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Road to the IGF: Steph Thirion's  Faraway

Road to the IGF: Steph Thirion's Faraway Exclusive

February 28, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

February 28, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Indie, Exclusive, IGF, Design

Mobile developer Steph Thirion first gained acclaim for his two-toned, melodic Eliss, and now with 2012 Best Mobile Game nominee Faraway, his bewitching, stark aesthetic is paired with a subtly lonely, sentimental tone.

Players guide a single shooting star through the expanse of space, creating constellations in an ever-changing, procedurally-generated universe, and the game world adapts to player score performance. Thirion did the game entirely on his own, from design to coding to sound.

We catch up with him to discuss the opportunities for innovation in the mobile space, the unique process of creating new rulesets solo, and how the limitations of some of his favorite games helped inspire him to explore new avenues.

What background do you have making games?

I made Eliss back in 2009, and am now working on my second game, Faraway.

Prior to that, I had worked in music, programming, graphic design, interaction design, and was gradually evolving towards towards tying those mediums closely together, and sort of blurring the boundaries between them, like for example visuals being generated by code and vice versa.

But I was also super interested in the component of fun in interaction, and videogames is a medium first and foremost optimized for fun, so I ended up embracing the videogame as a sort of container for all these different ideas and aspirations.

It's funny because early on my skills and desires felt very dispersed and independent, and I had sort of accepted the fact that I was irresponsibly learning and playing with different things instead of focusing and specializing on something, but then gradually those abilities started to interact with each other. And making videogames was the point where they all intertwined, and then it finally felt like, okay, all my seemingly-random scatterbrain walk of my past career actually makes a lot of sense here.

What development tools did you use?

I use my own set of libraries which I started building back in the Eliss days, and continued building on with Faraway. Now it's a fairly diverse codebase, it feels way too personal and messy to open source anytime soon, maybe ever, but its specific personality spills over into my games in a good way. I also developed a tool and meta-language that allows me to write and edit Objective-C with less friction and repetition; I'd like to open source it once the game is released. And I'm using FMOD for the interactive music.

How long have you worked on the game?

It's been two years, and I'd say about one year and a third full time. The early prototype was shown at Gamma 4, in GDC 2010. It's been about ten times longer than I estimated, but I've been very naive about the effort required to do what I've been envisioning.

I've been looking into making casual-ish endless games, you know, a simple set of rules, only one mode, one difficulty, game start and game over, no persistence between plays, the only thing that is brought from one game to the next is the player's experience. Kind of like a game of say chess, except there's no opponent, you only play against a system of rules.

You don't see a lot of games like that. Some great examples are Tetris, Drop7 or Canabalt. I have a huge admiration for those games, but as I'm getting better at them, it seems that I reach a point where I'm like, ok, I'm getting restricted in a way that is minimizing my fun because I'm not really getting anything new out of this restriction.

So for example with Tetris, I still get surprised at how almost magically simple and intuitive yet replayable the game is, but the difficulty progression in Tetris is I simply have to think and move more quickly, and this doesn't feel appealing enough to me as a player to restart and keep going over and over, I get tired quickly.

Of course, different players are different -- I know people that get a kick out of it, but to me there's some sort of invisible wall of fun that I reach and then I'm done. In other words, it feels to me like the fun doesn't scale with the difficulty.

So once I had a prototype for Faraway -- a relatively simple rule system inside a world that is always new, and procedurally generated depending on the ramping difficulty - the game seemed like a great opportunity to tackle that problem.

So in Faraway, as difficulty ramps up, the game is still the same -- same set of rules and abilities -, only certain variables have changed, but the variables have evolved to a state where the game asks for a different set of problem solving skills.

And another problem with a game where you always restart at the beginning, is that you don't want the player to be forced to sort of grind through the same amount of time and effort to reach a challenging point - that would defeat the purpose of being fun and replayable - so the rules should allow for advanced play "shortcuts" that are high risk and high reward, without compromising the rest of the game.

So it's a fine balance between many interconnected factors, and a huge chunk of development was about iterating by fixing a problem, observing how efficiently that problem was solved - and often that requires seeing other people play too - finding the new problems that had arisen from that change, and starting over. So for a long time the development was not about adding content, it was about changing and tweaking the rules.

It's been a long and painstaking process, but I've learned a lot from it, and I think it paid off. There's a couple loose nuts and bolts that I still have to deal with but the rule system has finally steadied into something very close to its final shape, and I've finally started working on making the game prettier and more immersive.

And after all this effort this game has become kind of a big deal for me, so I wanted to put some extra effort on the visuals and music, more than I had planned when I got started. There's going to be more music than on Eliss, and it's mostly interactive music, which is a lot of fun to compose and the results are very cool. If Eliss was an EP, Faraway is an LP.

You created every aspect of Faraway entirely alone, right? Did you intend for that sentiment of solitude to reflect in the game itself?

I did make everything. But I don't think the feeling of solitude you might get from the game comes from that. Doing everything by myself is a range of feelings oscillating between "sweet, I get to do all these different fun things" and "holy crap, now I have to do all this by myself". That feeling of solitude I see it more like a tightening of your chest, a place of emptiness. It's something that I crave for in games. You can feel it in Portal or in Shadow of the Colossus.

It's like going on a hike by yourself, and you stumble on a view over distant landscapes. It's like listening to a song loud on your headphones. It's a moment where there's only you. I think we crave those moments every now and then, and once we've had enough we go hug someone, or go play a multiplayer game.

I think that's where that solitude might have come from. It wasn't a completely conscious move though, the game naturally aligned to that state; the game is sort of set in outer space, which is a beautiful desolate place.

The game has also naturally aligned itself with another very human idea that has some aspects of loneliness. The shooting star's nature is to die, yet it fights to stay alive and travel. That force is somewhere between the sort of romantic idea of a young person that death is too far away to ever stop you from doing all the things that you have planned, and then as you grow you start seeing that idea becoming more and more unrealistic, but it's a force that's still always there deep in you.

It's a powerful idea, I think everybody somehow relates to it; I received very positive and emotional reactions when I presented the idea with the video teaser a few months back.

That said, I want players to first and foremost have fun. I hope it can convey other aspects of me, but it's focused on fun first and I think that clearly reveals itself in the way it feels. It's carbonated-pixel fun with a little sprinkle of loneliness.

A lot of the games you make are sort of synaesthetic, or require using different senses or reflexes in combination. Are you purposely drawn to this kind of gameplay?

I'm not sure. I like reactive, fun toys, and I think with Eliss and Faraway I was drawn to build gameplays that were as original as possible without compromising fun, and that may have somehow directed me into mixing things up and making things more synaesthetic? And with Eliss, I was in awe when the iPhone came out and we suddenly had access to a multitouch device, and I wanted to explore and play with that.

Your aesthetic is also very distinctive. Do you think this is important in the mobile space, which seems increasingly to be offering opportunities to artists?

I think my aesthetic is distinctive firstly because of the approach, where code and visuals and interaction are tied closely together, all pixels are procedurally generated by code. You can almost see the machinery between the lines.

This is not an original approach, you can easily find it in multimedia art. But you don't see it that much in videogames, where programmers typically act as engineers, not so much as a visual artists. So I had a good head start. All I had to do then was adding my own twist, my own voice, by mixing influences and little tricks I discovered along the way, and the result was something personal. I'm still learning and shaping my own voice, it's a process, but it's super gratifying.

And I think that's always been important - not just in mobile but anywhere - but it's becoming easier to do so. Content creators have easier access to a lot of culture and entertainment, much more so than ten years ago, they are more educated and open minded aesthetically, and at the same time they have better access to better tools for creating and publishing and even getting funded.

So there's less excuses to not understand how you can have a relatively original voice and figuring out how to put it out there. The biggest challenges are found more and more within ourselves: to not be lazy - or too consumed/distracted by that avalanche of content - or to not play too safe.

And I think artists that have their a personal and compelling voice are having more and more chances of success. I get this sense that these cultural changes are making us more clever as consumers, that it's become harder to sell us garbage than before, we are getting more educated in picking from all the alternatives, we're looking for stuff that stands out. I mean, some of the most successful companies and creators today are doing some of my favorite stuff, and I feel like that was almost never the case 10 years ago.

In a bigger scale you see Apple, Valve, or the effect Christopher Nolan has had on Hollywood, but in a smaller scale you also see extraordinary things happening from small shops like Teenage Engineering's OP-1.

It's like it's becoming more clear that inspired work, innovation and quality is sustainable, and that uninspired cloning is become worst than being tacky, it's now risky. I mean, some entities are still doing great at making uninspired mediocre work and at cloning others, but it's becoming more evident that doing quality, original work is a very safe way to success, so why not go the extra mile and stand out artistically?

Do you like working in the one-button design space? What appeals about it?

People were trying to figure out how to turn the iPhone screen into some sort of gamepad, trying to figure out how to solve all these new problems. Your fingers hide important parts of the screen, there's no tactile feedback, platformers can't work here, etc. Then Adam Saltsman comes along and says "Let's simplify this: it's a giant button."

And it was like a slap in the face, it was so disarming in its simplicity and effectiveness, it solved all those problems and it was kinda like an eye opener into how much you can do with simple inputs.

And there's a certain flow added with that idea. The input concept is so simple, so thin, there's almost nothing between you and the game. It was very inspiring, and with Faraway in a way I tried to see how deep you could take that one button input idea, how much control could you extract from a simple ON/OFF, and it turned out to work really well.

I effectively have a shooting star that can go in any directions and at different speeds in a 2D space, and it's just one big button. There's a bit of a learning curve to control the comet well and start do do bad ass moves, but it's part of what makes it fun.

Played any of the other IGF finalists? Any you particularly loved?

Unfortunately I haven't had the time or chance to play many of the finalist games, but the ones I have played are crazy good. Spelunky is one of my favorite games;the PC version might very well be the game I played the longest time, I'm pretty excited for the Xbox launch. Then there's Fez, which I was lucky enough to get my hands on a build.

I'm still working my way through it, the game world is quite different from anything I've played before, it's a sort of weird hybrid between some sort of Zelda and a sandbox game, without violent mechanics and a strong component of simple contemplation, and it's almost inhuman how beautiful it looks and sounds.

And then Joust is pure fun and simple genius. It's like the perfect game to wash your tears off after staring at the lonely and beautiful landscapes of Fez, it's an explosion of pure social fun.

And I played all my fellow mobile finalists -- Ridiculous Fishing, Waking Mars, Beat Sneak Bandit, ASYNC Corp -- to see in how much trouble I am to get my hands on that sweet award, and turns out I'm in deep shit. They're all strong. I feel proud to have my game amongst them.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

I think it's a growing explosion of extraordinary talent. And looking from the inside, it's exceptional in how friendly and supportive of a community it is. I sometimes hear that it's too exclusive, but that hasn't been my own experience.

When I came to my first GDC, right after Eliss was released, I didn't even know there was a scene, and I've been welcome with arms open. And since then I've been interacting with some of the most clever, talented people I had ever met, and there's some really good energies. Everybody's supportive of the others, some are actively solving problems for the community, and everybody makes sure that our giant egos don't step too much on each other.

I don't know what it is, but I suspect it may be that most people feel very accomplished, because they have their own ideas -- and maybe too big of egos to blatantly steal anyone's ideas -- and they're able to do what they love without putting up with too much bullshit. And they also have a lot of admiration for each other.

All that amounts to a lot of positive energy. It has helped me grow as a developer, and Faraway could never have been what it is without the level of feedback and support I got from that scene. I hope it will always maintain this energy.

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