By Nathan Grayson on June 21st, 2012 at 10:00 am.
It’s the final day of E3. Most attendees have died exhausted and alone, with only XXXL shirts and fliers for NOS energy drinks as bartering chips in their bid to enter the pearly gates of the great beyond. I shuffle into a tiny booth cubicle – technically for an appointment, but mostly in vain hope of discovering some hidden developer pillow mountain. Inside, I instead find Quantum Conundrum mastermind Kim Swift… excitedly chatting with Square Enix PR about Left 4 Dead, energized as someone who just woke up from being frozen in a block of ice for thousands of years.
It was pretty surprising at the time – given that she was coming off not only a grueling E3 but also an entire development cycle. But then, I suppose there’s a sort of giddy limit-defying elation in finally crossing the finish line. And, as Swift went on to tell me, she got to do it her way – even with a titan as large as Square Enix looming over the production. Which is kind of incredible, when you think about it. So then, how did all of this come about?
“When we first started making the game, it was really ugly,” Swift began, laughing. “It was just a bunch of gray boxes. I don’t think people really understand just how bad games first look when you really start making them – before all the art assets come in. Like, in the very beginning, the fluffy walls were just flat, untextured walls with the word ‘fluffy’ written on them. So yeah, games do not look pretty when they first get started.”
“But it was actually one of those things where we prototyped all of the gameplay fairly quickly. It took us about two weeks to get our dimensions up and running. So it wasn’t nearly enough time for art to catch up to gameplay.”
Which is all well and good, I guess, from a making-sure-the-game-actually-works-and-is-fun-to-play standpoint, but what about the most important thing? What about fluffy dimension?
“To me, it was always fluffy,” Swift explained. “Because, when I was first thinking of the game idea, that was the dimension that popped into my head. And people ask ‘What’s your inspiration for things?’ I did have an inspiration for fluffy. It was this toilet paper commercial where every… this sounds horrible. It was this toilet paper commercial where everything was super fluffy. And I was like ‘Huh. That’s what fluffy should look like.’”
“You know, we had some internal debate of whether or not a fluffy, pink dimension would drive away gamers. And as it turns out, most people I talk to, they’re favorite dimension is fluffy. So I’m like ‘Alright, cool!’”
So all the pieces fell quickly into place, but that was never the part Swift and co were worried about. The moment of truth arrived when it was finally time to present the idea to Square Enix. After all, when you’ve got the gritty, grime-encrusted likes of Tomb Raider, Deus Ex, Sleeping Dogs, Final Fantasy, and Thief in your stable, why pick up a candy coated puzzle platformer?
“When we first signed with [Square] and we were talking to them about wanting to do this stylized, cartoony art direction, we were really worried about whether or not they’d be OK with it,” admitted Swift. “Because, you know, stylized, quirky games like this aren’t in right now. So we were like ‘Oh man, are we gonna have to make this really serious? I don’t want to!’ But Square was like ‘No, no. You guys have a vision. You should do what you want to do, and it’ll be a better game at the end of the day because of it.’”
Even so, Swift and co’s fears may not have been entirely unfounded. It’s difficult to convey in screenshots and trailers what Quantum Conundrum’s really about, so she did her best to clear up some of the misconceptions. Foremost, it’s pink and purple and bouncy and fun, so it’s a kid’s game, right? Hardly.
“We get that a lot – that it looks like a kid’s game. It drives me crazy, because I remember the ’90s when pretty much every game was stylized and it didn’t matter. We decided that we wanted to go with the stylized cartoony feel because we felt it matched the gameplay. We could do fluffy dimension in a more gritty, gray style, but it wouldn’t have fit the game.”
“[The 'things you'll never experience' screens] are our little tiny touch of darkness,” she noted of prompts that pop up when you die – for instance, watching your favorite TV show get turned into horrible movies. “Like, yeah, you’re a kid and here are the things you’ll never experience because you died. We decided to be a little dark on that one.”
And then, on the other side of the coin, there’s the fear that Quantum Conundrum’s too complex – that Portal’s simple, one-mechanic-centric elegance has been hacked into overly intricate, accidentally swallowable pieces. Once again, though, the game itself paints an entirely different picture.
“I think we’ve done a really great job in the game of showing you step-by-step what each dimension is good for,” she said. “So, at the very beginning of the game, we only give you access to normal and fluffy dimension. Then, in the next one, we introduce heavy dimension, and you play through a third of the game just using fluffy, heavy, and normal. Then, in the second third, we introduce slow-mo dimension and show you interplay between dimensions. Then, finally, we introduce reverse gravity and all that entails.”
“My design philosophy is that gameplay has to come first, and to focus in on what gameplay is good. I think we’ve done a really good job of that on our game.”
Only time will tell, however, whether potential players will get the message or huddle under the warm safety blanket of something they’re certain they understand. And so, right now, the team at Airtight is opting to keep its collective eyes on both players and the clock.
“Oh yeah, there’s tons of stuff [we wish we could've added],” explained Swift. “But we only had 16 people and a year. There’s plenty of stuff we’re hoping to add, though, so right now we’re just waiting and crossing our fingers and seeing what the public reception is to the game – seeing if there’s anything else we can do later on down the line.”
“Man, we have so many different puzzle ideas and dimension ideas. We also have ideas for characters and story arcs. We’re never at a shortage for ideas.”
And for Swift herself, well, the future’s about as open as it can be – except, with one caveat: videogames.
“I just love making games. I’m sure I can keep coming up with puzzle game ideas because I really enjoy making them. I think I’d also like to work on a music game one day. I kind of have an idea for that. But we’ll see.”
Quantum Conundrum’s out today! Check out Alec’s review to find out if it actually lives up to all the promise.