This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Best Student Game-nominated levedad is an autobiographical game of long-exposure photography, but one that asks the player to bring their own personal meaning to the places and things they choose to capture in their lens.
Gamasutra had a chat with Julián Cordero, developer of levedad, to talk about what drew them to long-exposure photography, how he explored his history and feelings through the game's design, and the beauty of what players bring ot this space through telling their own story in pictures.
My name is Julián Cordero. I'm a game designer from Ecuador and I was the sole developer for levedad (except for the music, which was made by the lovely Frankie Pettigrew and Steph Butchko, and some old drawings made by Emilia González Salgado).
I started making games about three years ago when I started school at NYU. In fact, levedad was conceived as a midterm assignment for an intermediate game development class, so it was one of the first real game projects I ever started.
The prompt for this assignment was to make an autobiographical game. I had no idea where to even start thinking about making a game like this, so I started looking through old pictures I had taken for inspiration. And I found a lot of this:
There were hundreds of these, spanning many different time periods in my life. Yet, looking back at them, I couldn't quite remember why I was so fascinated by them. I don't find them particularly beautiful now, but something about them intrigued me deeply, and I wanted to figure out what it was. So i decided to explore that feeling, and levedad was the result of that.
Unity was the main one, plus Maya for the models and Photoshop for graphic stuff.
Photography is such an immediate thing, usually, and we never sit down and consider how light is entering the camera, but after making the game I realized it was something I considered greatly while waiting for the exposure to finish.
After some early prototypes for the long exposure mechanic, I noticed that the 'light' slowly coming into the camera was visualized in a way that doesn't happen in real cameras (where its just black until you see the final image). At first I wanted to fix this to make it feel closer to the real experience, but then I realized that this build up is what made the game interesting. Not only did it allow you to draw stuff actively with the stars, etc. and be much more creative, but it also gave the process of taking a picture just as much value as the final composition. The time during the long exposure is the only moment you can't save, you only get an aggregate of it. But it is the most meaningful moment, the moment of deepest reflection.
I realized that the thing I enjoyed the most about long-exposure photography back then was the act of taking them, then waiting in silence reflecting about the picture you are taking before the end result shows up in your camera.
To be honest, the fact that you were already capturing the passage of time while actually taking the picture made me think about how to expand on that, which is how I came up with the continuously-evolving setting you are in. I liked how the passing of time worked both on the background and the foreground this way, guiding the player to reflect upon it directly and indirectly at the same time.
I didn't really think of it as a play mechanic in the traditional sense - my intention was never to make taking long-exposure photography on a computer 'fun', or to 'gamify' it. Rather, the design emerged from me trying to find the fun in it and figuring out what it meant to me. This is why the game never tells you to take a picture of a specific object or scene; it simply gives you the camera and hopes that you find your own meaning in the pictures you take.
Having players draw their own meanings from the space is something I really wanted to happen from the beginning, so I always designed with that in mind. The online archive is a testament to that, which stemmed from my love of seeing pictures other people had taken and wanting to collect them. I check it often for new pictures because I love to see the different interpretations of the same space.
I think that the fact that it is an autobiographical game helps a lot in allowing players to draw their own meanings from the space. First of all, there are a bunch of personal details in the objects that are specifically true to me, like some stuff scribbled on the roof relating to song lyrics from Ecuadorian bands that resonated with me, and more. I think it is easier to find your own interpretations for things when you feel that they carry some inherent meaning to them - when you feel like they already mean something to someone.
On the other hand, some objects in the game are less specific to my life, but do carry specific personal feelings. For example, the house I grew up in Quito, Ecuador used to be close enough to a river that I remember hearing it from my room when I was young. That area slowly got further and further developed and new houses started popping up, and I heard less and less of it. Now, all I can hear is the highway. This is expressed in the game in a more visual way, with the stars getting dimmer as you get surrounded by buildings. It is a small detail that not many people notice, yet it seems to be very impactful to the ones who do.
Now, I doubt that any of those people connected that feeling to slowly hearing less and less of a river, but the general intent is there, and so it lets people reflect on urban development on their own terms. The game is full of these projections, and it helped me learn stuff about myself. In a way, I was idealizing a sort of teenage angst (that I might still have) through the way the world was constructed. There was no such roof in real life when I was growing up, but sometimes I wish there was. Setting the game there felt true to my life.