February 16, 2012 6:00 AM | John Polson
[In the latest in our "Road to the IGF" series of interviews with 2012 IGF finalists, Gamasutra speaks with Alexander Bruce about his 2012 IGF Technical Excellence Award nominee Antichamber.]
Alexander "Demruth" Bruce's Antichamber is a game about discovery, set inside a vibrant, minimal, Escher-like world, where geometry and space follow unfamiliar rules, and obstacles are a matter of perception.
The game was a finalist for the Nuovo Award at the 2011 Independent Games Festival, back when it was still called Hazard: The Journey of Life and "only a couple of months away from release."
Twelve months later and with some work still to be done, Bruce's game is back in the competition, with a new name and new recognition as a finalist in the Technical Excellence category.
What background do you have making games?
Does this work like a resume, where if over a certain amount of time has passed since some of the work that you did, you don't have to list it anymore? I sure would like to forget about those cancelled titles that I mentioned in my Road To the IGF from last year!
On a more serious note, I started making games when I was 20, went through a university degree and worked in the industry for a year. Throughout that entire time, I felt like I didn't have enough experience at anything that I was doing, because I was always surrounded by people who had been doing this stuff for years. So in 2009 I came to the conclusion that if I was going to stand out at all, I'd have to do things differently.
I think I've succeeded at that, because G4TV tried to describe the game at PAX by saying "it's like an Escher painting meets Bastion, then someone did some heroin and threw paint on a wall." That's both one of the best descriptions and one of the most ridiculous descriptions I've ever heard.
This mindset of continuously pushing things to be different was something I addressed when I spoke at the Nuovo Sessions at GDC 2010. I'm sure that a lot of what I said at the time probably sounded naive and idealistic, but that mindset drove me through two years of hell trying to make everything work cohesively. It's also why the game has done a pretty decent job of standing out the further it has progressed. When people responded to earlier versions with "oh this is like Portal. You should make these things like this though, because in Portal...", I didn't want to embrace that. I wanted to get the hell away from that, because Portal already exists and is fantastic.
All of that is a very long winded way of saying that I think the important insights into my background are a relentless desire to explore in new directions, and being completely driven in trying to make what I'm doing work. The trailer for an upcoming documentary titled Ctrl+Alt+Compete had an amazing quote in it related to that kind of determination mindset, where someone said "If I didn't get paid to do this, I'd probably figure out how to get paid to do this. I want to be an entrepreneur."
How long has your team been working on the game?
For a whole year longer than the couple of months I said I had remaining last year! Making games sure is hard.
Since last IGF, I ended up practically redoing half the game, implemented the entire soundscape, changed the name, and was exploring concrete plans regarding distribution. In my mind, polish is the process of refining or removing all of the reasons that someone who is within your audience would have reason to stop playing, and when you view things that way, even small changes can have a huge difference for the feel of the game. I'd say that things are paying off, looking at the honorable mention I got for the Grand Prize.
At the end of the day, I'm not trying to make a good game. I'm trying to make an exceptional game, because this has my name on it. With that said, though, the risk of changing anything else too radically anymore is outweighing the potential benefits, and I'm reaching that point where I just have to stop and release it into the world. I said at PAX last year that I wanted the finished game at PAX East, and I'm still aiming to do that. Maybe not the release candidate, but it'll be close.
Antichamber's development been extremely iterative, and it has gone through a number of substantial changes (at one point it was even an arena combat game!). How can you afford to change the design so rapidly?
Nothing that led to here has happened rapidly, make no mistake about that. I've been messing around with the ideas that spawned it since 2006. All of the changes that happened were very calculated, and I'd probably been thinking about them in the back of my mind for months before I finally decided to actually execute upon them.
I think the difference between how I work versus how Stephen Lavelle or Terry Cavanagh work, is that I keep all of my focus centered around a single thing. We're all going through the process of throwing ideas at a wall, but I'm just more interested in working out why one particular thing didn't stick before I move onto the next one.
This is the second time that Antichamber has been nominated in the IGF. How do you feel about previous finalists that re-entered their games?
This will be the last time that this is ever an issue, given that the rules are disallowing it next year onwards. But I actually don't think that games that re-enter after being nominated previously have any advantage at all over games that are new to the IGF. If something is good, and it's new, I think it's way easier to respond positively to that than it is to something that is great, but that you've seen before.
None of the games that were renominated (I know of Gish, Miegakure, Fez, Faraway and Antichamber) were nominated in the same categories, which means that they had to stand out even more without relying on what they'd been selected for previously. I'm actually really happy that Fez was nominated again this year, despite the fact that I'm competing directly against it!
I know that there are a lot of people who are vocal about what the IGF is or should be, and I know that Brandon [Boyer, IGF chairman] gives a lot of thought to this issue, but at the same time there are other competitions that exist as well. Sure, they don't all have the reptutation that the IGF has, but if your reasoning for entering the IGF is to try to get your big break and have the world know about your game, I really don't see why you wouldn't take other competitions seriously as well. If you can get through a couple of those, who knows, maybe you'll also work out all of the things that need to be fixed in order to improve your chances of getting into the IGF. That's what I did.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
I've played several, though I think the ones that stuck with me the most were when I played At a Distance and Way at IndieCade with Chris Hecker.
When we were playing At a Distance, we were constantly speaking back and forth about what we were doing and where the other player had to go, and conquering the game was really easy because of that. When we were playing Way, though, our inability to communicate directly like this left us pretty screwed on a particular puzzle.
Way is all about puppetry, and if you're really expressive with your character, you can say quite a lot just by waving your arms around, shaking your head, etc. But I don't think Chris or I solve problems socially like that. When something didn't work, both of us would just sit back and stare off into the distance and think "what is the other person not understanding about what I'm doing, and what is the most effective way that I can purposefully animate my character to express that?" As a result, a lot of the time our characters just stood around on screen doing nothing. Other people found it hilarious and pretty painful to watch.
Chris Bell (the designer) ended up taking over Hecker's computer and started waiving his characters arms all around the place, shaking his characters head furiously whenever I did anything wrong, etc. and I could instantly understand what he wanted to say. Within about 30 seconds, the level was solved, and I felt incredibly stupid. But... that's the beauty of a good puzzle!
This is a game that seems to demand more from the player than most. What should an Antichamber player gain from playing the game?
I wouldn't say that Antichamber is more demanding than other games. Often times the puzzles require you to do a lot less than puzzles in other games. They're just a very different kind of puzzle than what people are used to. People who are naturally really good at thinking outside the box end up blasting through the game relatively quickly, while people who are used to games that more directly tell them how everything works and expect them to just execute upon that knowledge are the ones that end up finding it more difficult. In any case, it's introducing some new concepts into games, and forcing players to think differently.
What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?
I don't think there's much point in labeling everything as "the indie scene". Personally, I just have the work that I do, a group of friends who all make stuff that I find interesting, and then a whole lot of other people that I'd really like to meet.
[This article was originally posted on Gamasutra, written by Frank Cifaldi.]