Addendum: So it’s been a couple of years since my interview with Alexander Bruce about his game “Hazard: The Journey of Life”. The game has since won great acclaim from competitions and conferences across the globe, has been renamed “Antichamber”, and by the developer’s own admission, has become a very different game since it began appearing in public in 2009. It’s appropriate to mention that this interview reflects a time relatively early in the game’s development.
Hazard: The Journey of Life is a “Philosophical First Person Single Player Exploration Puzzle Art Game” where the player must work their way through a succession of byzantine corridors, solving a series of spacial problems along the way, in order to liberate themselves from captivity. Each challenge rewards the player with a simple lesson, and the promise that they are just that much closer to freedom. The journey serves as an analogue for the types of problems one inherently encounters throughout life, and all the unpredictability that goes along with it. It’s a game about choices and experimentation, and an existential meditation on how very few problems in life are able to be solved with the benefit of hindsight.
By appearances, Hazard is a peculiar, stark white world punctuated with areas of intense color… an oddly engineered, beautifully minimalist, and occasionally stunning rat maze:
Hazard: The Journey of Life is a grand finalist of Epic’s Make Something Unreal competition and a finalist and presenter at Sense of Wonder Night at the 2009 Tokyo Game Show. Creator Alexander Bruce spoke with me recently from Melbourne, Australia about the bizarre art of Hazard:
Uncommon Assembly: Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions, Alex. Let’s start out with a little introduction. Can you tell me a bit about your experience modding, and game-making in general?
Alex: Sure. Firstly, on the point about modding, I’ve never considered myself a modder. I started working with the Unreal Engine back in 2006 whilst I was studying a degree in Games Design in Australia, and we were using UT2K4 as a toolset to start learning how to apply principles we were learning.
Back then, we were just working on simple things, like making mutators, but I really loved what I was doing and took what the course was teaching us and just ran with it. I actually started working on the dynamic geometry system for Hazard as the second thing I had ever done with the Unreal Engine, because I wanted to make Snake, but didn’t want it to involve a snake. It’s strange, but there’s history about it on my website. I’m a little odd when it comes to games design, and I like to think outside the box. So I’ve been doing that for the past several years in my own time, and have also worked in industry as a programmer in Australia.
So, you are the sole developer of Hazard. Are you responsible for the overall visual style of the game?
Alex: Yes. I’m solely responsible for everything that has gone into the game so far. I have done all of the design work, all of the programming and all of the art work. I’ve had a lot of people involved over the last couple of years when bouncing ideas around, but they were never officially involved with the project, just people that I was talking to.
How would you describe the appearance of Hazard to someone who has never seen it?
Alex: I’d have to describe it as others have described it. It’s got a very simplistic vector art style. Though one of the main points I’d make about the game is that it’s incredibly vibrant, which isn’t something you see as much of these days unless you’re looking around the indie scene.
Obviously the most striking visual quality of Hazard is the minimalist environment and selective use of color. What drove this decision to use bold colors to highlight certain areas of an otherwise bleak world?
Alex: It looked interesting, and really just made the game stand out from other games. I needed every aspect of the game to be unique, and it was something that you didn’t really see around the place. The art gallery is probably one of the most striking uses of colour, but honestly, all of the colours in the game are there either because puzzles specifically needed them, or because I got sick of too much white in the game. There are still too many areas that are too open and white, and that’s some of the feedback that I’ve received. People like colours, and my darks are a way of giving them that without requiring textures.
So what was the inspiration for the overall look of the game?
Alex: That’s an interesting one, and realistically the same answer applies to every other aspect of the game. Firstly, the game started out as being about dynamic geometry, and when you’ve got thousands of individual tiles in the game and you start using textures, you end up with a whole lot of repetition, and the game starts getting a very dirty look. There were also a lot of technical considerations with how tiles would react when being shot at. In early versions of Hazard, they would fade away, which you can see in very old footage of dynamic geometry. However, in the transition to Unreal Engine 3, you couldn’t do that anymore, because they don’t do depth peeling with their translucency.
So I started working on new transition effects, and ended up messing around with additive materials, masking, etc. Eventually I ended up with the masked effect that you see in there today. But that really worked best when you had lots of solid colours.
So, given that the tiles had to be solid colours, I then had to try and somehow make this entire world that fit with them. In earlier projects I was working on, I ran into the problem of not wanting lighting in the scene, because I wanted vibrancy. I wanted the inverse of lights. I wanted to say “everything starts off 100% lit, and then I start subtracting colours”. So, I went off and made what I called “Darking”, which was removing colours. With how I’d implemented that, I started getting really strange colour schemes going, when I’d subtract too much colour from the scene. For a very long time, Hazard was a prototype ground for any crazy ideas that I had, many of which I’ve now saved for later projects. Darking was one of the ones that made it into the game.
I was going to ask about that. The area above the infamous “Walk/Jump” chasm, for instance, appears to be colored by the absence of certain colors of light.
Alex: That’s correct, and people responded well to it. So, there were technical reasons for how the game looks, but I also needed something that didn’t look like “just another Unreal game”.
Realistically though, there’s not many things going on with the visual style of the game. There’s darking, which is really just phong lighting without being capped at zero, so that you can start getting negative light values going. The Unreal Engine already handles that, but by default the lighting doesn’t deal with negative values. And the edge detection routine, well, that was purely custom out of a lot of experimentation. There were many other edge detection post processing shaders out there, but they didn’t deal with large flat surfaces very well, and unfortunately, that’s what all of Hazard is. The only other material stuff that you’ve got happening is the effect on the tiles themselves, which is just a straight dither.
Can you tell me more about the art gallery? For those who haven’t seen it, there are a series of rooms set up like a museum or storage room, with rows of bizarre and colorful sculptures.
Alex: Sure. So, when I got the edge detection post processing going (the vector art style look), I was able to remove the tiled texture look from the entire game, as seen in this example:
Without textures, I was able to start getting more complex geometry in there. I found it really interesting to jump into standard UT3 levels and turn on outlines only, and see how complex geometry showed up. When I started throwing random geometry together and then adding darks to them as a test, you started getting things that looked quite unique, but unfortunately, they didn’t really fit in with the very simplistic world of Hazard.
I had the philosophy written down for “Absorb The Atmosphere” long before I had even made the puzzle for it, and I came up with the idea of having 27 boxes, 1 of which contained another room, to really enforce the idea of looking around when you didn’t really need to. I made the art gallery to fit the needs of that puzzle, and as a way to show off the abstract geometry to people without seeming too out of place. However, because I needed to develop so many pieces, I started using it as a means to make statements about art. So, for example, one of the pieces in there is scribble, and I put that in there because it’s a statement about what you can classify as art. Some will say that scribble isn’t art, others will argue that it is. I know I’ve seen things like it in art galleries. You’ve also got statements about modern art in there, which is the collection of random structures that don’t really mean a lot. I know that if you drive through the city of Melbourne, you will see lots of examples of this, and some of them are real eye sores, but they serve a purpose. They catch your attention, and are interesting in their own right.
So again, it comes down to partly technical reasons, partly philosophical reasons, and partly to demonstrate more uniqueness
I went around to each sculpture, on each floor. I probably spent 10 minutes just checking those out. They’re amazing.
How much of the art assets were created for the game, and how much are re-used art from Unreal?
Alex: They’re all just random UT geometry slapped together to seem interesting. I didn’t model any of them myself. Everything you see there is somewhere within Unreal Tournament 3. So, for example, there’s some kind of deer beast in there. I thought the UDamage made a good Deer Head, and then found a bunch of gibs and turned them into the creatures body. Without textures, any model could fit with any other model.
The sheer lack of context for some of those pieces just made it all the more compelling. So how much previsualization went into the look of Hazard? At what point in the development did you realize the final style of the game?
Alex: That’s a really odd question to answer, and my response to that question, and other questions about the game in general will seem like everything about the game was done in a very haphazard way, but that’s not true at all. I work very iteratively, and at a very subconscious level. I can’t honestly say that I put a lot of thought into how the game should look, and then had to work to get there. I kept changing things as I was going along, until eventually it all just felt “right”. It’s not the most conventional way to develop a game, but I tried so many times to really write design documents, flesh things out for the game, but I’d always get other more interesting concepts come up, and have to change things.
So I started just working with the flow of development. I’m a true believer in just following your heart, and it only stopped me when the game looked like it did.
So which came first, the vector art style with bold colors built by subtracting light, or a great puzzle game? Or did they both just come to life at the same time?
Alex: The dynamic geometry system came first. The way I approach games is by finding the absolute smallest game design concept which is different to what else exists out there and then building up. Dynamic geometry was fun, but dynamic geometry within deathmatch didn’t really demonstrate what the system could do. Once again, there were also technical issues with having thousands of tiles being updated across a network, so I moved over to being a single player game, and started getting puzzles going with dynamic geometry. Then, I figured it would be much cooler if you could have a gun to interact with geometry, and at some stage, the dynamic geometry wasn’t even the major point of the game anymore.
It was just about making interesting spaces. At one point, it took a turn into being about player expectations, and then philosophy was added. The art style came about when the game first moved to Unreal Engine 3. However, the pure vector style of only seeing edges was more recent. Sometime around May perhaps. I needed to do Edge Detection for another project I was working on, and spent about 40 hours getting the perfect shader going. I applied it into Hazard, and it really just made the game look that much more visually appealing.
Would you ever consider working with an artist, or would that get in the way of the experimental appeal of your work? Have you worked with artists on your experimental games?
Alex: I’d consider getting involved with an artist as far as remaking the gallery and the icons goes, but not for the overall look of the world. I really don’t think that more detail makes the game more special. I’ve done lots of experiments with that myself, and it just starts getting distracting. Simplicity is one of the things that makes it look very different.
Alex: There are other people in my course who are great artists, and I’ve worked with them on a number of projects, but I’m a designer at heart, and unless my game really needed art for a very specific reason, then I would see what I could do myself first. There are other things that I have developed that could do with an art pass, and when it comes time for that, I’ll get someone else involved. But my view is that there are enough projects out there that are interesting because of the art involved that I can purely focus on making games that are interesting for the design. I feel that there are fewer people doing that these days than there used to be 10 – 20 years ago.
So what does the future look like for Hazard?
Alex: Well, I’m now a grand finalist in the Make Something Unreal competition, so I’ll need to do any final touches to the mod as it is right now for that. I’m also looking to enter it into the Independent Games Festival and the Experimental Gameplay Workshop. I want more people to experience the game, just because I feel the philosophy is something that is just different to what you find in other games I’m also working on making the game standalone so that I can sell it sometime next year. One of the biggest hurdles is that not many people have Unreal Tournament 3, so I feel it’s worth it, because people are definitely interested in the game otherwise.
And what’s next for you?
Alex: I’ve always got a long list of other games I need to develop, but right now, Hazard is going to be taking up too many months of my time to really start considering them fully. I’m just taking things one step at a time, and after Hazard is released, I’ll work out which project is best to get started on. I think I’ll get some of my smaller game designs out of the way first. Hazard has been an enormous effort to get done. I never intended to take it to the level it reached, but again, I was just following my heart, and that’s where it led me.
Overall, though, at this stage I’m looking to get full time into the indie scene. I’m not going to jump straight back into the work force within Australia. Hazard has been well received, and I really need to get it out to a wider audience. We’ll see how that goes, but I’d love to keep working on my own projects.
Well thanks again for giving me a few minutes, Alex. Good luck with IGF 2010, I hope to see you there.
Hazard: The Journey of Life is an Unreal mod and requires Unreal 3 (Windows) and the 2.0 patch. Check out Alex’s site to download Hazard, and to see his other amazing games and experiments. There is also a great video of his presentation of Hazard at Sense of Wonder Night (warning… some major spoilers here).