[In this interview, VVVVVV creator and Irish indie developer Terry Cavanagh talks with Gamasutra contributor Phill Cameron about his unique "exhibition game" At A Distance, a two-player cooperative experience that's all about communication.]
Every aspect of At a Distance is a puzzle that you need to solve.: some grand design that ties into the different layers of the game, and must be assessed, broken down and put back together again before you can move forwards.
And that 'you,' there? That's a plural.
At a Distance is a two-player cooperative puzzle game, played side-by-side on two different PCs. You're not in the same game space, but the two screens do correspond to one another. What happens for one player will have a direct and immediate effect on what happens for the other. No, this isn't a riddle that you need to solve.
The first indicator of a puzzle, the first thing that you need to figure out, is how to see. There's an extremely heavy halftone art style at play here, constantly shifting and moving about, with the abstract architecture of the game looming out at you as you get close, walls shifting through tone and contrast as you try to get a feel for how exactly everything is set up.
"I'm fairly new to making games in 3D, and I really loved the [halftone] art style and wanted to do something with it. I've tried it in various other games, and when I tried it here it just fit so well I decided to go further in that direction," Terry Cavanagh, creator of At a Distance, along with indie darling VVVVVV and cynical stock-broker fantasy American Dream, says.
It's almost uncomfortable to look at, in a lot of ways. Each level is constructed of a single color, with the light source (the player) the only way to cast enough shadow to figure out what's space and what's a wall. Which is important in a first-person platformer, especially when a misstep can have you plummeting through the floor and back to the start.
It's difficult to talk about the game without ruining half the fun. You're dropped into things without a single bit of exposition or guide, left just to mess around with interactions and try to figure out how everything works.
He notes, "Some people, when they're playing the game, and they don't know the person they're playing with, and they don't communicate, they get stuck very very quickly, and they find it impossible to progress unless they work together."
"And then other people, who know each other very well, are able to work things out very quickly."
Cavanagh uses the same vague and general terms that I'm forced to, to preserve the entertainment of the game.
That communication, however, is key to how everything works. While you're not occupying the same game space as your partner, figuring out how the two correspond is crucial to progression.
In a way, it's much like Jason Rohrer's Primrose, except here, instead of discouraging communication in favor of discovering the effects one another has on the game world, you're instead forced to glance at one another's screens, see what characteristics both worlds share, and work off that.
In fact, that physicality, being right beside the other player, is essential for the game to work.
"I think at the moment it's only possible to play side by side where you can communicate immediately about what you're doing," he says. It's a controversial point, and almost seems like a tease in the world of games, where we're used to having everything be accessible from release. Instead, this is an Exhibition Game, designed purely to be played in some great space, as a piece, rather than some software you've bought.
"A big part of the game is what happens outside of the machine when the people are working things out together. And that's what makes the game special and what means it won't work as a single player game, mechanics aside," he says.
Cavanagh's right, too, as I found myself turning to my partner and just discussing what we need to do next to progress. There were long, extended periods of time where I wouldn't even touch my controls.
"There's a deliberate rhythm that I've set up, where at the start of the game both players are doing things, and then as they progress you have downtime for each player, so you'll have time where you have nothing to do. And hopefully this will mean that during that downtime they look at the other player's screen and communicate."
It's another argument against just turning it into something that's online. Being able to lean over and see what the other player is seeing, while at the same time checking what you're doing, not only lends itself to communication, but helps you just make sense of this weird, abstract, halftone world. Ironically enough, At a Distance doesn't work once you take more than a few steps away from your partner. You need to be right there, in person, talking to them.
It's not the first Exhibition Game, either. Funded by the NYU Games Center, it's joining the ranks of the almost infamous No Quarter group of games, comprised of Niddhogg, Deep Sea, Recurse, and 16 Tons. It's the second annual iteration of the event, but the design of these games, meant to be played in a specific space with specific conditions, means that they're eminently fresh, design wise.
"Being familiar with the pedigree of the previous exhibition, I wanted to make something special." Cavanagh continues. "The game works best in this situation, and I'm going to focus on making it as good as it can be, like this."
It's mildly frustrating to know that it's unlikely to ever make it out of the exhibition centers, at least in the iteration it's currently in. It makes it a singular experience, something to tell friends about, recommend they go see, rather than something for them to buy and play whenever it suits them. It's the game equivalent of a live gig, in a way, which has its own charm.
There's still hope, though, that something else will come out of all this work.
"I'm actually working on something else that I jokingly call Not At a Distance, which incorporates a lot of levels that I've cut, and I've probably cut more from this game than I have from any other game that I've made," he says.
At a Distance, I've come to realize, isn't referring to the distance between the players. Instead, it's talking about the distance between you, sitting at home reading this, and the game itself. It's out there, traveling the world, and you're the one that needs to track it down and play it.