNTH is the "utility/usefulness" of the power ups decreases as your level increases, so to actually get really far in the game, you need to be strategic with your resources, and spend time “mining” for life, and “feeding” for wind, and knowing when and where to feed properly. But, yeah, it is pretty hard to compare SYNTH to Command and Conquer or Populous II. It's definitely not your typical RTS. So does the gameplay work more like a shooter than an RTS? Could you go into more detail about how the scoring system in SYNTH works? The scoring system in SYNTH needs a little work. It basically scores more like a shooter, but some of the things that you would think may score high, don't score at all. Score may be a bit deceptive, and if you go for score, you may end up dying faster. It's funny because my marketing strategy for SYNTH is "built on sin" because the word "sin" (from trigonometry) appeared so many times in the code (over 800), so Satan did make his way into the numbers on this game. So he's up to his old tricks, and the scoring will be sort of like that, it needs more work though. Were there any old C-64 or Amiga games that inspired SYNTH's gameplay? There are some elements of some of the top-down shooters from that time period, but due to the fact that SYNTH is 3-D, and requires 2GB of RAM, and a nice GPU/CPU, it really does not share that much with too many older games. I think graphically, though, I tried to aim for some of the cool-looking stuff that was coming out of Europe during the Amiga time period, Psygnosis was into Roger Dean, and Roger Dean's artwork was a big influence on this game. On the other hand, though, SYNTH is a vector-hybrid game, and has some vector graphics, but it has so much vector graphics that this could have never been done on those old machines. For example, check out the "carpet" on level 2. Is there an overall goal to SYNTH, in the traditional beat-the-boss sense? Nope, there is no overall goal to SYNTH, other than to get to the highest level possible. For debugging purposes I've had it over level 100. You've described SYNTH as "the weirdest video game ever created." Why do you think it earns that title? Well, that's my ego talking mostly, but I really did try really hard at every step in the process to ensure maximum weirdness. Blunted, shameless self-promotion, as they say. That's really up to the user to decide. I made sure to pick a subjective word like "weird" Does SYNTH generate levels based on any sounds? You mentioned that it can generate graphics from swear words. SYNTH is set up to generate its levels from four-letter words, you can see the name of the level in the upper left hand corner. I plan to give people the ability to type them in on the final version. "BGNI" is the first level. How is the music generated? How does the game create it to match the player's input? The music in SYNTH is dynamically remixed through SYNTH's build in loop-sequence remixer. The sounds that went into it were pre-composed by me. I have about 15 years experience with synthesizers. SYNTH has a really strange algorithm that "remixes" the loop sequence based on your keystrokes and on a preset algorithm. SYNTH is actually more like a beat box than it is like guitar hero or something. Basically the keys themselves change the music; the music is not really part of the gameplay. You've cited Pink Floyd as an influence for SYNTH. Any other music references players should watch for? Actually, Pink Floyd was more of a visual influence, and a band that I listened to a lot while programming. The current set of sounds is much more of a tek-house, sort of drum and bass mixture. Sometimes it sounds like some of the weirder stuff that DJ Sasha or DJ Dan would do. I've spent a fair amount of time in big nightclubs, as well as producing my own electronica. Is Synth finalized? What are your plans once it's finished? SYNTH is not done yet. It will need at least a few more months to reach version 1.0, and then I am hoping to get some kind of digital distribution deal. I'm not looking for very much for SYNTH; even $5 bucks would be nice. There will always be the freeware version, though. I understand that by setting the computer specs so high with SYNTH that I am automatically dealing with a niche market, but it's a niche market that I like, and a market that I am part of as well. I think for any SYNTH fans (if they ever exist) the ability to type in a four-letter word and get a level from it will be attractive. Right now you see SYNTH from 1 level "stream" starting at "BGNI." SYNTH in the final version will have more preset level streams and a "choose your own" mode.

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