Photo by Katie McKiernan
Strange Attractors 2 is a top-down game about navigating an avatar from place to place using attraction and repulsion mechanics. It wasn’t the only game in the PAX 10 to use the environment to pull and push the player around, but it was the only one to use gravity to model those forces. So instead of using specially designated objects, everything in the environment pulls and pushes everything else. Controlling the game is like controlling the gravitational constant. It defaults to 0, but you can turn it up high, or flip it into negative numbers using the two mouse buttons.
We talked to Christoper McGarry of Ominous Development about how Strange Attractors 2 grew out of the first game, their distribution model, and the charmingly tortured cries of the game’s enemies. Read on for all that and then check out the demo.
Pixelsocks: So, how did you come up with the idea?
Chris: It actually started quite a while ago. We were all friends in high school, all grew up together, and we all loved games. We’d get together after school, and we said, “We need to make some games, we’re really into these.” So we started to make text adventures, and modeling stuff in 3D. We made this Pong clone a long, long time ago, and it really sucked, though I don’t remember why anymore. We thought, “Well, we can make this more interesting by adding gravity wells.”
Pixelsocks: Was that the original Strange Attractors, then?
Chris: No, not exactly. We did that and kind of forgot about it. We entered into the One Switch Game Competition, I think about 2005. The criterion was you had to make a game that only used one switch, and you could use the escape key to exit. It was for gamers with disabilities and people who have limited mobility.
That gave us some creative constraints and a deadline, which we thought were both very good things for actually getting some stuff done. Before that we had fun with just half-assed projects that we never really got the full force behind. So we were scratching our heads, trying to think, “What can we do with one switch?” The Xbox controller has a bunch of buttons, and every game uses almost every button. And then we thought, “Well, that gravity game was kinda cool. I’m sure we could retrofit that to have it have things orbiting around other things just using one button and gravity.”
So we developed Strange Attractors 1 in about a month, an entered it into the One Switch Contest. I think we got sixth place in that. After that we decided to enter it into the Independent Games Festival in 2006, and we were nominated for Innovation in Game Design. We were like, “Wow, people seem to really like it.” After making a bunch of little weird little games, we were excited that we were onto something, so we decided to make a sequel. It’s been two years in development.
We all have full-time jobs and family responsibilities. None of us work in the games industry. It’s been tough, just balancing all the normal day-to-day responsibilities of work and family, and getting any time to try to get the game done.
Pixelsocks: So, what makes this a different game from the first Strange Attractors?
Chris: Well, the first game was made in a month. So, it was top-down, 2D. I think we did 3D models, but they were all pre-rendered. Scott, the guy who’s in Florida and unfortunately couldn’t be here, is an amazingly gifted programmer. He wrote his own 3D engine for [Strange Attractors 2].
The level design in the first Strange Attractors was very arcade-y. The rooms were all the same shape, the same size. There were objects floating in each room, but the goal was always the same: you just had to get from the bottom to the top. In Strange Attractors 2, we wanted to use all these new 3D environments to make levels that were a lot more interesting and engaging.
Brett, our head level designer, was very inspired by the original Legend of Zelda, and how sprawling and interesting the maps were. So, a lot of our levels in easier modes progress in the same way as they did in Strange Attractors 1, but later into the game the levels branch out more, and you find yourself having to flip switches and find charges to unlock other [gated] areas. The levels are much, much larger, much more involved, much more sprawling. We have more enemy types. We added the idea of anti-gravity, as well as gravity.
Pixelsocks: Does the fact that you’re the only game that’s a sequel in the PAX 10 affect your relationship with the other developers at all?
Chris: I don’t think so. I mean, a lot of the other developers come from the industry. A lot of them have worked on many, many games, including major titles, and quit their jobs and started their own companies. Given that Strange Attractors 2 is a sequel, we’re all on the same footing for the most part.
The first game was almost proof of concept, because it was so simple. There was a lot of talk when we first went into this as to whether we should call it Strange Attractors, and have this be the “real” first game. But we felt like a lot of people, especially like disabled gamers, played our first game and enjoyed it. So we thought, “Let’s not muddy the waters, and just call it the sequel.”
Pixelsocks: You mentioned the switch-and-lock gameplay. Are those primarily there to guide players into interesting places and tasks?
Chris: Primarily yes, and also to make the game play more interesting. When you get down to it, our game is like a regular 2D platformer, take Mario Brothers or Legend of Zelda 2 and flip it on it’s side, and use gravity as the pull mechanic. Since the control interface is so radical, we wanted to stick with some standard gameplay elements to foster more gameplay, instead of just the mechanic itself.
Pixelsocks: So, going back to the attraction and repulsion mechanic for a second, do you have something that you feel distinguishes the game from the magnetism games [in the PAX 10]?
Chris: Basically, it’s the simplicity of the interface: it’s only two buttons. It’s [as] pared down and elegant as you can get. There aren’t any extraneous things you can do to mess anything up. So, you’re just free to move around. You can actually die—there is health in it—but there’s an easy mode where you can just go through it and play. So I think what sets it apart is the elegance of the control scheme.
Pixelsocks: Just for my curiosity, what’s up with the little yellow space guys?
We all grew up together; we’re all really tounge-in-cheek as far as goofy stuff goes. The original Strange Attractors had a little yellow screaming guy. We just wanted fodder.
Pixelsocks: They’re adorable, in an obnoxious, “shoot you with lasers” way.
Chris: Yes, exactly. I think in every game we’ve had, we’ve put in little men you can maliciously destroy and kill and leave little bloody messes. For some reason it felt right. We actually got a lot of people talking about how they were disturbed by the “screaming baby voices,” so I can guarantee you ours is the only game, probably in this whole conference, that has an option for screaming guys: on or off. So we took even them into consideration.
Pixelsocks: That’s very thoughtful. So, you’re being distributed by Greenhouse, is that right?
Pixelsocks: How’d you decide to go with digital distribution?
Chris: Assets. We don’t have any. We’re actually a “No Budget” operation. We bought the tools to make the game, and C++ books, and went from there. Like I said, all nights and weekends. The only thing we’ve invested in it is time.
We had to form a real company to be able to release it, so we’ve had some expenditures, like getting the paperwork right for that, and lawyers to look over contracts with a couple people. But other than that, we haven’t spent much on making it aside from time and passion.
Digital distribution is really, really awesome. You basically just make the game, you hand it over, and people buy it. We don’t have to have boxes made, we don’t have to have a ton of artwork made—even though I’m a graphic designer, and I could do it anyways, but it’s nice to not have to do that sometimes.
Pixelsocks: Just one last question for you: if there’s one design feature in the game that you think really defines it and makes it fun, what would it be?
Chris: I really want to say the screaming space men—we’re the only game here that has them—but yes, probably the control mechanic. If you want to mention both, that’d be cool.
Pixelsocks:I will, thank you
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