Noah J Nelson on Thursday, Aug. 23rd
UPDATE SEP 5th: I was contacted by Samantha Vick last night via Twitter, who let me know that as it turns out she will be at Indiecade this year.
The Indiecade finalists for 2012 hit the web yesterday, putting the spotlight on the games that will be at this year’s festival in Culver City. Yet what I want to talk to you today about is a game that won’t be there but was present at the festival’s booth at this year’s E3. That game is Songlines.
Steeped in two traditions– that of “god games” like the PC classic Populous and Australia’s aboriginal mythology– Songlines is a Kinect game which uses the motion controller’s abilities to create more of an interactive experience than a traditional game. It’s the kind of software that hardcore gamers like to scoff at, which in my eyes just shows the lack of imagination possessed by your rank and file Call of Duty player.
“We wanted to make an experience that made a player feel like a god,” Songlines creative lead Samantha Vick told me as she demonstrated the game. The gestures she made were those of a conductor manipulating an orchestra. A cartoonish avatar floated above a desert-like environment on the screen before us. With a wave of her hand the prairie was transformed into a river.
“During early play-testing we had a much more simple system that was all based on motion. So the more motion you made, the greater it was… but what that ended up being was just flailing.”
Stepping into the play space Vick oriented me to the controls.
“Every time we had a play test we noticed that people really wanted to raise their arms in this summoning god-like motion. We wanted to incorporate that and allow the player to just feel like they’re really in control.”
That gesture calls up the terrain menu, different types can be mapped to each hand. Throw trees with your left and a mighty desert with your right. It works as you would expect it to, with the camera following your directions pretty seamlessly. The interface design does not get in the player’s way, and in the relatively still new world of motion control that’s a small feat in and of itself.
Vick had just graduated from USC’s Interactive Media grad program, where Songlines was the thesis project for herself and a team that consisted of “four programmers, a composer, an artist, a couple of animators, a designer.” Her next stop is a job with Microsoft’s Narrative Design team at Microsoft Game Studios. Which is a pretty big career step right out of grad school, made all the more interesting considering that Vick didn’t start out as a programmer or even to make games.
Her B.A. was in psychology, where she became interested in comparative mythology and the work of Joseph Campbell, the academic whose “Hero with a Thousand Faces” inspired a generation of Hollywood screenwriters.
“I learned later in my program that its really useful if you come into games with different kinds of backgrounds than just programming. You can really add a lot to your design and bring something that no one else has brought before.”
The interest in comparative mythology influenced the aboriginal style of the game, and that design seed lead to the game’s most innovative feature: a procedurally generated music system.
“The music system is composed of four hundred four-second loops, of different instrument suites,” Vick explained. “You have the drum suite, the didgeridoo suite, the plucked strings suite, etc. And it’s stitched together based on the players actions, not only the terrain type you’ve selected, but also how far away you’re forming and the strength of your deformation. The way they interact with each other all makes a completely different song for each person who plays.”
There’s a subtlety in this kind of procedurally generated system that isn’t apparent in the code alone. Not only does the music react to the player’s actions, but the player naturally reacts to the music’s influence. Thus creating a cybernetic feedback loop. In a creative experience like Songlines this increases the replay value. Unlike world-building games like Minecraft, which favor long-term investment, Songlines provides the somatic hit of playing god without the massive time-suck.
I’ve been wanting to step back into the role of world-shaper since E3, which is why I’m a bit disappointed Songlines won’t be at IndieCade this year. As a student game, it might not ever see the light of day.
“Right now it just exists as our student prototype,” Vick told me. “Gosh, I’d love to see if I could pitch it to publishers. I think it make a great XBLA (XBox Live Arcade) game. The Kinect is so popular right now, it’s in so many homes I think it would make a great fit. For now it’s fate is a little bit uncertain. All of my team has graduated, it was a student game, they’ve all gone on to other jobs. We’ll see.”
One thing that the XBLA marketplace hasn’t given a lot of spotlight to are these kinds of “experiential” indie games. So far XBLA has favored games that emphasize puzzle solving ability (Fez, Braid) or twitch skills (Super Meat Boy, Spelunky). The domain of “arty” indie games has been Sony’s Playstation, where games like Flower and Dyad have generated lots of buzz.
While the very trippy Children of Eden was available with the Kinect at launch, it’s lack of commercial success seems to have closed off the development of games that emphasize flow, instead we are left with workout simulations, shooting galleries and mini-game collections.
There is so much potential to unlock in motion controlled experiences, and Songlines offers a partial map of what’s there. Here’s hoping it makes it way into the world.