As part of our Road to the IGF series, sister site Gamasutra is speaking to each of the student finalists in the 2013 Independent Games Festival to find out the story behind the games.

Today, we speak to NHTV Breda (Netherlands) student designers Marta Clavero Jimenez and Thomas Buijtenweg, who jointly discuss their attempt to "break the fourth wall" in their game inside a game, ATUM. The two also share how they tackled managing ideas of 17 developers, especially when conflicting designs were introduced.

ATUM is a curious name. Could you tell me about it?

The name of the game, ATUM, is an Egyptian deity that, together with the scarab Khepri, is responsible for the cyclical process of sunrise and sunset. Together with the books scattered around the room, which are all stories related to the idea of eternal recurrence, and some of the objects containing images of symbols that also insinuate this concept, we wanted to put a lot of emphasis on this idea.

How did you come up with the game idea?

The initial idea came from a challenge posed by one of my lecturers, try and build an experimental game during gamelab, specifically, try to break the fourth wall. From there, the game took many shapes which resulted in the evolution of the initial concept to the current game.

What development tools did you use?

The early prototype was built using the Angel 2D engine, we also heavily used the open source Ogmo editor for the level creation. Furthermore we used standard development tools like Maya and Photoshop.

How long did you work on your project?

ATUM was developed over a period of one and a half years during our university's gamelab, this effectively means that we have spent around 48 working days on the project with varying team sizes.

What what do designers and gamers get out of a "break the fourth wall" experience?

As part of our University Gamelab, we were presented with an assignment, a design challenge: "Create a game that uses a known mechanic and present it in a new and different way". With this idea in mind we came up with the concept of breaking the fourth-wall, by letting the player experience gameplay from a different perspective.

Our initial take was to create a game world that will elicit in the player the feeling that the game was actually playing with them, as well as the other way around. This effectively makes the player part of the game system. After many deliberations and playtesting of initial prototypes, we decided that our early ideas were not going to work and we took a different approach. We resolved the challenge of including the player in a more subtle way, by means of environmental storytelling.

This way of communicating the underlying story to the players makes them part of the process, because they need to bring in their own experiences and knowledge to interpret the bits and pieces of narrative scattered throughout the game layers. Many games do this beautifully; BioShock is a great example of fascinating environmental storytelling.

From the designer's perspective, this design approach was a very challenging and enriching experience; we had to work out a way of communicating a story without text or speech. We learned a lot about environmental storytelling, telegraphing, dressing up scenes, and creating a rich backstory while letting go of the idea that we had to make sure that the players get every bit of it one way or another.

We were very aware that, despite all the careful thinking and consideration for details indicating a complex backstory, not everyone was going to get all of it. So as designers we have our intentions, but the players bring in their own insight and create their own interpretation and conclusions, and by letting them discover (or not discover) on their own, the whole experience gets a more personal meaning.

Can you describe how you decided to "break the fourth wall" for the first time in the game?

The setting of the game, a person playing a game, is the big hint towards the illusion of breaking the fourth-wall. This is a game about a game that makes use of meta-references throughout the layers. This is done to hint towards the idea of a bigger game that might include the actual player in it. Specifically, the final puzzle the player has to solve (the tau box) goes that additional layer up, indicating the idea that the players themselves are part of the game loop.

We approached the design of this setting from the literary trope of mise en abyme, "a play within a play", like in Hamlet.

How does your school prepare students for independent game development, compared to grooming for AAA work?

Our University has attention for both the AAA and the Indie side of development. One of the four tracks is literally called Indie Game Development (IGD). This track focuses on teaching how to build small concepts and giving creative freedom, but we also have the Design & Production track (D&P), that focuses more on AAA work.

As we learn to develop for all platforms and different sizes of games in terms of scope, we are motivated to either join a larger studio or to start our own companies after graduation. In our in our case, during our education we already started running our own development studio, working on small games and game design consultancy. Our courses cover several topics that a small start-up would need to get going, including legal classes, project management and many other less game related yet essential courses.

Next to that the University covers all areas of game development, especially for IGD students, as it is the multidisciplinary track that combines the 3 other courses (Programming, Visual Art, and Design & Production). This track allows students to become either solo developers or be a "jack of all trades" in larger teams at the end of their bachelor degree.

How many people were in your team total, and what lessons did you learn in managing a team of that size?

As the project ran for over 3 Gamelab courses (48 days in total) spread over one and a half years, we had quite a few people coming and going, in total there were 17 different people that have worked on the project with only a few that saw it from start to finish.

Initially we had a very open structure in the team, during early development we encouraged people to speak up and share their view on the game, this obviously lead to some heated discussions from time to time as creative minds tend to clash. We always had the agreement that the design team had the final call, under the header: "designers don't just come up with ideas, they also collect them and pick the ones that fit the game, insert elements that connect them all, then discard the rest".

This was not always easy as people get passionate about the game and their view on what would be the best way to go forward. To solve this we introduced a simple rule "If you think it should be in, build it on your own time, and show us that it is better than what we currently have". This proved to work quite well and some of the strongest game elements are a modification of the results of this approach, some of which would probably have never made it without otherwise.

What made you decide to get into making games?

Thomas: As far back as I can remember I have always been making games, as my father was a programmer we had a commodore 64 and I was exposed to a large amount of games at a very early age. I started off with building horribly big and complex boardgames with Lego that would take 10 hours to play and would bore everyone playing it, except for me (sorry dad, they are a lot better to play now!). I recall making a clone of Warcraft with post-it notes that required roughly the entire living room to play and a single turn took about an hour to complete... good times.

Although I really enjoyed making these prototypes I never considered making it my job and it always remained a hobby, mostly because I have zero talent in terms of art and after trying a few times to get into the coding side I concluded that this was not my calling either.

This changed when I heard about the NHTV IGAD programme in Breda, I applied for the Design & Production course and I had found my spot, being able to design game concepts and managing a team that creates the concept puts all my strengths to good use while far more capable and talented team mates take care of the code and art side of the game. Once I got accepted into the course I immediately quit my job to focus on my new found love for development and have been enjoying every bit of it since then.

Marta: As a child I spent quite some type living in a community that chose to live without any of the modern comforts. There was no electricity and hence no TV nor videogames. I had books, lots of them, which is where I found my passion for stories and narrative. At some point in my life I finally got a computer of my own and a new passion developed. I was captivated by technology, in no time I was building my own PCs and I became very, very technically oriented.

I'm fascinated by the possibilities of building interactive systems and using the available technology to tell stories and create experiences. When I found out about a school where I could learn to do just that my goal was set.