This cat is very much alive
At Eurogamer Expo I got the chance to sit down with the creator of Team17’s latest quirky platformer Shrödinger’s Cat and the Raiders of the Lost Quark.
Kevin Beimers, from Italic Pig, took me through his love of physics, why he decided on creating a game about a cat who is both alive and dead, and why meeting up with some of his heroes of game design gave him the opportunity to realise his vision of sharing his physics dream.
TGH: First of all I have to ask, and I’m sure it’s quite the obligatory question, but where did the idea come from for Shrödinger’s Cat?
Kevin Beimers Um, well, okay, the fact is I have always loved physics. I think when it comes to things like physics and the origins of the universe and all that sort of stuff you’re either so deep into it – you love that sort of stuff – or it’s this unobtainable knowledge like rocket science and brain surgery. And people use it as an example saying ‘well, it’s not like it’s quantum physics or anything’.
But the thing is, any time you ever see visuals of scientists trying to explain Schrödinger’s Cat, they’re just so uninspiring or completely obtuse. They’re covered in numbers and letters, it’s stuff that scientists love but common folk go ‘well, now I have no idea what’s going on, that’s why it’s quantum physics, it just doesn’t make any sense’.
So, what I wanted to do was to make something that was accessible, attainable and something that anybody could understand. I wanted to do this without pounding you with education all the way through it. But, the real reason was that the stuff quantum physicists talk about is so fascinating yet so visually boring that I wanted to make something that matched this cerebral awesomeness of physics. Something that even physicists could rally behind.
So, I wanted to make the cat himself into a super hero who could do amazing things. So, this game here is a sort of subset of the original game I wrote – which was way too big for an indie like me to ever make. One day, it may happen, but this was was more ‘well, how do you start off on a game about quantum physics?’ This game came from the standard model, I couldn’t necessarily do gravity, or time, or light, but the whole elementary particles thing was a great place to start – starting small, so to speak.
What we have here now is a game that includes all six types of quark, it’s got three different types of leptons, two bosons, and a bunch of gluons as the characters. And, if somebody plays it without any knowledge it would be a wacky game where you’d learn the names of gluons and lepton the same way as you’d learn Goombas and Koopas – all the stuff that people retain from playing video games. I figure that if, let’s say, an eight year old kid plays this game and comes out the other end knowing the names of these things and a little bit of an idea about how they work, and then at some point there presented with them in a documentary, or in school, and they suddenly go ‘oh Shrödinger’s Cat, that’s real?’ and it inspires them to find out a little bit more. I like to call it passively educational.
So it’s something that’ll stick in their heads for a while after then?
KB: I’d like to think so! I wanted to make it appealing, colourful, and able to play it on the surface level. But, at the same time, I also made it for me because I love physics. Physicists love the stuff, I love the puns and the really high-brow ninety-nine per cent humour. And so, what you’re going to get here is little gags about neutrinos and puns about leptons. All I want is that I can make something appealing where people come out the other end and go ‘oh wait, no, that was quantum physics?’ And it’s less scary than it used to be.
Who knows, maybe somebody will thank me in a Nobel Prize speech in thirty years time?
You say it’s ‘passively educational’ but was your plan all along to distil a complex subject down into something that anyone can come away having learnt something from?
KB: Well, it depends what you learn first. If you come into this already knowing enough physics knowledge – as I picture most of the audience of this game will come into this because of the name Shrödinger’s Cat and quarks and, like me, they love this stuff. So part of this is a bit of a proving ground. I have to prove to people that I deserve to have made this game and used the name Shrödinger’s Cat without offending anybody. So, in a sense, I have to continue to prove my worth as a closet physicist.
But, when it comes to [seeing people play], what I’ve seen are people on both sides of the fence. I’ve seen kids come and sit at the booth and play it and they come out the other end with me over their shoulder being able to say ‘you know, Shrödinger’s Cat is a real thing?’ And, after playing this, their eyes light up at the fact that there’s a bigger story outside the course of the game.
You also get other people coming in, who have a physics background, and they see all this happening and they see the bosons and say ‘I totally understand why you made them that way’, ‘ that’s completely how a gluon would look like if it was a thing!’
What I’m hoping is that it gets accepted by the physics community. I’d like the physicists go to ‘yeah, this is alright. You’ve earned it’. Secondly I’d just like to learn that somebody’s played the game, enjoyed it on whatever level they’ve enjoyed it and then someone is inspired by it. Just to hear someone go ‘yeah, I played your game and then went on Wikipedia when I was done’. I’m not necessarily looking to make scientists, but I find it fascinating – as a lot of people do – and if the chance comes up to show other people how fascinating it is, and they can get that glimpse of it through here, then I’ve done something.
What about the idea for having a Particle Zoo and recovering lost quarks, did that stem from your desire to inform others about physics?
KB: You need something to hang a game on. It needs to be appealing. A lot of the content in here actually stems from actual quantum theory. For example, you’ll meet the bosons at some point. I’ve got Wosons and Zosons, which are the W – bosons and the Z – bosons. Bosons eliminate each other when they meet, so that element fits into the game. Bosons are these huge elephant-like beasts that you can’t kick, move or really do anything with. But, if you can get the two of them to look at each other they will act fiercely territorial and eliminate one another for you.
Anything I could take from actual quantum theory I used to feed into the game’s mechanics. Of course, the key to all of this is the fact that quarks are the building blocks of matter. I used that as the building blocks of my game mechanic. I have commonly through the zoo Ups, Downs, Tops and Bottoms [types of quark], there’s also Charm [quarks] and Strange [quarks] but they’re less common throughout the game. But it’s the Ups, Downs, Tops, and Bottoms that make the skills and the abilities, the collectibles and really your friends as you run through the game.
So Up Quarks like to move things, Down Quarks like to break things. The Tops protect, and the Bottoms build. As you start combining them together, Quarks combine in groups of three. Three Up Quarks make something that lifts you, Three Down quarks makes something that breaks the ground below you. If you combine them, Ups and Downs together, you make something that flies and breaks. So it combines the properties of what they do into all these different abilities.
For example, if you combine protection with destruction you get a dome with spikes on top of it. Or movement with a build you get a moving platform, and if you combine destruction with build you get a trap. You can also combine three different things like the grenade that protects, flies and explodes; it’s protective, mobile, and destructive.
Does it make a difference what order you combine them?
KB: Ha, I think if I tried to do it in order of actual combinations it would have been about 64 different combinations. Currently there’s 14 different combos that you can make.
So, in terms of gameplay, is it just your standard platforming affair of navigating your way through levels, or is there more to be discovered?
KB: The game itself has several different modes throughout the adventure, and I think at some point – within the first few updates – I want to break it off into quick-play games as well. The tutorial is completely scripted, but as you get into the game there are collection rounds where you have to find gluons, knock them out and send them back to their enclosure. In the Particle Zoo you have to go into the enclosures, you’ll go into the LaGloons – which is where the gluons live; there’s also the Lepton Jungle and the Boson Bluffs, as you cross the Higgs Field.
In each of those you’ll have specific puzzles that are geared around how the animals work. When you get to the gluons, they take take your quarks. Those puzzles are about them taking your stuff and you having to get it back.
The lepton ones are, pretty much, about survival. The leptons are quarknivorous so they won’t give it back. Then you have the bosons, and they’re massive obstacles so you have to work out how they interact with each other and get into fights or fall in love. This is because Wosons and Zosons love each other, but Wosons and Wosons or Zosons and Zonsons don’t. So if you get two Zs in a room they’ll knock each other out, if you have two Ws in a room, they’ll knock each other out. But a W and a Z in a room the W will follow the Z.
Every time you get into a new area you’ll get a slightly different way to play the game, you’ve got to work it out as you go. It’s a puzzler through and through.
But, then, of course, there are the speed rounds. At some point you’ll get to an area where you’re being chased, almost like a boss level, and in that it’s how well do you know your combos.
Do you have a set amount of lives on each play through then?
KB: Well, the whole thing about lives with Shrödinger’s Cat and the dead or alive thing, that could have been the whole focus of the game. In fact, I noticed the other day on Steam somebody had said that as a community help-point. ‘Why is there no alive/dead stuff in here?’ But the fact was, it could have been a living dead paranormal game, and in fact I think there is another indie out there doing something similar with the same concept.
When I wrote the original big script – for the huge game I couldn’t get the budget for – that dealt with it as well. It dealt with how he became both alive and dead. It dealt with the origin of the experiment and it had levels of when he was alive he was weak, but when he’s in an alive/dead state he’s powerful in another universe. And so, that became part of the challenge, you’d be in one of these ‘alive’ situations and all you had to do was get to the top shelf and that was the challenge. It was difficult because you’re so weak and can’t do anything! Instead, what I wanted to do was make a physics game.
Shrödinger’s Cat is the greatest physics metaphor that it could have been built from. There’s loads of symbolism all the way through it, like the alive/dead split down the middle [of the character design], [Shrödinger’s Cat]’s got a two-fingered paw, which when he smacks things leaves an ö like in the name Shrödinger. There’s a lot of those things that I thought people would enjoy, the fact that there’s lots of lore and background.
You’ve spoken about the ideas behind the game design, but what about audio?
KB: All of the voices in the game are done by one guy: A.J. Locasio, a brilliant voice actor who was the voice of Marty McFly in the Telltale Games’ Back To The Future. So when I approached him, thanks to previous links with Telltale due to my last game Hector Badge of Carnage – a point and click adventure. That got picked up by Telltale for episodes two and three, so I used my contacts there to get in touch with A.J. He’s really used this game as a springboard to show off his abilities by doing as many different characters as he can do.
There are 10 different characters in the game, plus the little guys in the cut scenes, plus even those yahoos you hear from the quarks as you play. And I can tell you, the amount of requests I’ve gotten for making Quark toys! Man, I’d love to.
In terms of aesthetics, did you work with someone else to help with those?
KB: Back at the beginning I had a concept artist, a sketch artist, a background artist, sort of anyone I thought that could take the work off my hands. The fact is, the character art is all my design. The background art started off as one other guy and I’ve taken that and I don’t know if he even recognises it anymore! But, I do both art and coding – which is really nice.
I had a couple of developers as well to help lay the foundations for this in the first six months, and everything else on top of that feels like ‘well now we just have to polish it’. So, a year later, the polish is still being polished!
What’s the reaction been from showing off Shrödinger so far?
KB: I’ve played it, but I haven’t done a lot of showing to people. I have taken it to the Northern Ireland games community – I’m based in Northern Ireland by the way. And I’ve got a lot of support from those guys there, everybody plays each other’s game, everybody supports one another. It’s just good fun to watch people who don’t know you judge your game and have them genuinely like it.
I’m actually really enjoying the reviews now that it’s out. I watched a let’s play video the other day and I thought ‘oh boy, I’m not sure if I really want to open this up – if anything goes wrong, I don’t want to see it!’ But you have to. You have to accept it. The fact that you’re putting yourself out there and people are going to love it or hate it and you’ve just got to accept their opinions. If everybody hates the fact that it’s all keyboard and no mouse, well I’ll consider it. But we’ve done a lot of testing and this seems to be the best method. It was originally left-hand keys and mouse – the same way you’d play any network gaming back in the day. But, quite honestly, you’d end up needing an eleven-fingered hand and occasionally pressing one button on the mouse.
You can use the 1, 2, 3, 4 keys for the quarks too – and that’s the way I play it. It means I can eat a sandwich with my right hand and play the whole thing with my left!
How much of a headache has it been trying to solve any bug issues during development, especially with a mix and match system for quarks?
KB: You know what, Team17 has been phenomenal! If anyone ever gets approached by them asking if they’d like to be supported in the indie games community for publishing, I’d say do it. They’ve given me a coder when I’ve needed it, they’ve given me their whole QA team who’ve been working tirelessly on this stuff. You get these emails in at six o’clock, seven o’clock at night saying ‘quarks have gone missing’, ‘a gluon got stuck in the walls’, ‘one of the achievements doesn’t work’.
I mean, it’s a game, there’s bugs, it’s inevitable. There’s no way I could have found anywhere near the stack of bugs that I’ve had to sit through without those guys.
Ah, cool, well how did that partnership come about?
KB: It was kinda mutual really. I went to GamesConnection Paris – which is a business event. At this business event there’s a speed dating event so it’s not just a schmooze-fest like a lot of events. This one was one where you approach who you’d like to have meetings with and other people request meetings with you. You’ll get notifications that say nine o’clock you’ve got meetings with these guys, nine-thirty you’ve got meetings with these guys, ten o’clock, eleven o’clock and so on. And and it’s just half-hour meetings all day long. It might be a localiser, it might be a tester or QA, or even a publisher. Really, it’s whoever’s interested.
So, I used all of my ‘let’s meets’ to meet people that I love and respect within the community. So, I meat Team17, the guys who made Badland, I Fight Bears, just anyone who I could meet with. Not necessarily the people who could help, just why not while I’m here.
While I was meeting Team17 I showed off an early demo I had of [Shrödinger’s Cat], which was – at the time – called The Box and was about getting out of the top of the box without dying. I didn’t even realise that [Team17] had a third-party publishing programme that they were just starting up. So I wasn’t really pitching to them, I was just showing off something I was excited about – which I think came off as a really nice pitch. When I was done they kinda went ‘you seem really excited about this, you do realise that we do this [third-party publishing arm]’ and I’m like, ‘no I did not!’ and from that we got into talks and sure enough it was a great match.
I’m so glad I did it, and anybody who has qualms about whether or not to go into publishing and find a publisher, or do it themselves, I just figure a percentage of what Team17 can get this in front of far outreaches what I would get in front of. So that’s my basic math right there, and I’m very happy I went with this. I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be at this event, and I’m unsure how much promotion I’d have been able to carry out myself or how much longer it would have taken to launch.
So what got you into games when you have such a strong interest in physics?
KB: At university I did computer science, more for the fact that – at the time – I was of the understanding that the entire world was going to run on code. I mean, I’m not that old, but still – the web was new and fascinating. I understood programming and languages came pretty easy, so I got a nice code base and a bunch of other languages that are now obsolete, but physics was always an interest.