After leaving Valve, Kim Swift moved on to Dark Void developer Airtight Games. Her first project as creative lead is Quantum Conundrum, which Square Enix will release as a digital download for PC, PlayStation Network, and Xbox Live Arcade.
You control a kid sent to visit uncle Professor Quadwrangle, a genius, but a tad crazy scientist. The game begins with the professor trapped in another dimension and you have to rescue him with the help of an Interdimensional Shift Device. Like Portal, Quantum Conundrum is a physics based puzzle game, but instead of catapulting through portals players change the properties of the objects around them. For example, you can switch to the Fluffy dimension and pick up safes to create a staircase. Or you can slowdown time to jump on flying tables which you can use as moving platforms.
What makes physics as a game mechanic so interesting for you to play with as a video game designer?
Kim Swift, Creative Lead at Airtight Games: I think it’s because we as people already have a foundation in physics. We know how things should react and how they should feel, and to me, it’s really easy to play with it and do something different. Us knowing what physics act like, being able to turn it on its head in a game world while at the same time having that foundational principle of what it should be like.
And also, Physics was my favorite subjects in college. I think it’s really fun to play around with it and just to give people a different experience that they’re not used to.
In Portal, you created a game that played with momentum conservation. What properties of physics did you play with when creating Quantum Conundrum?
We have five dimensions in the game. There’s Normal, which is your baseline. Then there’s Fluffy dimension where everything is ten times lighter and obviously cute and fluffy. And Heavy, the polar opposite, where everything is ten times heavier and because everything turned into this kind of heavy metal, it’s extra durable. It’s all about using the properties of this Heavy dimension, being resistant to lasers, to solve the challenge.
Slow-motion dimension, everything is moving twenty times slower. If I were to pick up my phone and throw it, and then switch to switch to Slow-motion dimension, I’d be able to run over to its side, switch back to Normal dimension, and then catch my phone.
And finally, there’s Reverse-gravity dimension, which is pretty self-explanatory. What is normally the ground now goes up to the ceiling. So, it’s not just utilizing the properties of mass and each dimension becoming a tool in your arsenal and utilizing them with objects.
Which one was the hardest dimension to develop?
For us, Fluffy and Heavy were the most difficult to do art-wise. None of our dimensions were super-challenging to do code-wise. We were deliberate about choosing physicalities based on things we could quickly prototype and iterate on. We got a prototype of our game running fairly quickly, within a few weeks, to shop around to publishers.
But Fluffy and Heavy, art-wise, if you look at the safe or couch for instance, there’s different geometry changes for each one of those. That requires us to load each one of those objects’ instances in memory and be able to switch back and forth. So in that way, it was difficult from a programming aspect, but more due to memory management, not for actual implementation.
Was there a dimension that you wanted to include but didn’t get to?
I don’t want to say that! We might do more in the future, so I don’t want to give anything away. [Laughs.]
When you were shopping around for publishers, what made Square Enix a good fit for your game?
Mike Fischer, who is CEO of Square USA, is an amazing guy. Talking to him, he was really super-positive about the project and tells us all the time we’re doing a great job and how much he loves this idea. He was just like, “We as a publisher don’t want to hinder your creativity. We want you to do whatever you have to, to make this game amazing.” So far, Square has been amazingly supportive and it’s a really great partnership.
Does Square Enix own the IP?
Can you tell us a little bit about the story? Portal was kind of dark, and Quantum Conundrum is more lighthearted and upbeat.
There are some darker moments. I mean, you are this kid in this horribly dangerous laboratory! Our little spice of dark humor is actually our death messages, so if you die, we have like 500 some odd different death messages of things you won’t experience in real life because you died. [Laughs.]
So, there’s little hints of dark humor, but yeah, overall, it’s definitely more of a lighthearted game than Portal was. For us, it suited the gameplay.
Oh, I didn’t know the kid could die.
Oh yeah, you can go kill yourself right now! Just go over to one of those lasers and fry yourself in the face. [Laughs.]
[I follow her instructions and walk right into a laser beam.]
Yeah, you’re dead.
[Reads from the screen] You’ll never experience re-discovering your childhood because you’re already dead.
So, we have those moments. And we have moments that are more slap-sticky. [Swift shows me around the game.]
[Playing the game] I like how all of the robots have a visage.
Yes. That’s D.O.L.L.Y. Which stands for “Dynamic Object Linear Ligation Interface”. And we wanted her to have this personality of being a puppy dog that really, really wants to make you happy. So she’s always looking for you and has these cute little animations where she sticks her tongue out. She’s one of my favorite things in the game, actually.
[Points out in the game.] So, our portraits shift.
Yeah, I noticed that in the Fluffy dimension, too. They shift into something softer.
Yeah. I actually really like the Fluffy dimension version of this painting. And switching back and forth between the different portraits has different outcomes. We’re definitely trying to inject the game with humor, either through dialogue or story-telling through paintings. So, while it is lighthearted, every once in a while, you’ll find something that’s a little dark and morbid.
How did you design the levels so there are multiple solutions?
It kind of just is the nature of creating a physics game. [Laughs.] It’s actually really interesting playtesting games like this because you have an idea, as a designer, of how the game should be completed. But when someone actually goes in and has their own solution, which is something you hadn’t thought of before, it’s really neat because it’s a physics game. Kind of like anything goes.
So long as players are learning the things they need to progress through the game, we’re cool with them solving things in different ways.
What has surprised you most when you’ve watched people playtest the game?
I think watching people overthink things sometimes, and [then] kind of stepping back and looking at things a little more simply. Because it’s a puzzle game, people have this expectation [of], “Oh man, it’s going to be so hard and I’m not gonna understand it!” and they try to overthink the solution as opposed to just going for the more straightforward method of solving something.
Do you guys have multiplayer, too?
No, it’s single player only.
Why not? I’m just asking out of curiosity. Like, say, if someone had a sphere with the effects of a particular dimension that they could throw. Would that be too complicated?
We’d love to, but it was a matter of this game taking less than a year to make, and we have 16 people and X amount of money. [Laughs.] You do what you can and to the best of your abilities, but at the same time, we don’t want to over-promise and under-deliver. We want to promise under-delivering and actually deliver more.
Can you talk about your favorite comedic moments?
I actually love our different portraits and the dialogue. I actually wrote most of the dialogue in the game as well as placing it in the various levels. I just had a really good time trying to pretend I’m psychic and watching players play through the game and respond to them in dialogue. Because I’m seeing the same behavior over and over again through our play testers, and respond to how they play in dialogue.
The level after this, which is a Slow-motion dimension showcase, the dialogue will tell you to move at a particular time or to step off an object at a particular time, and hooking up that timing so it feels like Professor Quadrangle is really watching is a lot of fun.
Do you think a family friendly game like Quantum Conundrum could make kids more interested in science?
I just want kids to have fun. [Laughs] I want adults to have fun, too. To me, my job is to make a product that people will have a good time with. I like doing games that are for everyone, because that’s how I grew up. I grew up playing games with my dad, and as the game industry has progressed, there’s kind of two camps now–games for adults and games for kids–and there’s not a lot in between.
Either it’s a game that is meant for hardcore gamers that has a lot of violence, expletives, and sex, or there’s games for kids where people go, “Oh, it’s a game for kids. It’s easy. No one cares about it.” I think there’s a happy medium where games can be for everybody, and games used to be that. I want that again.