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Road to the IGF: Ian Snyder's  The Floor is Jelly

Road to the IGF: Ian Snyder's The Floor is Jelly Exclusive

February 23, 2012 | By John Polson

February 23, 2012 | By John Polson
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More: Indie, Exclusive, Design, IGF

What if everything players touched in their game world was made of jelly? That is the question Ian Snyder's IGF Student Showcase finalist The Floor is Jelly seeks to answer, in the form of a colorful but atypical 2D platformer.

Snyder has explored this question since July 2011, while continuing his studies at the Kansas City Art Institute. He's been exploring the boundaries of games in a larger context since he began honing his craft in 2005, his freshman year of high school. His unconventional maze game Feign even earned him an honorable mention for the Nuovo Award at IGF in 2011.

While wrapped in the shell of a platformer, The Mac- and PC-bound The Floor is Jelly will be unconventional in many ways. However, Snyder aims to make it extremely fun and rewarding, especially for the players who like to "poke at the holes in the corners of their universe until it unravels." Here Snyder begins to unravel his mysterious, gelatinous universe in-the-making.

Could you tell me about yourself and the development tools you've used?

Snyder: I've been making games in general for about 7 years now. I also made the game Feign, which you may have heard of before.

I'm using Flash to build this. It's the program I've worked with since I began making games, so it's just easiest for me to use that. Someday I will teach myself a real programming language, really! I've been making the game off and on since July, and it is still in development.

What bits of games served as your inspiration?

Videos of games like Loco Roco, Patapon, Pixeljunk Eden/Shooter, and Hohokum have all had an influence visually, I think. I haven't actually gotten the chance to play most of these... That vectored style is something that stuck with me though.

I keep returning to Everyday Shooter when I feel like I'm out of ideas. There is a synthesis of graphics, sound, and play in that game I find particularly inspiring.

Proteus got me thinking about games as a place the player exists in. Somewhere you are rather than something you do, which is important to the kinds of aesthetic decisions I'm making in the game.

How are you making the jelly be gelatinous in technical programming terms?

The jelly works a bit like cellular automata. If you take Conway's Game of Life, for example, one way to understand the rules is in terms of neighbors (each cell has nine) and their relationships (depending on their neighbors, a cell expresses either an "on": or "off" state).

The jelly is made up a of a series of points surrounding each island like a band. The line these points make defines the shape of the island. Each point has two neighbors, one counterclockwise and one clockwise. Where something like the Game of Life might express relationships between these in boolean values, each point's relationship to its neighbors is expressed and defined by their x/y position.

In more concrete terms, when one point gets far enough from its neighbors, it pulls the neighbors toward itself (and simultaneously, its neighbors are pulling it back toward them). Once these neighbors have been dislodged from their position, they will pull their neighbors, and those neighbors in turn will pull away theirs and so on creating the rippling effect of the jelly.

There is also a force acting on the points to make sure that they return to their original position instead of ending up a crumpled heap somewhere in the infinite void beyond the screen's edges.

It's actually quite a simple simulation.

How would you label your game?

Well, jumping is something that happens a lot... My hope with the game is simply to present a space where players can interact with these weird physics. A platformer is a pretty efficient way to accomplish that. I'm working to make the environment just a nice place to be in. The game will have a good amount of hidden things for those who want to look.

So there's looking for things, there's being somewhere, and there's jumping on things. I guess I'd say it has a focus on the kinetic or sensory experience of the player -- it's an experiential platformer.

Why do you think your game deserves to win the Student Showcase?

I never said anything about thinking I deserved to win. Talk to the judges about that...

I've been looking over the other Student Showcase [finalists], and I'm honored to be counted among them. All the games look great this year, and I'm excited to meet them all and play their games in person.

What feedback from IGF Nuovo Award Honorable Mention Feign and other games helped in making Jelly?

Wow, I can't think of two more disparate games!

They do share certain characteristics, though. The central focus of both games is less about how awesome the protagonist/player is and more about the supernatural nature of the environment around them.

Games are basically magic. Want to walk around in a non-Euclidean maze? No problem! Want to run around wildly on a floor made of jello? Go for it!

One big lesson I took away from Feign is how patient the player can be. Maybe I had to abuse that relationship a little bit to understand that it was there. I felt for a while after Feign that I had to make these 'apology' games that were much kinder to the player.

There's a certain threshold a gamer crosses when they really commit to a game though. There's this point between where they're only trying it out and where they're actively trying to reach the end. Once the player steps over it, you can basically take them anywhere you want to.

That's one of the key differences to me between games and other mediums, suspension of disbelief is a built-in feature. When something happens in a game, no matter how fantastical that thing is, it is actually happening.

Water cooler talk: why should the average gamer play your game?

Ok, here's the deal, Average Gamer. We have our separate tastes, I know that. I stopped playing those shooters a long time ago because they just weren't my cup of tea. You still like them, and I respect and appreciate that. My game won't be following many of the conventions you're used to, let me warn you.

You won't be killing anything, there will be lots of colors, it occurs on a 2D plane, you can sit still to enjoy the environment and nothing will kill you, and it's made by me alone, meaning it's probably a great deal shorter than what you're used to.

I'm trying to make something that's just a nice place to be in. Maybe you like to be in nice places sometimes? I know I do.

What are some interesting things about your game that you haven't talked about before?

I'm always fascinated by areas in games which you are not supposed to enter. Maybe they're secret rooms, or they're a place where you can stand behind the scenery, or a room where you can fall through the floor into a black void if you stand in the right place and press the right buttons.

As I am making The Floor is Jelly, I'm trying to find those little places the player is not supposed to go and putting secrets there. I want the game to be really rewarding to the kind of player who pokes at the holes in the corners of their universe until it unravels.

Why jelly, and why not pudding? Are there talks with Bill Cosby for celebrity endorsement?

When it comes to jelly vs. pudding -- and believe me, it is a quandary I have spent long nights losing sleep over -- it is ultimately a question of movement. Jelly, and specifically its slightly trademarked cousin Jell-O, has a lively quality of movement that pudding just doesn't have. Pudding just sits there. Even the word "pudding" has a way of falling dollop-shaped from your mouth.

Initially Mr. Cosby seemed to like the idea of a world made of jelly, but in a voice recording session someone let it slip that this was all for a video game. It was at this point he barged into my office screaming something about how "video games are ruining the children of today," and proceeded to meander out of the studio in a vague rage. We did try to appease Mr. Cosby with food, but he would have none of it.

However, I haven't given up hope for his involvement in the project, and we are trying to peaceably work things out between us.

Unfounded Rumor: You are working on a theme park made out of jelly. Discuss.

Ian Snyder does not comment on rumor or speculation. I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of a theme park and series of corresponding residential areas made of jelly.

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