This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. The IGF (Independent Games Festival) aims to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize independent game developers advancing the medium. Every year, Game Developer sits down with the finalists for the IGF ahead of GDC to explore the themes, design decisions, and tools behind each entry.
Mind Diver buries a mystery in someone's memories, tasking you with diving into someone's past experiences to get a lead on a missing person.
Game Developer caught up with the director of the Best Student Game nominee, Victor Selnæs Breum, to talk about how thinking on past relationships would lead to the game's puzzles, what thoughts went into using the fluid nature of memories to create compelling mysteries, and how the visual style was born out of carved hunks of meat.
Who are you, and what was your role in developing Mind Diver?
Hi there! I'm Victor Selnæs Breum, and I am the game director of Mind Diver. The team has changed tremendously during production so my role has changed with it. I've done a bit of everything; especially game design, writing, voice direction, programming, and general cheering-on-talented-people-doing-cool-stuff-on-computers.
Together with our producer I also pitch and fundraise, so if you have funds and are interested in a first-person detective game with a striking, unique style that is IGF nominated for its demo, well… I should say you can get in touch!
What's your background in making games?
I've made a ton of smaller games and tried to do a mix of stuff to learn from many different sources. I've made Escape Room-like treasure hunts for adults at grand old castles, and I've studied at a Film School with grand old traditions for visual storytelling. Games-wise, I've created music games, idle games, 3D platformers, arcade games, and a couple of board games!
How did you come up with the concept for Mind Diver?
Sitting alone at a harbor at night, staring out over a dark ocean, thinking about my failed romantic relationships. Trying to remember exactly what went wrong, who did what, who said what suddenly felt like an emotionally powerful puzzle; a rare beast! The metaphor of diving into an ocean came later—the name "Mind Diver" actually came before the actual diving! "Mind Walker" is just a much more boring title.
What development tools were used to build your game?
Unity, Blender, Houdini, Substance, FMOD, Ableton, and so on. The usual stuff! Probably the most unique is the use of PolyCam, an app for photogrammetry. We tried more advanced workflows with expensive cameras and professional photogrammetry tools, but PolyCam was better for our needs. Oh, and Miro! We use Miro for everything.
What appealed to you about exploring memories and the mind? About delving into a mind to solve a mystery?
"Exploring memories" is what we do when we try to understand our own lives and figure out how we ended up where we're at. There is a fascinating tension at the center of our lives: if you think too much about the past, you can get stuck, unable to move on, and depressed. If you think too little about the past, you can become blind to your own flaws and the consequences of your actions! That felt like a powerful theme for a game.
How did you design the look of the game? The visuals for the memories and the mind world they inhabit?
The first thing our Art Director, Mai Katsume, presented as visual inspiration was [a set of] drawings she had carved in frozen chunks of meat—reflecting the living, frozen into a moment. We didn't quite go with that style, but that shows how experimental the process was.
When we first looked at imperfect photogrammetry scans, it was love at first sight. They create the experience of a memory so well—the imperfect recollection of reality.
Also, how did you design the striking effect for when players shift and adjust the memories? The swirling effect that makes this process feel magical and futuristic?
At first, the pick-up effect was inspired by The Avengers: Infinity War with people turning to dust. But we changed it to make it feel more digital, as if you were turning memory fragments into data that you can carry around. It's all fun times with the Unity VFX Graph!
What thoughts go into designing puzzles that take place in a mind? Into shaping puzzles out of memories?
We want the player to feel like they are piecing together somebody's real memories. This places a lot of demands on the scenes and puzzles; they must be authentic and dramatic, and most of all, players must figure out the story on their own.
The puzzles are about fixing holes in memories, and early on, we tried to only make the holes be things the main character (Lina) could have plausibly forgotten. But designing that was almost impossible! So we are liberal with how much Lina forgets. But there is a reason for this hidden in the story...
You mention that you consulted with many great puzzle designers for Mind Diver. How did their input affect the design of the game?
Lucas Pope (Papers Please, Return of the Obra Dinn) was the first to give us amazing advice. His input pushed us towards iterating on the core task for the player until it was super clear, simple, and had immediate feedback for the player. Extremely important for a demanding game.
Tim Sheinman (Riley and Rochelle, Family, Rivals) has been an excellent sparring partner and he helped us sharpen the deduction design process to always make sure that the player can eliminate all options but the truth. Just like Sherlock Holmes.
Can you take us through how you designed one of the puzzle memories?
Each puzzle starts from the outline of the story. In each scene, we identify objects that could represent the main character's goal, their obstacle, and the outcome, then try to build the puzzle around identifying those objects.
We have a scene when Lina and her boyfriend meet for the first time. In it, she takes a polaroid photo of them as a present for his mother. Figuring out that she is holding a polaroid camera became the puzzle, because it represents the outcome of the scene: her doing a small but deeply meaningful thing for him.
During the 3D-scanning process, the most important clue became that both characters are smiling for the camera. As the actors have to sit still while we scan them, this turned out to be one of the most challenging scenes to scan! Holding a natural smile for several minutes is a very hard thing to do!
What ideas go into designing a story around memories? How does that structure shape how you build a story?
Memories are often loosely associated, and you can jump across years and continents instantly in your mind. So, it was obvious to me from the beginning that the story had to be [nonlinear]. Another rule is that the more ashamed or afraid Lina feels about a memory, the deeper it's hidden in her subconscious. That works great story-wise in saving the most juicy memories for last.
Your puzzles can rely on the player's attention-to-detail to solve. What challenges do you face in ensuring you give the players enough pieces to solve the puzzle themselves without giving them too much direction?
Lots! People get frustrated at one end, bored at the other, but super satisfied and proud in the sweet spot. This balance is key to the entire game, and is something we constantly tweak. We have a few rules-of-thumb to go by, though, such as having everything important in plain sight to avoid pixel hunting. And giving more clues than required to solve the puzzle, so even if you miss a clue, you still have a chance. We also carefully map out how our clues can lead to realizations that lead to solutions!