Crosstalk hasn’t gotten a ton of attention from people. As of this writing it only has 41 reviews from fellow Ludum Dare participants. However, the reaction to the game is mostly in the range of “totally taken aback” to “very interesting, unique!”. So I want to talk a bit about how the game came into being.
I was totally disappointed with the chosen theme for Ludum Dare 40. I was not inspired one bit. I participated in Ludum Dare 40 at a local hosting site, and when the theme was announced, ideas were being tossed around all over the office space, and it was a bit chaotic. So I went for a walk in the cool air of downtown, with headphones on listening to music. I suppose I isolated myself and just let my brain chew on the theme for a while.
Perhaps it was the experience of being in the midst of all the brainstorming from other jam participants, or perhaps it was hearing through my music the rowdy shouting of vague plans from various groups of pre-gamed bar hoppers. Whatever it was, the phrase “cross talk” popped into my head. I liked the concept of “the more noise you have, the worse it is”, but I still didn’t like the idea of making a game based on that concept.
When I got back from my walk, I resigned myself to developing that nuissance of an idea “cross talk”, and began writing things down. I desperately wanted to avoid the obvious interpretation of the theme, which was “the more you progress the more difficult it becomes”. Very quickly I focused in on two components of the aesthetic for the game:
1. Subtle, hidden-but-discoverable rules and mechanics. (@lexi described the gameplay with the phrase “hidden dynamics”)
2. Visual abstraction.
I don’t know why my mind focused on abstraction for this idea, but I can probably take a guess. For the past couple of years, and especially in the past few months I have been studying art history. My research has primarily focused on modern art, in particular DADA, surrealism, abstract expressionism, and most recently pop art. I began studying these artistic periods because I wanted to understand my own artistic approach. Why do I favor Rod Humble’s The Marriage or Ian Bogost’s A Slow Year or Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia more than say Dark Souls or EVE Online or The Witcher?
I haven’t made a lot of games, but I am interested in seeing what expressive capacity gameplay has. So when I see a game expressing an idea through story or through visuals, I am less interested than when I see that idea expressed through a player’s interaction with the rules and mechanics of the game.
The approach is called formalism. If games are art, then from where does their artistic expression come? I say it comes from play. I definitely do not want to discount other approaches (indeed, one of my favorite authorities on game design, Anna Anthropy, despises abstract play and formalism).
So while I did not expect to make an abstract game for Ludum Dare 40, that’s what happened. I did not want to make a game where the player plays a role which is defined by story or a particular character sprite or a set of items. I did not want to make a game where you use raycasting to disappear sprites that move toward you or where you press a button to use a “weapon” to “hit” “enemies”. I did not want to make a game that simulated a real-world activity like shooting or climbing or driving.
I wanted to make a game that caused players to contemplate the the various aspects of the system with which they are interacting. I wanted them to think about color, shape, sound, motion, distance, tranforms, and even the game window itself. How do all those aspects interplay to affect your mind? What kind of impression can that interplay leave? Perhaps this abstract approach, where representation of reality doesn’t distract, is a way to *measure* the expressive capacity of play.
Maybe it’s not the best way, but it’s what I am thinking at the moment and though I didn’t expect to put these ideas into an actual game so soon, Ludum Dare 40 dared me to try.
P.S. Consider Crosstalk a prototype for my next game.
Play it here: