What other games have you studied this way?
SS: You know I've played through Braid, I don't know, like 10 times or something, and the same with Portal. And when I play those games, I look at them -- well, at least I like to think I look at them -- in the way that a composer looks at a piece of really good music. And I think I see some things that you don't see unless you're trying to make a game like that, and when you play those games there are just hundreds of little tiny design decisions and that's a very different way to play a game.
But when I play games that I think are really good, that have a really wonderful progression, and they exploit really fascinating mechanics in an interesting way, and it's all just put together extremely well -- like the holistic view has been observed and understood, and everything fits very well and it's very clean and elegant and beautiful -- I get really inspired.
I mean I play through Portal and Braid and World of Goo and X-Com and stuff, and I get ideas for Shadow Physics levels really quickly. And it's not based on the surface similarities, it's based on...
Like that level in Braid where there are three piranha plants and you have to rewind to get them at the same period of amplitude, and so you have to like adjust them so that the little goomba guy gets through at the right time.
And I'm not imagining it three shadow plants and a shadow goomba wandering through there, or that sort of thing, but it just really fires off my idea bone; it doesn't feel like play, it feels like study. But a really fruitful study, it feels really interesting.
Talking about analysis and inspiration, how does that filter into Shadow Physics?
SS: Yeah, well, it's like the purpose is to make something, hopefully, that can be really interesting and beautiful and make somebody's life better. I think the highest piece of praise you can give to a painting, song, movie, game, is that it inspires you to create. If you make something that inspires kids to want to be game designers, that's the highest possible praise you can ever give to someone.
That's sort of like the litmus test. That's like a symptom of making something that's that good. And I still feel like we lack the language in order to describe what's good about games like that, and why they're so good.
And so when I play a game that I think is that good, I'm always just trying to gather all this data together to form some picture so I can understand better and try to articulate why it works the way it does.
And part of that is the process behind making it, and part of it is the result of making it, and part of it is which design decisions were important and which ones weren't, and, you know, part of it is luck or whatever. But that's sort of like the whole thing coming together -- it's that desire to make something beautiful before my hours are up; to make something that is meaningful.
And so ultimately, I think that should be the metric by which we judge whether or not a game is really good -- not how much money it makes. You know, by how many people's lives it touches, which is an impossible thing to measure. But there are artifacts that you can look for. It's like you play a piece of Mozart music, it's really hard to argue that that is really beautiful piece of music. It's like the Aria of The Queen of the Night from The Magic Flute; it's like a cellphone ring tone, you hear it all the time.
Talking about the money question -- money equaling success -- obviously Braid is an objective success, if that's how you define success. But at the same time, you can also take Braid or Portal and you can move back and think about them in terms of, what games did you hear people actually bothering to talk about for more than the first six months after they were released?
SS: Yep. Yeah, what were the formative games of the last ten years? The list is very short. I feel like you can tell the difference when someone's talking about a game that just did really well and made a bunch of money, or is successful in the way that games have been successful for many years.
Like StarCraft II. A lot of people love that game, and I feel like I have a handle on why a lot of people love that game. It's because they had enough money to spend on it that they can spend as much time as it took to make it just an immaculately balanced game.
But that's different from the reason why people talk about Braid and Portal, because Braid and Portal are different, but they're different in a way that is really, clearly wonderful and interesting to people. It's kind of like Passage, because it's really hard to define what it is about that and how it all comes together. I think even Jason [Rohrer] is struggling just a little bit. It's like, I don't think he's been able to recreate that type of resonance in any of his other games.