Equally unnerving, beautiful, and musical, Fract was a holistic vision that came out of nowhere. It was like the secret world that existed inside a vintage synthesizer, or behind the screen of an arcade. It seemed like a work of brisk confidence, though I still remember the humbled awe that Flanagan shared from his Twitter account when the games community embraced what was basically his final school project.
Flanagan answered some questions via email shortly before he attended this year’s GDC.
THM: First things first: what did you think of Tron: Legacy?
Flanagan: The original Tron was unapologetically “out-there” and pretty ground breaking. The script was batshit bonkers, and the world didn’t cater to what was conceivable or within the grasp of most viewers. As a result, it was a magical film for me, rocking its epic weirdness without hesitation. It was special, it was different, and it the was world I wanted to be in. Tron: Legacy on the other hand, while fun and well realized, didn’t resonate with me in the same way. For better or worse, I think many aspects of the 2011 film were a little too logical (with the exception of the script). I felt like there was an attempt to present the world with a greater degree of realism—but I found this greatly reduced the imagination and fantasy found in the original 1982 film. In my opinion, it was a much safer film. Being a Daft Punk fan, I did enjoy their musical contribution, though not enough to supplant my feelings for the 1982 score (I mean, come on—Wendy Carlos!).
You grew up making art projects and playing Sierra and Lucasarts games with your parents. It sounds like you were doomed to become a game designer.
Doomed is an interesting choice of words. Actually, I was pretty happy working as a graphic designer/art director over the years, but there was always something just bringing me back to games. I’d like to think of myself as a bit of a swiss army knife—so game design is great in terms of giving me a chance to do a little bit of everything: art direction, design, sound, motion, etc. Plus, my wife finally got tired of hearing me talk about games and the industry all the time, so she gave me a much-needed push to take a chance and get into games. I think it would have probably happened eventually, but probably under different circumstances (I had been trying to get into the gaming industry for years, but to no avail).
What can you tell me about FRACT’s sound design? I get the feeling there are stories behind the sound that people wouldn’t pick up while playing the game.
In a way, FRACT was shaped by my experiences in sound and music design. I used to write electronic music, as a passion and a hobby (I am a lapsed musician however, and have barely written anything in the last decade). I got into making music at an interesting time, when the democratization of music-making tools was really starting to take off in the mid-to-late nineties. With a relatively meagre computer, a rudimentary Tracker or Rebirth and a decent set of headphones one could create just about anything. I always found these tools very playful and have been trying to incorporate them into something interactive or game-like for many years—FRACT is the culmination of this.
More recently though, we’ve really started to tap into the potential of the intersection of these playful musical tools and the world of videogames. Some of the stuff we’re doing in real-time with the synths (the focus of FRACT OSC) brings a smile to my face daily. While the players’ progression through the world of FRACT will be a very curated one, there are a lot of opportunities to shape sounds, melodies, and entire passages as they see fit, and that really excites me. The FRACT prototype from 2010 was really just smoke and mirrors compared to what we’re doing now.
Very astute! And in more ways than one. There was a lot of cross pollination between the Designers Republic, Warp Records, and videogame culture (i.e. Wipeout)—and as a result, it’s this crazy concoction that was hugely influential on me as a young graphic designer/electronic musician/college dropout. Their work was embedded in a lot of things that I was interested in. Their studio also really seemed to “own” the projects they worked on, with an unapologetic style that sometimes aired on the side of satirical. The pseudo sci-fi corporate monoculture that they were peppering across their projects was super inspiring, and was just the type of refreshing reminder that graphic design didn’t have to be just flyers and business cards.
You’ve talked in the past that you’ve had to work around your technical abilities. What are some unintended creative choices you had to make for technical reasons that turned out for the best?
For the 2010 prototype that made it into the IGF, it was all about compromising for technical limitations as I was very new to the process. The puzzles themselves were almost painfully simple, but I made sure to have dramatic payoffs for solving them in contrast to their minimal “mechanics”. I also made some aesthetic decisions early on that were heavily influenced by practical constraints including the utter lack of textures, and a total of three global lights for the entire game. Texturing and lighting is complex art form, both of which I didn’t have the time or intent to learn. As a result, I played to the strengths I thought I could deliver on.
Moving forward into FRACT OSC, and with Henk on board as our technical wunderkind, it’s actually been challenging to decide when to scale back or to stop from overdeveloping a mechanic or idea. I think we’ve hit that balance on evaluating practical “boxes” and the best way to fill them with good stuff, but it will surely prove to be a challenge moving forward to keep a relatively even experience across the world of FRACT. I’m the worst culprit on the team when it comes to “solving a solution” as opposed to “solving a problem,” and I think a lot of the time it pays to just makes things simpler.
How has it been working with Henk and Quynh? Has it been an adjustment working with a team?
It’s been incredible. Make no mistake, there is no way we could be achieving what we have thus far without this team. Nevertheless, it’s of course been an adjustment, as I’ve had to learn how to externalize the crazy ideas in my head and communicate them effectively to the others. Quynh’s been helpful in that, since she knows me so well and usually is pretty in tune to what I’m trying to get at, even if it’s not yet fully formed. And we’ve been really lucky to get Henk on board—he’s contributed enormously not only in terms of the technical stuff, but game design as well. And it’s always good to have more minds on board, to get more ideas flowing.
Did the instant success of the Fract prototype have any downsides? In some less disciplined people, it might have created a crisis of confidence.
Funny thing is, right before the IGF announcement, I was certainly having a crisis of confidence. I had been making this game for myself, more or less in isolation, and wasn’t really sure where I would go with it. So it was pretty overwhelming to get such a positive response. And as we tried to take the game further in the past eight months, there have definitely been moments of serious self-doubt—but I think that’s normal. There is always iteration, which at the time feels like taking two steps forward, two steps back. Plus what we’re doing is kind of different, a little weird, so it’s hard when there isn’t a benchmark to compare it to. Sometimes you wonder whether you’re going in the right direction at all. To be perfectly honest, up until the last few months, we’ve been a little worried about our progress. Not to say that there still isn’t a ton left to do, but at least now things feel like they’re moving in the right direction. I think a little bit of worry is a good thing, it keeps you on your toes, and open to the potential for improvement.
You’ve talked about adding more to the “world” of Fract. Are you afraid of adding too much context, and taking away from the player’s imagination?
I have a very emotional connection to this world. I have been, and intend to continue, externalizing it where possible because it inspires me to create. That said, I am a strong proponent of experiences intentionally designed with gaps that need to be filled in, or pathways to experience. The aforementioned emotional connection is built on very personal discoveries through creation, and I want to facilitate similar experiences through this world. FRACT OSC is intended to be a primer, not a bible—I want people to come away with something they feel implicated in.
In terms of context, I’ve been pretty openly critical of the 2010 prototype. This comes not from a narrative perspective, but from a musical one. The things I had hoped to achieve musically were well beyond my technical abilities. We’re now starting to develop a deeper context in the world with our newer, more robust tech by referencing aspects of electronic music that I could only dream of before. I mean, I get to say things like, “I like the way the new ADSR envelopes on the oscillators are affecting the morphology” on an almost daily basis—how awesome is that?
I’ll guess, “very awesome”. What were some challenges in designing typeface for the game? As a non-designer, it seems like a huge challenge designing type that wouldn’t be discordant with such a visually realized world.
Designing type is a massive undertaking, and in my opinion is the ultimate UI challenge. To be perfectly clear, the type I’m developing for FRACT OSC is chicken scratch compared to what real type designers do for a living, as it requires epic amounts of research, testing, experience and skill to do correctly. I also have a leg up, because I’m the ‘client’ and know exactly how said typography is going to be used and in what context, but it still takes a while. The lowercase OSC type is something that I’ve actually been developing for a long time, sketched into the corners of notebooks for years now.
Discordance can be an obstacle to communication though, as there is very little text in the game (none whatsoever in the world proper). It has to be highly effective, and as you suggest, not clash with the world. Where we are using it though, it is necessary—where a symbol or alternative visual system would simply not communicate as effectively. An early iteration of one of the pattern sequencers used a binary symbol system to communicate pattern numbers. In the end we ditched that method entirely, as it didn’t do as an effective job as type would, nor did it fit in the world.
How does designing physical board games differ from designing digital games? In your experience, does one impact the other?
I think there are some fundamental similarities in balancing flow, values (where applicable), systems, and mechanics between digital and non-digital games, but the two seem to quickly diverge beyond these shared aspects. Non-digital games excel at facilitating (intentional or not) emergence, where digital games are more often than not fairly rigid in their systems but can be curated in a way that couldn’t be achieved off screen. I’m also not quite experienced enough in either to give a confident comparison, but can say that designing for both approaches has given me a lot of creative satisfaction.
On a totally personal level, I love designing tangible things. I’ve spent most of my life building stuff that lives inside computers, but there is something innately satisfying about holding a creation in your hand. Perhaps I’m a luddite in the age of rapid virtual prototyping, but nothing quite beats the smell of fresh ink on heavy stock.
You’ve written about the “intelligent design choices” making their way into mainstream games. As a critic, I think we should be analyzing the game mechanics of every game (good or bad, intended or unintended) to find the message in them. I think in the end this will build more aware audiences and more responsible mainstream designers. What are your thoughts on this?
I could go into deep esoteric, and probably hyper-pretentious detail in responding to that, but at the end of the day, I think it comes down to asking “why?” when we design anything. I think it’s important to have a good answer. Experiences don’t have to be profound to be satisfying, they just have to have a reason.