The following interview is only representative of 20 minutes of an hour’s worth of interrogation Steve Swink graciously endured. The interview took place with Towerfall as a soundtrack, so it’s not the best quality audio to release publicly. Part 2 of the interview will be released in the following week.
As I made my way to Los Altos, I couldn’t completely excise the playfully macabre thought, informed by an over exposure to bad movies, that I was walking into a trap. The town has a distinct atmosphere like some suburban island detached from the rest of California by asphalt and freeways. What kind of person meets someone on the internet, has a few exchanges, then invites them over for an interview and some Towerfall? Either a really cool one or one wanting to recreate scenes from Hostel.
Steve Swink’s pedigree almost certainly confirmed the former, but hey, you never know. Swink is not only an independent game developer and semi-professional Towerfall player, but also teaches game design and level design at The Art Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. He co-chairs the Independent Games Festival and has been in the video game industry for over a decade, working on everything from Off-Road Velociraptor Safari at Flashbang Studios to one of the Tony Hawk games at Neversoft. It’s almost no wonder with that type of resume and a brilliant conceit that his crowdfunding campaign for Scale (the game I was there to discuss) made over $100k.
I pull into a cul-de-sac, the roundabout shaped by houses I’ll never be able to afford, and find the address I’d been told to meet at, a friend of Steve’s. It’s a quaint and pleasant cottage style home that would probably look even more natural if it were the size of a dollhouse. I peek through the window and see Steve Swink at a wooden table, a few laptops positioned around the corners. I knock and a motion is made for me to walk in. The door is unlocked.
I’m greeted with a smile and hear someone in the background explain “that’s the guy Steve met on the internet.” I make some bad and tasteless joke to the 10 or so people in the room about there being a bomb in the bag full of Xbox controllers I had brought with me. Immediately after my interruption, everyone gets back to work. The fans of a few laptops can be heard pushing air with the type of hum that suggests the machines are rarely turned off.
I soon come to find out the that except for one or two people, including myself, everyone there is a game developer. Most are playtesting a candy themed dungeon crawler, Candy Cave, on some mobile devices.
Steve’s fiancé, Erin Robinson, is working on her forthcoming game Gravity Ghost, an orbital planet platformer that feels as smooth as the brushstrokes of its painterly aesthetic.
Michael Todd can be seen creating new content for the brutal, beat bumping platformer Electronic Super Joy.
A lot programming chatter fills the air. The talks revolve around solving some rendering glitches, meshes, collision problems, and making user interfaces more intuitive. The lead for Candy Cave stands over the play-testers with a clipboard in hand enthusiastically taking notes.
Finding pleasure in the work is the general attitude in the space. Michael Todd at one point says, “you eventually make $500,000 off your game and then you fail 4 times, get it right, and do it all again. I wouldn’t have it any other way.” The milieu is one that makes you feel productive just standing there.
Through my few interactions with those in the indie game world I’ve come to learn that this community is tiny. This isn’t surprising considering the nature of the work is so highly specialized. Most outside the reality of programming and design theory simply wouldn’t “get it.”
Talking to Steve, I find out that pretty much everyone knows everyone in indie development. He throws around the first names of Jon Blow and Edmund McMillen as if we all grew up together. There’s a deep sense of comradery among these independent game developers that’s rooted in a shared understanding that they’re all working to create something special within the medium.
It may true that community, the teams, and the budgets are small but it’s the size of the ideas, innovative explorations in interactivity like Scale that matter.
RS: We’ll start off with the easy questions. What is Scale?
SS: My tagline is that it’s a first person reality manipulation game with a unique scaling mechanic. A lot of people look at it and think “yeah, it’s like Portal, you can scale stuff.” And yeah, you can scale stuff in first person because that’s the best and easiest way I could think of to do it. You can point a thing at a thing and say I wanna scale that.
And I’ve seen a lot of other games do these convoluted transformations to get to you to scale things up and down and that was the most direct way I could think to do it. I did a lot of 3D modeling [throughout my career] and it’s like oh, it’s the scale tool and I can just make gameplay out of that. But it’s on its way to becoming something more like Mario 64.
Steve leans over to answer a question concerning Towerfall to some newcomers: “Feather arrows are really fast and they don’t follow gravity.”
It has a structure that’s a lot more open, so it’s more about exploring. What I found is that with the scaling mechanic, you find unanticipated results from exploring the environment. You find things and hidden secrets. By scaling things up and down you end up changing the environment really drastically. You find these interesting applications of the mechanics and they’re not like puzzles, they’re more like that was cool and interesting.
It’s like a lateral thinking kind of thing, but it’s also more exploration. So I have some conceptual puzzles that are not really about doing things in the right order. There’s the one that’s been shown in videos with a treasure chest. In another game you think “oh, it’s a treasure chest I need to find the key.” But here [in Scale], you can turn [the treasure chest] on its side, scale it up, and drop through the keyhole. It’s about finding the surprising in the ordinary.
RS: You know when I saw the trailer I was thinking this is really cool, but I had the question of what else are you going to do with it? As far as not making it Portal with scaling. I read a preview on Polygon and it described the game as something more like Zelda, or at least the exploration aspect of it.
SS: It’s a hard game to make a trailer for. It’s much more about being in an environment, considering it carefully, and thinking about how to change the size of things to the size that you want or to take it somewhere you didn’t think it could go.
Once you take off the limit of how big you can make things, there’s a ton of stuff you can do. You can take an orange and make it so big that you’re up in the stratosphere and the sky turns to stars because you’re standing on it. There’s something inherently interesting about taking ordinary objects like a fork or a plate and making them insanely large, or taking a giant skyscraper and shrinking it down and picking it up.
I think everyone has in their brain this reference for what the scale of everything is. That’s why it’s so easy when you play a first-person-shooter, like a mod made by a bunch of students, and you’re walking through a house, it just feels completely wrong like this is too big or this too small. It’s easy to tell, so as long as I get the initial scale of that stuff right, then it’s like okay.
RS: In the trailer, you have a camera swooping through a bunch of different sets like a Russian nesting dolls.
SS: Like a matryoshka doll?
RS: Yeah, the matryoshka doll. Is that at all going to play into Scale as far as the environment that you’re in? Are you going to have those questions of where I am, how scaled down or up am I?
SS: One of the rules of the game is that the player never changes scale. The player is always the reference point of scale. The player never changes size so any transformations that happen are in the environment. But you can scale the entire world up and down. A lot of the challenges from design is finding a way to bound that in a way that feels organic and also leads to interesting gameplay.
When we’re done interviewing I’ll show you some of the crazy stuff I’m working on that I don’t want to talk about yet.
The normal thing you would do is make a Portal thing. Make some objects you can scale and some objects you can’t. So you do a bunch of procedural puzzles that take six steps to do and some five steps and we’ll introduce elements gradually overtime so people will understand it until it’s a smooth water-slide and we’ll kick it out the door.
That’s the normal way you would make this game, but that’s not what I’m interested in doing because I want to actually explore the mechanic and I feel like that’s become a default strategy [the Portal puzzler method] and people aren’t thinking enough of why they would do that, they just think “oh cool, I have this experimental mechanic now I need to make a series of room puzzles where you move box a to slot b.” And there’s some of that in there. I’d be remiss if I didn’t do that. But I’m trying to contextualize it within a broader spectrum.
RS: So as far as creating a structure for the game, which appears pretty open, are we being guided along somehow. It seems like it would be easy to leave it to the player to do what they want, but that wouldn’t work for too long.
SS: Yeah, you can’t just do that. I constrain the player at the beginning, then give them gradual degrees of freedom. [Major spoilers redacted here].
RS: You have a voice actress in the trailer. Tell me a little about that.
RS: There’s obviously some story going on there, which we haven’t heard much about. Is there anything you can say about what type of narrative you’re telling? Do we even know who this character really is? Is that something left unknown?
SS: You sort of learn about her over time. There’s a beginning piece right now where you get some specifics and you learn about her character and why she is where she is. From there, the plan for the game, and this will probably change a lot, there’s an arch that changes over time and what you do as player parallels her growth.
I’ve given some of the back-story. She’s a brilliant particle physicist and she’s come up with this idea for a scaling device and so she’s landed in this future prison. The nature of which is like The Prisoner. Awesome show. It was made in the 60’s and it’s fucking crazy. This guy is a super secret spy, James Bond kind of guy, and you get 10 minutes of him being a spy, and then everything goes black and he wakes up on an island. He’s wearing a jacket with stripes and everyone is wearing the same thing and he has a number, doesn’t have a name anymore. All this crazy weird stuff happens and he wants to escape.
RS: Would you say The Prisoner is a major inspiration for Scale?
SS: Oh yeah. The Prisoner is amazing. It holds its interest. There are so many shows from the 60’s that you can’t watch today.
RS: It’s almost a little bit of a paradox or contradictory. This idea of the freedom that comes along with the scaling and then you’re playing around with this theme, narrative wise, of a prison.
SS: Exactly. And part of it, you can see the story expressing my struggle as a designer. I want to give the player as much freedom as possible, but then I need to constrain it in order to give them meaningful things to do.
RS: So are we going to get into some meta stuff as the time goes on in the game? Maybe implicitly?
SS: I would love to make the communication to the player all non-verbal. The player comes to a realization without having to paint on the wall the cake is a lie, go here. Because I think we’re past that now. I don’t think we have to do that anymore. I want to treat the player like an intelligent human being.
So the game is about figuring out what’s going on and trying to think about ways in which what’s going on is not exactly what it seems and what that might mean for what to do next.
Part of the struggle of making the game, as I build out the content, some of it is not what I’m pleased with and maybe I need to go in a different direction. Originally, I was thinking there would be different worlds. Kind of like in Braid. Where there’s different modifiers of what the scale device actually does.
RS: Do you have everything you need from the beginning or do you acquire new skills as you progress?
SS: I’m still messing around with that. My instinct is to never change the player’s abilities. I’ve been starting to push all the weird stuff, interesting stuff, into self-containted worlds and levels. I realize my instinct to give players more abilities over time is based on the fact I’m a big fan of Metroid Prime [laughs]. That’s not this game. I don’t need to do that.
RS: I’ve been curious about the tone of the game. You have that clip of the player jumping through a monster toad butt and then the trailer with the voice over which has more of serious tone. What are you going for? The nature of scaling makes it seem like there’s no way you can make the game serious or completely serious.
SS: Oh yeah, of course. I have no intention of doing that. Have you read “A Lesson is Learned But the Damage is Irreversible?”
RS: No. I haven’t.
SS. So Dale who’s doing the story writing with me, wrote this unbelievably wonderful webcomic. My favorite webcomic of all time.
Dale cultivates this beautiful blend of metaphysical absurdism where the things that are happening are absurd, funny inherently, but then there’s a little twist of pathos that makes it all so much more interesting that just a joke. It’s hard to explain, but generally speaking [the game’s tone] more absurdity than comedy.
So monster guts I think will probably be rendered more creepily so it’s a little less like comedy-comedy and a little more like this is kind of gross. But I think that’s an example of subverting a game trope. It’s like why would you ever want to make a giant monster, you’re always trying to kill the giant monster, that’s the boss monster. I need it to be a little absurd and comedic because I want to explore things like a bunch of goomba guys running around. You make one of them really big and it just tries to eat the other ones. What do these things do at different sizes?
RS: So as far as creatures go in the game, there are actual behavioral changes that happen in response to scaling? It’s not just the creature is huge and it does the same thing. It actually realizes that it’s become bigger than the rest of them.
SS: So Derek and Andy, who programmed Spelunky, I was talking to them a lot about what I was doing and they were encouraging me to keep doing what I’m doing which is whenever the player asks a question of the system, when they interrogate whether or not something will do something, always give them an answer. Even if that answer is unexpected as long as you show the player that you thought of that, then the environment becomes richer, more satisfying, it feels more cohesive.
I don’t like the word immersion because I think it encapsulates too many different variables, but it definitely makes the world more engaging. Gamers tend to refer to this as more “realistic” which is the wrong word or immersion which is too much of a catchall term. But yeah, cohesion of the world.
RS: Overall, people’s initial response jumps to the easy conclusion, that easy reading of the game as Portal, and then not really discussing, and this is something you won’t get until you play the game, the philosophy of it. There seems to be something else going on there. I liken you playing with that mechanic like an artist playing with materials, different paints or something like that. What can I do with this? What does this mean? How does this work?
Along those lines, what kind of things have you discovered, something that surprised you, about scaling?
SS: One thing I noticed is that traversal becomes irrelevant. You have to think a lot about making getting to a place interesting since you can change the entire size of the entire world. For example, there’s a house within a house puzzle. You have an idea in your brain of how big a house is.
So I start the house really small, so the player scales it up and they go up and up and up. And they make it really big and then they can see through the door. And I’ve made the door cracked open a certain amount, so they have be a certain size relative to the house in order to fit through it. Then they walk into the house and recontextualize their current context into the house, but you can keep scaling the house up and up and up and you can fall through a crack in the floor and be in a basement or notice a mousehole in the corner of the room and scale it up until you get out and you’re jumping from nail to nail that extend through the wall.
I guess it surprised me the degree to which, that feels unexpected. Especially, for people who are seeing the game for the first time. Because they think the mechanic is really intuitive for people.
I mean it’s like the treasure chest thing. I make a treasure chest just because I feel like it would be interesting to have one and I’ll make a key for it – later. And then, I realized you can just go through the keyhole. That was kind of the idea that made me model it out. But because it is not about a procedural movement from a to b then c.
It becomes conceptual. Like dropping through the keyhole of the treasure chest. That seems to be the wonderful thing about the game, the ability to fluidly and smoothly change the scale of everyday objects to be unexpected sizes and then to look for interesting results. So in some ways I’m still kind of curating the results from that and I’m looking for ways to extend that idea into directions that no one has really done before.
For my info and to preorder Steve Swink’s playable mis-en-abyme, Scale, go here.
Part two of the interview will be posted in the following week and will primarily deal with game design theory surrounding Swink’s conception of “game feel.”