November 16, 2011 2:23 AM | John Polson
Chris Makris has taken the big leap and submitted his work for the IGF. Unlike most, though, game design has not always been the direct recipient of his creativity.
Makris has been an artist foremost, working at Powerhead Games for several Nintendo DS and phone projects such as Async Corp and IGF Best Mobile Game Design winner Glow Artisan. What makes his entry, puzzle platformer Fader, stick out to me are those wow moments when the images shift in and out of being superimposed and how the shifting boundaries lend themselves to the gameplay.
When critics often speak of a game's mechanics and its graphics, the two topics are traditionally treated at best as complementary. What is happening in Chris Makris' above-pictured Fader feels important because it seems to speak about how else these two components can be viewed and treated. As revealed in this interview, Makris is exploring in his puzzle platformer that interesting things can happen when the two are actually entwined.
Please tell me more about you and your past in the gaming industry. It seems you are primarily an artist.
My background is in visual art, yes, and I have always examined games from that angle. I have worked at two studios in NYC over the past five years. Most of that time was spent at Powerhead Games where I "pushed pixels" for several Nintendo DS and phone projects. Async Corp, Glow Artisan, and Did It Myself ABC123 (a game for toddlers) were among the more interesting titles I contributed to.
Part of my process involved scripting with LUA, and around two and a half years ago this developed into a desire to learn a more advanced programming language. I bought an introductory C++ book, and another on DirectX, and read them like novels over the next few months before downloading an IDE. As an artist/programmer, I could start exploring the types of ideas that appealed to me, where the design and visuals are entwined.
Is anyone else working on the game?
No, it is just myself at the moment.
Impressive. Just how does one goes from being an artist to an all in one indie (designer, programmer, musician)?
All you really need is the interest. The graphics road is a long one, and you can walk down it forever, but programming and music, as different as they might appear on the surface, are like parallel roads. Programming is a tool, and visual artists should find it attractive that not a lot of other visual artists are using that tool. The trick is probably to set some logical limitations for yourself.
For example, I have no interest in learning any other programming language beyond C++. Part of why I chose to learn C++ is because I knew it could take me a long way. Learn the lingo, start making things. The computer scientist's approach would be much deeper, and more like embarking on a long road. It's also important to just plant the seed. Recognize that you have a slightly radical interest that might appear orthogonal to everything else you do, and then over time realize how it can work.
Are there any artists turned devs you have spoken to or looked to for help? What was it about scripting that pushed you to learn more?
Not really. I have an inspiring book by John Maeda called Design By Numbers, but he is not really a game developer. It was only programming I wanted to learn, and I figured it had nothing to do with how other artists turned developers had gone about it.
Scripting sparked it all. We had some free time at work and I was going to be a guinea pig for some LUA experiments. The initial idea was to have the game designers learn LUA, so that they could script the game logic. The first script I was given used a sine wave to move a sprite on the screen. In studying what the hell was going on, and learning that a computer is reading instructions in steps, and seeing how those steps were created with a loop, [it] just blew my mind apart and set me on a path down a rabbit hole.
The idea to learn how to program had come up in my life before, and I always pushed it away. Learning as much as I did with LUA, and recognizing that this new skill could be the thing that binds together everything else I have ever tinkered with (music, writing, graphics, game design), there was almost no choice but to "just give'r".
What can you share about the gameplay, design, or visual aesthetic that is not apparent from the video?
There's a certain amount that I want to remain a surprise for when the game is played, or at least until I get closer to the finish line. The world is a continuous journey, not separated into "levels", and you reach checkpoints that can be loaded at any time. I want the world, and the experience for the player, to feel alien, and I'm experimenting with a sort of dynamic ambient music created by the things you encounter and your interaction with the environment. There's isn't too much more, at the moment, that would be very difficult to guess at given the mechanics presented in the video.
I'm sure nobody would have suspected that the game is entirely 3D. I can zoom in/out and change the perspective of each layer, but that is almost irrelevant at this point. It's 3D because I wasn't exactly sure what the game was going to be when I started it. Well, also, you can do some killer things with the third D, even in a game as very 2D as Fader. Some might find it interesting that I'm using Maya as an editor, and I've created several plug-ins for exporting all of the game's content.
You state that the game may have more than 2 characters on screen at once. That sounds like a challenge to present visually and comprehensively.
I've found that there is a lot to explore with only two layers, and I want to make sure I do that right before introducing a third or fourth. The third gets incredibly confusing, but by no means impossible or too ridiculous for a puzzle experience. In addition to the puzzle design, the difficulty hinges on how the screen is composed. The overlap needs to be treated carefully, so that you can follow the lines of each separate terrain without too much strain.
I see the controls are just space bar and arrows. Do you jump with "up"?
There is no jump. An early version had a jump, because it seemed like an obvious control to include. However, I found that it made the game too much about platforming exercises, and somehow it cheapened the experience because the game is ultimately about space. I almost found a happy medium by having the character jump if "up" was held as he went over an edge, but it didn't feel right.
What games inspired you?
The games that most directly inspired Fader are probably Out of This World, Braid and Limbo. They are these sort of solitary, thoughtful, well considered and totally engaging experiences, and you can tell that the creators put a lot of love into them. On a more general level I continue to be inspired by the original Quake, from id Software, because it was such an innovative achievement in video games at the time.
I was 13 or 14 and had been making doom 2 levels after school, and I remember seeing a picture of the Quake world editor in a magazine. It just lit me up inside. While I had still been thinking about sprites, Quake presented a total paradigm shift. I still think it is one of the most beautiful games ever made. I'd also credit some platformers and side scrollers as inspiration, such as Super Mario Bros, Megaman, Life Force, and VVVVVV.
What games would you say are similar to Fader, and how do you differentiate it?
Well, there are several flash games I came upon while doing research for this project that explore the idea of controlling multiple characters at once, but none of them employ the particular rules that I have set in Fader. There is a shared space contraint, so the characters do not offset from each other horizontally. Superimposing one screen over the other, beyond being visually interesting, opens up the possibility for other kinds of spacial puzzles. There are some pretty cool things that can happen as a result of the shared space rule, but they are less obvious and I have not shown them.
This artwork seems to work for the gameplay. Is it placeholder art?
The final art direction is as you see it. The world will evolve, and bold, graphic shapes will continue to be the basis for the environments, but I think there is a lot that can be done there and I am still exploring it. My opinion is that most games over-cook their visuals, and what has happened with Fader is that the presentation is a result of the design concept, which feels like a special thing.
What about its release and platforms to play Fader on?
It is currently only working on a PC, but I hope to make the game available for Windows, Mac and Linux. Bibbity Bobbity Boo. I'm not sure when it will be finished, but development has been pretty quick from the beginning, and now I'm in the thick of it.
Are you working on any other indie game projects now?
I have another, more visually rich, game in the works. It's a teenage bike-riding tale inspired by my childhood in the Canadian suburbs, but for now it's on the back burner. Fader is on the more powerful front burner.
[Thanks for the interview, Chris! I look forward to seeing how more professionals in and out of the traditional school of game design continue to push our medium of games.]