The upcoming puzzle game Lab Rat didn't start out looking like Portal, but as development progressed, director Gwen Frey knew it was going in that direction. It's easy to compare the two at first glance: you play as, well, a Lab Rat, testing procedurally generated puzzles while a female-coded AI oversees you. I caught up with Frey to talk about what we can expect from the game, and it sounds as though the Portal references are just a small part of a more complex experience. Even still, she tells me that herself and the rest of the developers at Chump Squad absolutely leaned into it.
"We thought: people are going to compare this to Portal, so let's give them Portal. Let's write out everything we know about Portal, let's make puzzles that look and feel like Portal with Portal mechanics, but let's talk about it in a way that's funny and will interest players."
Lab Rat is a block-pusher (or sokoban) puzzle game that's designed to satirise games and game genres, and basically poke fun at lots of different things. An AI is procedurally generating these puzzles for your character, and polling them for feedback each time you complete one. Frey tells me that, somewhere along the way, this AI gets access to the internet, and uses machine learning to introduce references to all sorts of stuff. But it's not some dystopian robot trying to trap pesky humans. Rather, it's about how strangely technology treats us today.
"In reality, technology isn't like Portal. Glados is a character that's got a personality - she's mean, she's satirical. Actual technology is pretending to be extremely nice: it's friendly, it's doing everything for your benefit," Frey says. "Technology is polling you because it wants to help you make your life better. I think something is far more insidious, and kind of evil, if it presents itself as being really friendly."
This approach to Lab Rat was partly inspired by the global lockdowns we all went through in March last year. While Frey worked from home before then, it's still a very different feeling working from home in the middle of a pandemic.
"We all had this shared experience, all sitting at our computers interacting with the internet and with technology, being profiled and tracked with our every interaction. The only way we communicate with other people is through a screen," she tells me. "I was thinking about that, about how that's what our lives were at that time. There's this really friendly computer that's the only way we connect with other people, and we're actually just stuck here doing our work, like a little rat in a skinner box."
She adds that it's not some social commentary on lockdown, because that would be a bit grim. But sometimes the best way to deal with a situation that's completely out of the ordinary is just to laugh at it. As a result, Lab Rab will have a very different vibe to her previous game Kine, the jazz-filled puzzler with a more lighthearted tone. She reckons players who liked that game will still enjoy Lab Rat though.
Each level in Lab Rat will have you pushing blocks to complete a puzzle, before being picked up by this AI so you can provide feedback. Levels will have pretty varying themes as this AI draws from more and more randomness on the internet, including a whole film noir section that Frey is particularly excited about.
"There's so many of these little absurd things in video games, so we thought, how do we make them into a puzzle?"
"When you play that section you actually feel like a detective figuring something out. That was one of those rare moments when the theme and the puzzles all came together really well," she says. "When I first pitched the idea, the team was riffing back and forth on it. You know it's gonna be good when everybody with their individual disciplines sees something in the idea that they think will bring something special to the game."
I didn't want to ask about too many different sections, there's no sense in spoiling the surprise this early. But Frey did mention it's not just themes these puzzles are based around - sometimes it's just a daft idea she's seen in a game that's annoyed her, like certain frustrating RPG mechanics.
"You know you can get these swords that are indestructible, but then you need like 40 lockpicks to open a door. Why can't you just get a lockpick made out of the same material as the sword and only have one?" She says. "There's so many of these little absurd things in video games, so we thought, how do we make an RPG into a puzzle?"
I'm looking forward to discovering the weirdness mixed in with these puzzles, though I was curious if any of the more peculiar ideas didn't quite make it in. The answer I received was a sad one, reader. I regret to inform you that there will be no fishing minigame.
"We prototyped so many different kinds of puzzles to create a block-pushing fishing minigame to fit an art style that the writers liked and the puzzle designers liked," she tells me. "That was the hardest cut, because there was something there, we just didn't quite find it."
Hopefully that's not too much of a deal-breaker, however. Lab Rat is set to release spring next year, and if any of this has piqued your interest, you can try out a free demo on Steam right now as part of Pax Online.