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  • Educated Play: Nous

    - Patrick Miller
  • It's hard to put a label on Awesome Shark Volcano's IGF Student Showcase finalist Nous. At first glance, it looks like a simple arcade game with a rather retro aesthetic -- until you encounter the unhinged AI narrator. Read on to find out how four DigiPen students managed to make Nous -- and how they might have gotten a little bit unhinged in the process.

    Patrick Miller: Tell me a little bit about the team behind Nous. How'd you meet, and who did what?

    Pohung Chen: We're a team of four students at DigiPen Institute of Technology. Nous was our sophomore year game project. I wrote physics code for the custom engine. A lot of the physics code didn't end up being used in the final game beyond basic collision detection and resolution. I also helped the team with scheduling, figuring out where we're going, and ran playtest sessions. Treb Connell worked on the core engine and wrote our Lua binding.

    Jason Meisel: I was the graphics programmer on the project as well as the "co-designer" and eventually the artist -- that one surprises me. I came on to the project wanting to learn how to do cool graphics effects, and I think I was pretty successful. I also made many of the prototypes that we experimented with over the course of development as well as a good amount of random gameplay code.

    Brett Cutler: I was the last to join the team and was handed the clay of our ideas, tasked with shaping it into a game as the designer. That involved scripting the gameplay, the levels, writing the script, running playtesting, and polishing everything player-side.

    PM: Where'd the idea for Nous come from? Was the AI "personality" there from the beginning, or did it come after other game mechanics were set down?

    BC: We were a team driven to create something great, but we lacked a killer idea. We spent most of our development period throwing out prototypes. Before Nous, we had "Dr. Gravity and the Invention of Gravity;" before that, "Spaceburnium." By the end of our regular production, we were known mostly as the game that kept changing. So we made that the focus of the game.

    The frustration and indecision we'd fought against for the whole year was poured into a manipulative, confused, and insane narrator. The AI personality grew into this space, personifying our development and exploring the concept of identity; namely, though our game had changed radically, we still felt it was the same project. Could we build a character with radically different personalities that felt unified? What composes a character -- or an identity?

    PM: What inspired Nous's visual style?

    JM: As our project evolved, so did its visuals. Throughout the project we struggled with mixing 2D gameplay with 3D visuals, and for a long time the game looked like a random assortment of sprites and effects rather than a cohesive piece. When we figured out the theme of Nous, we figured out an art style to go with it, one that would utilize the effects in more complementary ways. There was some definite inspiration from Geometry Wars, being simple and computeristic. The color palette was inspired by Portal, or any DVD cover, and after consulting with some of the artists at DigiPen, we were able to really make it stand out.

    BC: There's a stage in any creative's development where they just want to provoke a reaction. Visual noise, flashing lights, and loud sounds feature heavily in the game, inspired by the opening credits of the movie Enter the Void. The chaos is punctuated by silence -- by pure, clean letters on a black void.

    PM: What did you use to prototype and develop Nous?

    PC: We wrote our engine using C++ and Lua. Integrating Lua into our game really sped up our code-iteration speed. We were able to use it to prototype a lot of different ideas fairly quickly.

    Because we were only four people building the entire game from scratch and we each had four to five other classes to take care of, some things were left in a barely good-enough state. One good example of this was our level editor. It was thrown together quickly and wasn't very usable. We didn't end up making it user-friendly enough to be all that useful. A lot of the content was tediously thrown together using a combination of the editor and Lua code.

    BC: I still wonder about the prototypes we trashed. Could they have been better than Nous, given time to shine? How do you know when you've developed a prototype far enough to test it, or whether you're abandoning it just before you would have hit a breakthrough that would unlock the fun?

    PM: Is your team going to continue to work together on anything else?

    JM: Pohung and I have been working on another project for about a year, and it's given me a whole new perspective on game development. We're expecting to release it within the year.

    BC: Teams shift every year at DigiPen, and we try to work with a mixture of new people and old friends. Treb, Pohung, and I have been working on another project -- and trying to build a game very different from Nous. It involves rhinoceroses.

    Data Box:

    Team name: Awesome Shark Volcano (DigiPen)

    Date of release: October 2011

    Development time: About a year

    Development budget: $0.00

    # of lines of code in the game: ~40,000

    A fun fact about the development process: Composer on the cheap -- some of the music in Nous was made with Paul Stretch, a program that slows down classical music to a quarter of its normal speed.


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