Going Deep

Going Deep

Here I am at the premiere art and music venue in the hippest district of one of the most creatively vibrant cities on the globe, and I’m playing videogames. I’m not alone, as the club is crowded and raucous with badge-wearing students, local artists, curiosity seekers, movers, shakers and, of course, videogame developers of every flavour.

This is GAMMA. We’ve packed into a dim concrete space hung with glaring projector screens, on which the world’s newest games are being played.

New to the idea of journalistic integrity, I repeatedly ply Heather Kelley for drink tickets. Kelley is not just a long-time friend, not just a former co-worker, she’s also a member of Kokoromi, the group that organises the event, along with Cindy Poremba, Damien Di Fede and Phil Fish, all also good friends of mine. Even so, you should trust my impartiality. I’m exclusively interested in exposing the unadulterated truth and obtaining drink tickets.

GAMMA showcases the labours of a handful of dedicated indie developers given just a couple of months to produce a game built around each year’s unique topic. Only the best are selected to be shown and played tonight. This year’s theme is stereoscopic imaging, which is why we’re all wearing goofy red/blue cardboard glasses and gazing with chins held high like we can see the future. Maybe the full house is because the crowd hopes to experience the next Passage, submitted by Jason Rohrer for last year’s GAMMA 256, a cute but powerful art game which received recognition from Esquire to The Wall Street Journal. Or maybe they just like a good party.

Either way, GAMMA seems to be on an upwards trajectory. If it weren’t for events like this one, indie gaming would not experience the cultural recognition it enjoys, the artistry of the interactive medium wouldn’t proliferate in these focused areas of incubation, the lowest lying nations on Earth would sink under rising ocean waters, and the US economy would totally suck.

But how can videogames be improved with one of the most dated technologies for 3D visualisation? Finally having attained a trustworthy level of drunkenness, I wobble off to find out.


The Depth To Which I Sink

Developer: Jim McGinley
Here’s the game that cranks the 3D knob the furthest. The Depths To Which I Sink strips every other consideration away to focus on just one thing: how much depth can be worked into gameplay? After a minute of allowing your mind to adjust to the anaglyphic glasses, you understand that the screen is not a square but a cube, equally deep as it is tall and wide.

The concept is as minimal as the graphics. Imagine the screen as a top-down view of a tub of water with yourself as a dot floating on the surface. At the push of a button, you begin a long dive all the way to the bottom and all the way back up again. You can steer left, right, up, and down, but you can’t control your rate of sinking and rising, which makes it a challenge to collide with the windows and avoid the walls, the task you’re here to accomplish.

The illusion of true 3D depth is so complete, it’s impossible not to crane your neck when one of the floating obstacles gets in front of your dot. Of all the games in the show, this one could least plausibly be ported to a standard 2D view.

Q&A: Jim McGinly, Designer

What inspired your design concept?
My original idea was this: imagine you’re lying in a field, and you toss a baseball in the air, and the baseball comes back. I didn’t go with that because for the 3D effect to trick the human eye correctly, clouds don’t work as well as simple shapes like rectangles.

Is there anything you wish you could have improved?
The gameplay I’m not 100 percent sold on, but I couldn’t get anything else that didn’t take away from the 3D. I removed anything that made the 3D worse.

What did you remove?
I used to have tons of hoops you could dive through, but they were too confusing to the eye. Similarly, I had more graphics, such as decorations on the walls.

Do you think your game has meaning?
Based on what Jon Blow was saying at the conference, I have no choice, right? But I couldn’t tell you what the meaning was.

Let’s figure it out. It’s kind of like a fishing trip. You’re stuck on the surface until you dive down. What does that say, though?

Maybe you’re indecisive and you want to be sure before you dive?

That’s a good interpretation. It also has a nice feeling of commitment. When you push the button, you’re committing to an action that’s going to take a long time. So maybe it’s a metaphor for having children?

That works on so many levels.


Fireflies

Developers: Lee Byron and Joannie Wu
Fireflies combines the most elegant game design of the show with the most charming visuals. The concept is simple: you leave your rural home one summer night to find yourself in a field alive with fireflies bobbing around in stereoscopic 3D.

The hovering points of light don’t just appear smaller when they are further away, they also require your eyes to focus further out. Your goal is to catch as many as you can before the time is up. Holding your jar open longer gives you more time to line up a successful capture, but it risks the ones you’ve already caught flying back out. As your jar fills up, the combined candlepower of your hapless prisoners begins to illuminate your surroundings, revealing the hills and curves of what had just been pitch black.

The controls map the shoulder buttons to your arms and the triggers to your feet. I struggle to get the hang of it, but when the non-gamer I waited in line with seems to become fluid almost instantly, I realise it probably qualifies as an intuitive interface.