You probably remember the day you moved your stuff out of your parents' house, sorting through old games and knickknacks and reliving their associated memories. Throw in a rather flexible form of gravity in an M.C. Escher-inspired world, and you've got Souvenir, an experimental narrative game produced as part of a thesis project for a Design and Technology MFA at Parsons.
Patrick Miller: How'd you come up with the idea for Souvenir?
Ben Norskov: We intended to create a game that would inspire some awe in the player and have strong narrative elements. Storytelling in games is one of the most unexplored areas of game development, so we wanted to tell a compelling story. We knew that the gravity-shifting mechanic would disorient players and put them in a magical or dreamlike space, where the possibilities seem endless. We also needed a mechanic that would be fun, because we knew that simply walking around could get tedious. We originally planned on more of a hard narrative, but realized through early prototypes that it wouldn't fit well with the game.
PM: Tell me about the team. Who did what?
BN: Mohini, Robert, and I all graduated from Parsons MFA in the Design and Technology program. Our animator and concept artist, Shin Huang, was visiting for a year from China, and Alejandro Ghersi is an incredible DJ and sound engineer I had the pleasure of working with once before.
PM: Whose story are you telling in Souvenir?
Mohini Dutta: The protagonist in Souvenir is a young woman about to leave home to begin the next chapter of her life. However, transitions are never without baggage, and the game is a representation of all the things that tie her to her old life: her high school, her family, her relationship to religion. To truly begin anew, she needs to look back and choose what to take with her into the future and what to leave behind.
When I left home after my undergraduate degree to work and move out of my parents' home, I was amazed at how much junk I had collected over the years. Each little souvenir-an old book, a broken CD player, some old tapes-each of them was attached to a memory or an event, and I didn't want to let go of any of it, but I couldn't move out if I took all of it with me. The experience of sorting out all my things to pick what to save and what to let go was very rewarding for me, making me finally deal with a lot of loose ends, and eventually allowing me to move on with confidence and space in my life for the new souvenirs to come.
PM: What did you draw inspiration from while making Souvenir?
BN: Our first and strongest influence is Terry Cavanagh's VVVVVV, which is simply a stunning game. We were searching for a mechanic, and Robert had suggested VVVVVV's mechanic in 3D, but then rejected it quickly for some reason. Then he showed up after a weekend with a basic prototype of the mechanic and it felt really awesome. Other game influences are Psychonauts, Portal (for level design), and Proteus. Art influences are Remedios Varo, Giorgio de Chirico, and many other surrealist architectures, both physical and painted.
PM: The Escher-inspired level design is really neat. Did you have any problems modeling such an abstract environment and turning it into a playable game space?
Robert Yang: We had millions of problems. We kept iterating the player physics-trying to make it smoother, adjusting friction and drag, changing controls-which would make movement feel better, but would alter the relationship to the environment. We couldn't just say, "These are the player physics, now they're done," because game design can't really work like that; you don't know whether something works until it's done. It was a chicken-and-egg problem, like designing platformer levels when you don't know how high or far the player can jump. The only way through is to just accept how much waste you'll have to throw away.
PM: At the moment, the game is still incomplete. Are you planning on developing any of the concepts in Souvenir further?
RY: We want to add an ending of some sort. We've had conversations about what would be appropriate, but it's hard to go back to this project because we're all kind of moving on to our own things-we graduated, so why go back to this? Emotionally, we have very different mind-sets now. So we want to, but I'm not sure if we will. I imagine every student project encounters this shift.
PM: What's with the crows?
MD: The crows have been a crowd favorite throughout our development! One of our older prototypes had a stronger boss-fight element in it, and we had devised a few anthropomorphic animal bosses that represented oppressive characters from the protagonist's past. Eventually our game design evolved out of that phase, but the crow still remained.
The crow represented a bastardization of the wise raven character trope from myths; a crow is almost a raven, but represents all the base and vile elements of its character. I imagined the mean teacher character to be a crow to the general ravenness of teachers who represent wisdom and the bigger things in life. The crow began to represent the passive-aggressive antagonists who don't do anything overtly terrible, but cause damage and fear nonetheless.
Release date: May 2012 for proof of mechanic and narrative prototype.
Development Time: 1 year
Development Budget: <$1000 (not counting the price of Parsons' tuition)
# of lines of code in the game: about 4k-5k
Fun Fact: A 12-year-old playtester told us that "You know you're inside a girl's mind because everything's all messed up."