Zach Gage at Pixel Pushers in Culver City
A year ago, we were joined for an interview by an independent game creator whose thoughtful interactive art piece was branded a security threat by Semantic. Lose/Lose asserted real-life consequences upon the harmless mayhem of a vertical shooter. With each enemy ship destroyed, a file on the player’s hard drive was wiped out as collateral damage.
This past weekend the New York-based game designer joined Giant Robot and Attract Mode for the opening reception of Pixel Pushers: An Exploration of 8-Bit Digital Media in Culver City. We had the chance to hear about Halcyon alongside where an iPad running the puzzle title was on display.
Halcyon, your IGF entry, is the latest in a series of portable games, this time for the iPad. What led you to seek out developing for the platform?
Zach Gage: As with making sound toys for the iPhone, the iPad invites very strange interactions that have not been explored very fully. I know it sounds like Iâ€™m tooting Appleâ€™s horn, but a multi-touch device that’s so powerful and so exact is very exciting. Coming up with a puzzle game for that platform, Iâ€™m entering a territory that is just beginning to be explored.
A central aspect of Halcyon is its interactive music properties. Did it require working closely with a musicians on the sound design?
Generally I work with a bunch of different musicians. For this I collaborated with Kurt Bieg. He also knows how to program, so that was very liberating because for Halcyon in particular the music is so generative. After I had designed a basic system, he was then able to compose all this music in this crazy xml format and extrapolate on the system.
How were you interested in music being generated on the fly?
The music in the game is very interesting. The way that it works is thereâ€™s a string instrument on the screen, where every string plays a note. Then thereâ€™s also the background music, the music that plays as pieces are spawing in. Both of those elements are based on a major chord progression. As pieces get closer to each other, that major chord progression shifts to a minor chord. As youâ€™re playing the game the background music is shifting, while at the same time you’re controlling the music by manipulating the pieces on-screen.
Have there been other games incorporating generative music elements that have caught your attention in the past?
I think the one that you have to go to is Everyday Shooter. Thatâ€™s one of the most incredible games for audio that Iâ€™ve ever played. It did generative audio in a way that Iâ€™ve never seen before. Having beaten levels and then gone back to play them over and over again, it remains rewarding every time.
What do you see as the significant factors leading to your entering into game design in the first place?
I actually fell into into it accidentally, having made Lose/Lose. Attending IndieCade I met all these people, and since then Iâ€™ve been doing a lot of game development.
As an independent game designer, are there events taking place in New York that fuel your creativity?
Babycastles is going on right now. That has been really exciting. I also did a show in Queens together with the Copenhagen Game Collective. Iâ€™ll be co-curating a show in early December together with Matt Hawkins, where we’ll be showing new work by Eric Zimmerman and Eddo Stern.
Why bring an art project into the space of a PC shoot ’em up?
When you do a conceptual art project, you only get the audience of people that are into conceptual art projects. With computers, on the other hand, thereâ€™s this whole level of literacy thatâ€™s very unique to computers. Everybody understands these very complex things.
From some perspectives, like the software security experts that stumbled upon your game, Lose/Lose was viewed in a negative light. What did you wish to express by making the erasure of personal files a consequence of playing the shooter?
One of the ideas behind Lose/Lose is that losing something in the digital space can be just as powerful as losing something in the tangible space, even though we treat them differently. Itâ€™s calling that kind of discrepancy into question.
Displaying Halcyon at an art gallery here at Pixel Pushers, is that an implicit comment on the games-as-art debate?
This conversation about â€œAre videogames art?â€ is sort of pointless. Theyâ€™re this wonderful thing that so many people are experiencing and we should be celebrating that, regardless. Being in the show with the Giant Robot people symbolizes how there can be mainstream involvement in these kinds of interesting projects.
Nullsleep, who wrote the music for Giant Robot’s Return of the Quack and is performing at Pixel Pushers, is of course based in New York. Have you felt compelled to keep an eye on 8bitpeoples?
Yeah, weâ€™re actually friends. Iâ€™ve been to Blip Fest for the past two years. I also teach a class at NYU on games and art, which heâ€™s been auditing. The 8-bit scene in New York is unbelievable.
On the subject of the Blip Festival, you have previously teamed up with the chip musician Sabrepulse, an artist who would be familiar to people that follow the Blip Festival concert series. Seeing as he has been based in the UK, how did this collaboration on the iPhone game Bit Pilot come about?
How I actually met him is a little bizarre. My friend had done a mixtape of chiptunes for me and one of his songs was on it. I was designing a game at the time and began using that song as a stand-in while I was prototyping the game. After awhile, I emailed him. This was before Chime, and he mentioned that he had never done music for a game before and that it really interested him.
We did a lot of work together on the music and are going to be updating that soon with a whole bunch of new tracks. His music feels like the old Mega Man tunes, in that itâ€™s high energy and has a really catchy theme. That strikes a chord with me and worked really well for Bit Pilot.
What were you most hoping to accomplish in developing for the iPhone?
Whatâ€™s interesting about it is that I’d had this desire to have an action game on the iPhone, where thereâ€™s this issue with the touch screen. For instance, when you have a controller and you want to jump, you push down A, and you know that youâ€™ve jumped. You can feel that youâ€™ve pushed down A. The response time in your brain is very, very short. On a touch screen, youâ€™re pushing something thatâ€™s not there. Instead of knowing that youâ€™ve jumped, you have to look at the screen to confirm that the frameâ€™s changed. That makes for a huge lag.
For that reason, a lot of these dual stick shooters on the iPhone arenâ€™t really action games. I think of them more as strategy games, because youâ€™re planning so much of the time. Bit Pilot was an attempt to structure controls for the iPhone. I discovered that gestures work really well, and so the way that Bit Pilot works is that you have this tiny ship and you swipe with your finger. The amount of force that you swipe with is transferred to your ship. If you swipe with two fingers you get more force. You donâ€™t even need to look at the ship once you get the sense of how much force youâ€™re getting.
Beyond updating Bit Pilot and entering Halcyon in the IGF, what are you currently working on as a game designer?
I have a number of games in development. At this point Iâ€™m working with a team of collaborators on a spatial puzzle game called Please Send Fruit. Iâ€™m really interested in continuing the exploration of game design on the iPad, and I like the metaphorical aspect of Halcyon, the tenor it can strike without having a concrete story. Iâ€™d like to keep exploring that more because gentle, emotional, experiential games appeal to me.
To find out more about the games of Zach Gage, visit his official website.