Music Of The Spheres: Developer Interview

Before you read the following interview I would like you to watch the following 60 second YouTube video. What you will see is a game by Developer and Video Game Journalist Hamish Todd in which you throw €œbullets€ around a level. Sure, there are enemies in this game, but the themes are not of war and destruction, but a calming and beautiful exploration of music and art as explored through trajectory. It's quiet, simple and clever. I was lucky enough to be able to speak to Todd about the game, titled Music of the Spheres, how he went about overcoming the inherent issues of promoting a game like this, the impact his background in the writing side of the games industry has had on Music of the Spheres and much more. Read on and discover a shooting game about peace and Islamic Mathematical art. Laura: For those who don't know you, could you introduce yourself?Hamish: I'm Hamish Todd, I'm a games journalist and designer. I've been working on Music of the Spheres throughout the Maths/Philosophy degree I just took, while learning to program and putting on plays. Laura: And how would you describe Music of the Spheres?Hamish: It's a puzzle game about bouncing bullets and Islamic art. The levels aim to express a variety of ideas and feelings, all as concisely as possible. Laura: The Islamic art inspirations are pretty unique, what inspired you to incorporate those sorts of art into your game?Hamish: Islamic art is very abstract and mathematical, but also very beautiful and accessible. It represents what I'd like to see video games do more. Islamic art is able to make profound mathematical statements. Video games have a reputation for not saying profound things. But maths gives us an opening to change that. The two most accessible examples are Portal and Castlevania. Portal is about wormholes, a whimsical, beautiful, profound construct from astrophysics. I actually talked to a guy at university who was studying wormholes. But the game takes this sophisticated concept and just gives it to the player in a way that allows them to experiment themselves, to learn about it and enjoy it. Castlevania has the Medusa heads, an enemy that moves in a rigid sine curve. The games, especially Bloodlines and the NES original, do very creative things with this curve, combining it with other tasks with level design. Islamic art takes even deeper things. I'm making all the backgrounds using coloured "Girih tiles". Girih tiles have some very powerful mathematical properties. They were invented ("discovered") at least 800 years ago by Islamic artists. These artists realized they had all these wonderful properties, and much of their art is about experimenting with those properties Western mathematics only recently caught up to them - people are still winning Nobel prizes for studying the things you can do with them. I actually found out about them while studying viruses! Viruses make use of something similar to Girih tiles. By learning about Girih tiles, we've been able to save lives :) Laura: Wow that's really interesting. As well as the use of Islamic patterns and shapes, the game also makes use of sound in some interesting ways, can you tell us about the importance of sound in the game?Hamish: Sure. There are at least two ways in which sound is integral to the game. Well, not "integral"... "important thematically" might be a better term. First, when bullets hit a surface, the sound effect is a glockenspiel note. There are eight directions a bullet can go in, which corresponds to the eight notes that westerners hear in the scale. This leads to some nice puzzles, because the shape of a level has a direct correspondence to the tune a bullet plays as it moves around the level. One of the big inspirations for this game was Space Giraffe. Space Giraffe, as I see it, broke a huge taboo in gaming: that you should never deprive a player of visual information. In Space Giraffe, there are challenges you can only surmount by listening. It's the same in my game. That's the first way in which sound is important. The second way is to do with trajectories. A big part of my job is trying to find beautiful or "insightful" patterns that the bullets I've programmed generate. Some of the ones I've got in the game actually have links to the physics of sound. The reason for this is that the bullets can be taken as a "metaphor" for sound waves. Sound waves usually move in straight lines, and usually reflect of surfaces. If you learn about straight lines and reflection playing my game, you kinda learn about sound in a semi-rigorous way. This is part of why I call MotS a "mathematical" game. The above is how maths work: you make some model, and you see what happens with that model, and sometimes the things you find tell you about real-world stuff, either intentionally or unintentionally. *exhale* Laura: Sounds like quite a challenging set of design choices. What was the biggest challenge when developing the game? Was their anything you expected would be easy to implement but proved more difficult that first expected?Hamish: Ah well actually the above stuff was kinda easy in a way. I was just sitting thinking "this is a fun thing to happen, it is something I can make happen, therefore it must happen" :) Let me think... difficult stuff... Well, actually one of the "physics of sound" puzzles has taken ages to design. Like I've been revising it on almost every playtest for more than six months. Part of that was because I was really, really thinking about the game the wrong way: I made a breakthrough a little while ago that'll make the puzzle much better, and much less contrived. Tell you what, one thing I've really agonized about is how to present this all. See, I don't want this to feel like a violent game. Not at all. I don't like flattering people's instinct to destroy stuff or to harm others. I am making a game about firing projectiles. But I think of them as more like snooker balls than fire balls AND I have entities that you're firing at, but I think of them as more like chess pieces imbued with AI than "victims" or "enemies". I've been working with my animator to construct "story" and animations that back up the feeling of playing chess. Laura: Do you do anything in terms of the design to help bring that across to the player? Do you think that will have an effect on the way your game is received?Hamish: Pretty much everything about the design detracts from the "violent" feeling. The levels are calm and about creativity and patterns rather than hungrily attacking or consuming things. The mechanics are suited to being precise about one move you take, rather than being efficient about landing swooping hits on loads of stuff. In terms of reception, I guess I don't think it'll make a huge difference. Let's say that I screw it up, and the game feels slightly violent. I think the feeling of contemplation and playfulness will still overwhelm the violent feeling in the minds of most players. Maybe a small number of players might think, "hmm, this is weird, there seems to be a tension in this game between feeling violent and feeling mathematical. They screwed that up" Laura: Do your think that your background as a games journalist has had an effect on your work on Music of Spheres? If so, in what ways?Hamish: I was designing games before I started writing, I used to work at a think-tank that organized debates and published a lot of articles, I studied philosophy at university and my dad is a journalist... those things have all given me respect for the "clarifying" effect of writing. When you're forced to write about your opinions for an audience, you have to be clear about them. There are certain opinions you can just walk around and posses and think about, and no-one ever talks to you about them, and they may have holes in them. Writing slightly prevents that. I mean there are a lot of silly opinion pieces out there. But on the whole it's surely good. Nowadays I have a different goal though. The thing is that there is very little writing out there that really appeals to me, as a designer. Articles about games, basically, just focus on bullshit that doesn't really matter. They focus on characters, stories, music, graphics, etc. Even though everyone knows that you can have a wonderful game that has terrible characters, story, music, and graphics. You CAN just have excellent level design and interesting mechanics. Laura: Do you find that's less of an issue in the indie game community?Hamish: Hmm... I was about to say "no". There are a lot of indie games that focus on silly stuff as well, and a lot of people writing about indie games that focus on silly stuff, but actually there are three big differences that changes a lot of things. Those differences are: 1) anna anthropy 2) Ben Ruiz 3) Robert Yang. Respectively, those people have designed platformer games, beat 'em ups, and FPS games. The thing that they all have in common that makes their work revolutionary is that they are open, and they write about things as they design them. You're unlikely to get an article out of triple-A gameplay/level designers about what they've been up to lately. There's a lot of trade secrets and PR traditions that prevent that. I read a good article about particle effects in Bayonetta recently by someone who was on the team. But on the whole it's very closed. Ben Ruiz is particularly extraordinary: take his article about "Mash flow". It looks at things that beat 'em up devs have been thinking about for decades, but he's making the design challenges public knowledge. This is what I try to do with my articles about level design on Kotaku and Destructoid. People need to hear more about what real decisions "game designers" face. The reception to my articles has been good... so I think there's a real desire among gamers for serious analysis of this kind Laura: Definitely, it is an area that is really lacking in content. Bringing things back to the game, when do you expect to release the finished game?Hamish: February 2013 Laura: And do you have anything else about the game you would like to add before we wrap up this interview?Hamish: I just want to say that a couple of years ago, I naively thought that putting on a play would teach me things about level design. I recently saw Keith Stuart echo my old feeling. I just have one piece of advice to indie developers who might find themselves wanting to go down the road of putting on a play: It teaches you nothing but nothing about game design. The skills you use and the goals you have are utterly different. Bit of a non-sequiter there :) But I needed to say it.
Want to write about Interviews, hamish Todd and Music of the Spheres? Get started below...

Create Content and Get Paid


Long time JRPG and Nintendo SuperFan, Laura is a passionate gamer who comes to WhatCulture to share her nerdy ramblings with the world.