Thirteen Gates is a strangely disorienting first-person exploration game by Ian Snyder that withholds most of the normal cues of a 3D space. There is none of the lighting, depth of field, texture mapping, or atmospheric effects that might normally aid a player in perceiving depth and perspective. A “spiritual successor” to one of Snyder’s previous games Feign, Thirteen Gates takes his minimalist first-person experiments one step further, creating a world so abstracted that, without player movement, the world becomes completely unrecognizable as an interactive space:
The game was created during a 7-day game jam called 7DFPS, where the theme prompted participants to create a first-person shooter, a genre that has become notoriously oversaturated, stagnant, and generally unimaginative. Ian talked with me recently about creating such an atypical first person game:
Uncommon Assembly: Can you explain 7dfps, and why you decided to participate?
Ian Snyder: 7dfps was a game jam challenging developers to create a first person shooter in 7 days. The reasoning went that the FPS genre was a stagnant one, and needed some new life imbued by indie developers. Participants were encouraged to stick to the spirit of the competition, every entry should be in first person and should involve shooting. My game fails the second criteria, admittedly. I experimented with a few shooting mechanics for the game towards the end of development, but they each felt superfluous.
This idea, by the way, that indies are finally here to save the FPS, is somewhat problematic. Robert Yang does an excellent job of cataloging innovation in the FPS through the mod scene in his People’s History series for RockPaperShotgun.
I almost didn’t participate in 7dfps – I rarely do game jams – but, about a day or two after the jam began, I was struck with the basic premise of Thirteen Gates and began work. Thirteen Gates, I should note, is not totally original within the 7dfps entries. For comparison, Marries van de Hoef’s Seven Dimensions explores similar territory, although each of us only became aware of the other’s project well after we’d begun to work.
How would you describe Thirteen Gates to someone who has never seen it?
Thirteen Gates reduces a two dimensional game to a first person perspective. It looks something like if you took two dimensional lines and extruded them infinitely upward and downward into three dimensional space.
Additionally, the walls in Thirteen Gates come in only three textures, which are flattened. Neither the skew from the angle of the wall nor a color shift derived from its distance away are accounted for, effectively eliminating easy means of depth perception. The resulting image is a series of vertical lines of various thicknesses which, devoid of motion, does not read as spacial. This creates a distance between playing the game and looking at screenshots of the game (or even watching someone else play the game). If you are to understand the game, you must be the one playing it. That connection via control is vital.
Thirteen Gates is an attack on your sense of sight. In order to navigate through it successfully, you must abandon reliance on your regular way of seeing and learn to see the way Thirteen Gates wants you to.
In many respects, Thirteen Gates seems like a natural successor to Feign, in that you have greatly simplified what is otherwise a fairly ordinary 3D environment, removing most of the typical cues for depth. Can you tell me what you may have done differently this time, either with how the game was constructed, or in your development process?
Feign and Thirteen Gates both share an interest in the flattening of perspective and in non-euclidean space. With Feign, the focus was toward the latter of these. The space in Feign is vaguely navigable, and vastly more comprehensible than that found in Thirteen Gates. The “trick” of Feign relies on the player being able to comprehend the space they inhabit, at least somewhat. When we encounter the first moment where something is “bigger on the inside”, it is a realization which relies on our ability to accurately judge the size of the outside space versus the inside space and our inability to rationalize them as continuous, despite having moved from one to the other. Thirteen Gates switches the focus from one reliant on memory to one that is momentary. In Thirteen Gates, our concern is visually parsing what is directly in front of us, and it is not as much about rationalizing overlapping, self-contradicting spaces. At every moment, the player should be asking themselves what exactly is it they are looking at, and whether their interpretation of it is true. In Feign there was never so much doubt, what you saw matched what was there. Thirteen Gates hijacks our regular way of seeing to create constant uncertainty.
This is reflected in a structural difference between the games as well. Where Thirteen Gates is a series of discrete levels with little connection to one another, whereas Feign is a single, continuous space. In part, this is because I had much more time to work on the layout of Feign, as opposed to Thirteen Gates. With Thirteen Gates, most of the levels had to be created and finished in mere days. At a very basic level, many disconnected parts are easier to make than many connected parts. With Feign, I had more time to experiment with level layouts, making mazes and watching my friends get lost in them, I’d say that overall more thought was put into Feign‘s level design.
What tools were used to create the 3D and 2D assets for this game? How were the levels constructed?
In this case, I did everything myself. I wrote an engine within Flash to render the environment as I liked – which was perhaps unnecessary, but enjoyable nevertheless. In order to make levels for the game, I wrote a custom level editor which would allow me to make levels more quickly.
Actually, it might be easier to show the editor than to describe it. You can access the secret editor at this link here. (Press shift+esc to enter it, and again to resume play. Click walls to change them. Space+click to add special tiles. Up/down arrows to switch levels…).
Thirteen Gates within the level editor… a much more familiar experience.
Messing around with the editor, you can begin to see the structure of the game underneath everything. It’s a completely different experience playing the game with no idea of level layout and playing the game already holding a map of it in your head. In that sense, these levels were fairly difficult to design since it would be literally impossible for me to inhabit the same headspace as the player. One thing that I found worked well in guiding the player along was setting up architectural repetitions in the levels. The very first level, for example, is basically a hallway of columns in a straight line, it’s probably the most direct level in there, meant to orient the player and show them what kind of game this will be. If you don’t have enough of these iconic places in the level for the player to orient themselves, they got lost more easily (such as in the level “Left Left Left Left”). If you have too many, and if they are too symmetrical, it can equally overwhelm the player (such as in the level “Spacial Awareness”). For a navigable level, one must strike a balance.
Can you tell me anything about how you arrived at the colors and patterns that we see in the final game?
I’m particularly happy with how these came out. I had hoped they might evoke a finely detailed, colorful rug, although I think the end result is quite distant from this inspiration. There were only ever three textures I needed, and the primary colors seemed thus a logical fit – balanced. I began with the red texture, which I see as a kind of anchor for the other two. It was originally much more finely detailed, but after repeated edits it simplified. I think this simplicity is important to the patterns in Thirteen Gates. Each pattern, taken on its own, is easy for the eye to follow because of its simplicity. However, when these patterns are taken together they fight for attention and the effect is dizzying. The simplicities overlap, fight for attention, and become complex. The yellow pattern followed the red, and took only one draft to be happy with it. The blue was last, and was the most difficult for me. The circle seems an obvious choice now, but, at the time, I was set on making it something with points and angles.
At the very beginning, before I even struck on the idea of using pattern, they were all flat colors, shades of dark blue lifted from a Sword & Sworcery screenshot (from a scene featuring those wonderful, vertical trees). This is the point at which I realized I only needed three colors to articulate most surfaces in the game, and that two was too few. Three colors would allow you to signify corners, and since the player typically only sees two faces of an object (most are boxes) and a background, four or more colors would be redundant.
You’ve released a vast assortment of types of games, from casual platformers and physics puzzlers to experimental visualizers and classic arcade-style games. What is it about Thirteen Gates that compelled you to revisit this curious type of minimalism?
Its apt to describe this as a curious minimalism, the game itself is strange, “curious”, yes, but it also arises from a place of curiosity within myself. With Thirteen Gates, I’m trying to answer a question or a set of questions. I’m seeing what happens if I make a game that is like this. I’m trying to understand how far I can push this visually before its no longer playable. I’m interested in what a person will do when presented with something so outside their experience. I’m wondering what a 2D word looks like if you’re a single point. I’m setting up for myself a difficult level design problem just for the pleasure of grappling with it. I think this kind of game is probably more fun to design than to play, and designing it even becomes a kind of play, like solving a logic problem nobody truly knows the answer to.
Even more so than Feign, you’ve stripped away the essence of a first-person game down to almost the simplest possible representation. Where could you see this idea going from here? What, if anything, is left to explore?
I don’t know if Feign and Thirteen Gates are really about stripping things away, or, at least, they are not about only this. Elements are removed, but in doing so other elements are added. Telling is the fact that the mere act of moving becomes more difficult, rather than less, in these games.
There are several elements of each I’m interested in returning to. The idea of negative space is really important to both games. Games, by their nature, have a tendency to become cluttered and without aesthetic consideration. Visuals in a game are often purely information based, and one “reads” a game screen much in the way that one reads text. This is part of the reason why I think text is one of the more difficult mediums to make use of in games; since people are typically only able to read one object at a time, you must split your attention between reading the text and reading the game. So then, negative space is something that fascinates me inside games. It’s, by definition, something that is nothing. It contains no information. It exists for purely aesthetic reasons. In Feign and Thirteen Gates, it becomes important because it denotes the edges of objects.
I’m interested in pursuing it from a purely aesthetic standpoint, however. If you’ll allow me to take a little detour here, the paintings of Ed Hopper are important to me when examining negative space in the third dimension, and I think game designers could do well to study them. There are a couple important things to look for, he often has these horizontal lines created by the architecture that seem as if they could extend infinitely beyond the frame of the painting. Most often in a Hopper painting, there is a strong sense of where the light is coming from (often a single source) although the light is out of frame. He makes the space you’re looking at feel bigger than it is, as though it will keep going outside the frame of the painting. I want to make a game that does this.
Summer Evening (top) and Nighthawks (bottom) by Edward Hopper.
I’ve also considered what a game would look like if I used the screen space patterns in Thirteen Gates to create something visually comprehensible. Could we create an environment to be navigated through quickly using these techniques, instead of the plodding pace with which one must approach Thirteen Gates?
In answer to your question, I think there’s a lot of room to still explore here, but I don’t think it’s to be found in the direction of further reduction.
Thanks for speaking with me about Thirteen Gates, Ian.