In reality, there is a teeming ecosystem of games out there, with creators who are just as interested in what games can be – both mechanically and thematically – as what they have been in the past. They see boundaries and their first instinct is to push or subvert, rather than color within the established lines, and these folks are doing some of the craziest things that the medium has ever seen.
Alexander Bruce, creator of Antichamber, is one such developer.
You may have heard of Bruce's Antichamber, which recently took home the prize for technical excellence at this year's Independent Games Festival (IGF). Antichamber is a master-class in out-of-the-box thinking and creative design, born out of a series of experiments with non-Euclidean geometry (think spaces and shapes that curve toward or away from each other in funky and sometimes impossible ways). Bruce likes to do things on his own terms, and give players precisely what they are not expecting.
His experimental approach is a product of his own unique thought process. Robin Arnott, the sound designer for Antichamber and a friend of Bruce's, likes to say that playing the game feels like "exploring Alex Bruce's brain."
"I've always been a fairly creative thinker," Bruce told Joystiq. "I've always thought outside the box. Even when doing schoolwork and things like that. I always got – even very early on – given the specs for something, and then I would just completely disregard what they were, and give them something that they didn't ask for, but was better than what they'd asked for. Every time, they'd be like 'I don't know how to mark this, but it's really good, so I'm just going to give it 100%', even though it didn't fit any of their boxes, you know, that they were trying to put other people into."
"I felt the same way about games. I mean; there are enough other people – being, pretty much the entire industry – that are doing standard kinds of things. Chasing business, chasing money, chasing market forces, giving people what they think they want, etc, that, that wasn't really serving me," Bruce continued.
"I wanted to see different things. I knew if I didn't make them, no one was going to, you know? No one was going to make what I wanted to make, so I had to do it."
Antichamber has been kicking around Bruce's head – and his computer - for almost six years. It followed him through his days at college, through his first industry jobs, and on through the competitions he's entered it into, some of which he's won. It's gone through several revisions – in fact, there was a near-complete version in 2009 that benefited from playtesting, a dedication to push the standard for the level of polish, and Bruce's own strategy for solving design problems.
"The way I've always approached experimentation is, whenever I have a design problem, I won't look at what other games did, I'll really, critically assess what the problem is, and then think of ways to solve that in the context of itself."
I only realized it when really, critically looking at the problem and thinking about how I could address it in ways that other games didn't do.- Bruce on solving design issues in Antichamber
He elaborates: "When I had non-Euclidian space in my game, apart from the fact that I had done experimentations with it, and I had, like, a puzzle or two here and there in the 2009 version – it wasn't really a permanent thing, it was just a couple of tricks I had in place. But, when I gave that version to people in 2010, a bunch of feedback coming in was things like 'there are too many dead ends, I got stuck, I got lost, I didn't know where to go, maybe the puzzles can flash red if I can't do them, the map should tell me where to go, you should just reconfigure the world.'"
"I couldn't do that, because I specifically had things in different locations for a reason, but I also needed them because I had taught players something over 'here,' and I made it apply over 'here,'" he says, gesturing. "All traditional thinking would say that that was an unsolvable puzzle. But because I had done these experiments with non-Euclidean space, I said 'well, I can just arbitrarily connect this space to this space', and once I did that, all of those problems went away.
So, the next time I needed to do that, you know, the same problems would crop back up, I would apply the same [solution], just arbitrarily connecting spaces, and the problem would go away again. And, when I did that enough, that gave me this really interesting, flowing game, and it started bringing me along the more psychological aspects of the game, that weren't at all part of it initially. But again, no one would've told me that the solution to that problem was non-Euclidean space. I only realized it when really, critically looking at the problem and thinking about how I could address it in ways that other games didn't do."
"To me it doesn't make sense to just try and imitate someone else, when you can put that same effort into creating your own unique thing."
He pauses, when asked if he'd like to see more developers get into this particular ring. "I don't know that I should say that more developers should be doing it – although I'd like to see more people doing experiments, and taking it through the whole several years, if necessary, to see them through their absolute maximum potential."
"People get pretty wound up when you say 'people should do X' – they'll be like, 'Wow, why should I listen to you?' so, I think that experimentation is great, but ultimately, people should do whatever motivates them to keep making stuff."
Danielle Riendeau is a freelance writer, a hate-mail-loving employee of the ACLU, and lectures in digital storytelling and game design at Northeastern University. She writes at NoHighScores, G4, Kill Screen Magazine, Logo Online and on twitter @Danielleri.