The NerdQ’s Erik Meyer caught up with Antoine Zanuttini, the creator of Fragments of Euclid. As a French developer with an appetite for game jams and prototypes, Antoine has a lot on his plate, and his game has just been released as pay-what-you-want on Itch.io.
Erik Meyer: Fragments of Euclid is clever in its combination of Portal-style doorways and M.C. Escher landscapes. What was the genesis of this project, and how did it progress from the Non Euclidean Room demo to where you’re are today? Do you see it continuing to expand with more content in the future?
Antoine Zanuttini: The idea came during the last Ludum Dare in December. The theme of the jam was “One Room” and gave me the idea of using portals to explore a unique big room. But it didn’t feel like a single room, as multiple connections linked the sides; the “Non Euclidean Room” demo was mainly an exploring game with cool visual tricks but was limited by the short duration of the jam. So I took all the ideas I had and started to design a short sequel with real puzzles and even more exploration. Bringing portals into the world of M.C. Escher was truly the key to designing levels where you can walk on the ceiling or the walls. While making the game, I saw that the project could grow a lot. But I didn’t feel confident enough to work for a year without any feedback. I didn’t want to lose motivation and focus. So I made the first hour of the game, and I released it to see the reception. So far, it has been great, and I definitely want to continue to add mechanics, puzzle, and story to the game, maybe in an episodic format.
EM: The game features a lot of discovery/problem solving by way of exploration. What is your philosophy on the balance between in-game tutorials as compared to letting players happen across the game’s elements on their own?
AZ: I definitely think that the players of a puzzle game should be able to explore the mechanics of the game freely. But it’s not always easy to design clear challenges that teach how the game works. Tutorials need to be easy but not solvable by luck only, without learning the intended system. In Fragments of Euclid, I think the difficulty curve is a bit harsh, from the tutorial to the main challenges. As the player can solve them in any order, I tried to make them about the same in difficulty. But players often stumble on one of the hardest puzzle first; at least it’s rewarding when they finally solve that puzzle. In the future, I want the game to be more forgiving of failure and allow people to explore more freely.
EM: The incorporation of optical illusions from Escher’s drawings adds a beautiful aesthetic to the game (floor tiles, wallpaper), as does the sketched feel and the careful use of lighting effects; what were your challenges in these areas, and how do you feel the doorway mechanic connects to the visuals?
AZ: I had the idea of adding tiles similar to Escher’s because players had difficulty recognizing the same room but from different perspectives. Some games use bright colors to add contrast between rooms, but the visual style I chose did not allow it. In the end, I think it adds a lot visually and contrasts with the purely white walls, using lighting and shadows to add depth. The visual style let me get away with some of the limitations imposed by the portals. For example, the doorways were lighted slightly differently for the two sides of a portal, giving away the instant you were teleporting. So I just painted the inner part of the doorway in pitch black, and now you can’t notice the teleport. That would not be possible if I had a “realistic” rendering. The sketched filter is a bit hit or miss. Some people really like it but others find it too disturbing after a while. So I put an option to replace it with a much more discrete noise. In the future, I will revisit the effect and experiment with new ones. Making several hours of gameplay will require some diversity in the visuals, I think.
EM: You’ve worked on a number of game projects, from 8-bit-styled adventure puzzle games to a game dealing in pool ball physics. What development challenges have these different projects provided, and how have they played into your current work?
AZ: One of the main challenges of making games is to actually finish them. I started countless projects that became too big and that I didn’t finished. So I started participating in game jams, making a game for each Ludum Dare these last 4 years. I also started to use Pico 8, an 8-bit-styled fantasy console that strongly limits the scope of games made for it. Playing with the console constraints is pretty fun, and the small scope lets you create games that feel complete in just a few days. That also helped me learn to refine game design and focus on a small set of features to play with. Combo Pool, my game about colliding and merging balls is a good example of that. Pico 8 also has a great community, and I started using Twitter just to share my Pico 8 work and see those of others. Without it, Fragments of Euclid could have gone completely unnoticed.
EM: Folded space causes players to stretch their minds in ways they may not be used to; as you built the maps and challenges, what were your main goals as a designer, and how do you feel you’ve been able to encourage mental growth in your audience?
AZ: The beauty of working with space and simple mechanics is that emergent properties can arise. So I started by making the portal system and gravity switching work. With that, I could experiment with how to place portals and how to create interesting spacial structures (infinite staircases, switching gravity without noticing…). Around New Year’s, I was mostly away from the computer. So I started designing puzzle rooms on paper. And I had great fun exploring abstract puzzle ideas using only that tool. Of course, as I was not always “thinking with portals” properly, a lot of it was wrong, and I needed to adjust it when going to 3D. But the core ideas of each puzzle were already in the paper version. I also wanted to keep a link to the game jam theme of “One Room”. From that idea came one of the mind-bending moments of the game, when you realize how the four areas are located and how to use the central pillar to access them. Each area plays with a different idea, seeking epiphany and lateral thinking. The first room of the game may be the most disturbing for the player. I designed it so that the player feels lost but still manages to get out before starting to feel frustrated. Then, he enters the tutorial sequence and hopefully starts learning. I like to think that if the player goes back to that first room, he will now have the mental tools to understand it fully; to encourage that experience, I left a message in the credits, hinting at a secret at the beginning of the game.
EM: To be fair, the game is like running through a drawing; to what extent did you plan out assets before assembling them? Was the process organic, or was everything drawn out before assembly?
AZ: Most of the style came during the Ludum Dare jam, so time constraints pushed me to use a really simple work flow. I make construction elements using Blender, and I assemble them in Unity. I do some sketches on paper to plan for what module I need. It’s pretty effective simply plugging blocks to design the level. I works in layers, first placing only walls and gameplay elements required to test the puzzle. Then I add every remaining wall while trying to avoid cheating and unintended solutions; I place each area and link them together. At the very end, I add the purely visual parts, like fences and pillars. The only issue I have with my current work flow is that some lightmap seams are visible between each module. It was a tedious process to reduce those seams. In the future, I will probably use a Unity plugin to make construction easier.
EM: Every dev has a different workspace/process when it comes to the job of tackling game projects, but what part of Fragments of Euclid has taken the most time? Which parts do you feel came together the easiest?
AZ: The most time was spent polishing every room, tweaking, and remaking some parts (like the player physics) that were not good enough. Designing the puzzles was surprisingly fast, but making them fun to play for the player was a lot harder. The character in the ending sequence of the game is the most advanced graphic work I did. It required sketching from different angles, meshing, and animating. I was definitely out of my zone of comfort, but it was interesting to learn.