Having enjoyed some contact time with Quantum Conundrum, the first person puzzler from Airtight games, I yearned to know about the dimension-defying (and adorable) experience. Who better to elaborate on the history and future of this exciting project than Kim Swift: the co-creator of Portal who's masterminded Quantum Conundrum from inception to its launch on Steam next week. Sitting down for an interview behind the closed doors of Square Enix's E3 paddock, I proceeded to quiz her about inspiration, innovation, her decision to leave Valve for pastures new and her desire to fight back against the slew of ultra-violent games that crowd the marketplace these days.
Jonathan Lester (Dealspwn): I'd usually start by asking you to introduce yourself, but in this case, it's unecessary. Your fame precedes you, thanks to, you know, that game you designed. So why leave Valve, and what inspired you to make Quantum Conundrum?
Kim Swift (Airtight Games): I left Valve initially to see what else was out there, I mean, I worked there for five years and the games industry is a big place! I wanted to see what else was out there, how working in a different company was, and as far as the idea for Quantum Conundrum goes, I really enjoyed working on the original Portal. It was a really fun atmosphere to work in, and I really wanted to get back into that feeling of 'small team working on something interesting.' The idea of being able to switch dimensions on the fly and using different tools to solve puzzles came to me one day - there was nothing that inspired me, I was just like, "oh hey, that would be cool!"
Dealspwn: So was there a 'Eureka! moment' where everything just clicked?
Kim Swift: Yeah, I was just walking down the street to go get some breakfast and it just occurred to me, and I kinda came to an idea in my head: "so what if I had this game and you could switch dimensions on the fly." The first dimension I came up with was actually the Fluffy dimension.
Dealspwn: It's our favourite dimension. It's so... snuggly.
Kim Swift: Yeah, so that's what inspired me to actually make the game, thinking about the Fluffy Dimension. This needs to happen!
Dealspwn: So, did you have this idea before joining Airtight Games?
Kim Swift: I had this idea while I was actually at Airtight, we were doing some little prototype games that weren't released, and we were at the point as a team where we wanted to start pitching ideas and come up with a game to pitch to publishers. A few people on the team, including myself, came up with some game ideas, we actually voted as a team on the idea we were going to use. So we came to the conclusion of going with Quantum Conundrum because it was actually the quickest game for us to prototype and be able to move out right away if it was any fun.
Dealspwn: Sounds like a plan. Was there a bit of culture shock going from Valve to Square Enix?
Kim Swift: Not really. So, when I came into Airtight I was actually given my own team, and was put in charge as creative director, so we actually established our own culture on that team. Just with the personalities that we had, we all kind of clicked together right away. Guys that I worked with are my really good friends and we'll hang out together at the weekends, and go snowboarding, so to me they're like my friends and family. There was never a moment where I was like, "oh wow, this is so wildly different." No, it's a wildly passionate group of people who love to make games.
Dealspwn: One of your main objectives has been to create games for a "broader audience." How does Quantum Conundrum go about fulfilling this aim?
Kim Swift: Well, one of the ways I love to really think about games is to make them for a broader audience. I really think it's actually super-easy to make a game that is not violent, doesn't have a lot of sexually explicit content, has minimal swear words and is still fun and engaging for adults. I think that those things are not mutually exclusive. I remember growing up in a day and age where games were really stylised, and were a lot of fun for everybody whether you were an adult or were a kid. One of the things that made me really want to make Quantum Conundrum super-stylised and cartoony was to fight back against this attitude, that "just because a game is cartoony it's for kids all of a sudden."
Dealspwn: Excellent, we reckon that's a fantastic attitude to take. Almost everything on the show floor is ultraviolent...
Kim Swift: Yeah, ultraviolent, hyper-realistic... I think there's room for other types of game out there. One of the main reasons I got into games was I used to play them with my Dad, passing the controller back and forth, and it seems that as the years go on, there's a smaller and smaller group of games that you can sit your kids down in front of and have a lot of fun, and you can have a lot of fun.
Dealspwn: So is that atmosphere of togetherness going to factor into Quantum Conundrum in any way? There's no co-op, but...
Kim Swift: Yeah, there's no co-op, but one of my favourite, favourite playtests (so, we actually watch playtests on our team, sit people down, take notes and see what we should change or iterate on) was a dad with his daughter who was about eleven or twelve. Watching them bicker and grab the controller from each other and, you know, pass through a game space together and figure out where to go - I love that because it reminded me so much of being a kid playing games with my dad. I really hope that experience goes to a wider audience.
Dealspwn: Will the player character and his uncle - Q, I guess - enjoy this sort of relationship?
Kim Swift: So, Professor Quadwrangle's relationship with you as a kid in the very beginning is a little bit cold, but as you play through the game, he warms up to you and starts to want to really help you with what's going on.
Dealspwn: You mentioned the art style earlier, which was partly taken to fight back against the ultra-realistic, violent crowd. Where there any other major influences behind the art direction?
Kim Swift: We had several influences with our art direction. I mean, Tim Burton, Doctor Seuss, if you have a look at our geometry there's a lot of 'thick to thin,' and that was really inspired by a lot of Doctor Seuss. Pixar, in terms of the texture quality. So yeah, we took a wide variety. We even took a look at real-world spaces like the Winchester Mansion, which is a place in California, made by a widow of the guy who invented the Winchester rifle. She went a little batty and started building weird rooms in her house to appease the spirits of people who were killed with the Winchester rifle - you should look it up online, it's a really cool place.
Dealspwn: Cool, we will. [Have a link, dear reader] One of the things we loved in the demo was the portraits that change depending on what dimension you're in.
Kim Swift: The original idea for the portraits came about because there's only a limited number of us in the team and we were like, "what's the easiest way to portray a really mean dimension switch," and that was doing these portraits. When we initially showed the game last year at PAX, everyone was super-psyched about the portraits so we made them a pretty integral part of the game. We got a ton of paintings, and they also all each have a story. As you go through the game, if you go up to a painting, Professor Quadwrangle will actually talk to you about what the painting is and who the character is in the portrait.
Dealspwn: Are you worried that, potentially, the four separate dimensions compared to a single main game mechanic might make for a steep learning curve in Quantum Conundrum?
Kim Swift: Oh, so the game as a whole is anywhere between six to twelve hours depending on your skill level, so we spent a lot of time appointing the different behaviours in each dimension. When you first start the game, we don't give you all the dimensions right away. We give you just Fluffy, so you can play with Fluffy to give you an idea of what the behaviours are in that dimension. Then we introduce Heavy to you, and then show you what the interactions between using Fluffy and then Heavy and vice versa is. We then introduce Slow Motion after a while, and then Reverse Gravity. So, I think we've done a really great job with the learning curve so by the end of the game you're a master of the dimensions.
Dealspwn: Do you have a target audience in mind?
Kim Swift: Everyone, I'm honestly targeting everyone!
Dealspwn: Wow, that's a big play...
Kim Swift: I know! I'm crossing my fingers, we'll see.
Dealspwn: I almost hate to ask, but did you learn any lessons from Portal that you applied to Quantum Conundrum?
Kim Swift: I learn lessons from every game that I make, just in terms of being able to get in people's heads and figure out the way a person passes a space, a way to gently manipulate the player to do something without them realising it. Every game that I work on has lessons that I can apply to the next game.
Dealspwn: So how are you going to keep the player moving forward, then, without giving them explicit instructions?
Kim Swift: There's a lot of techniques: lighting, geometrical cues in terms of the way the levels are shaped to kind of draw your eye, there's a lot of interpreting basic artistic composition and utilising that for games.
Dealspwn: If you don't mind me asking, I do have a slightly more loaded question. A few of the professionals who I've talked to (mentioning no names) still refer to game development as a bit of a "boys club." In your experience, is this still the case?
Kim Swift: Honestly, I don't really think about it that much. The team that I work on, we give each other crap, joke around and I don't think that's necessarily exclusive to being a man or a woman. I love my job, I love coming to work every day. I'm sure there are issues out there, but I haven't really had any personal experience of it.
Dealspwn: It's time for our 'big' question. What is, in your opinion, the most awesome, fist-pumpingly brilliant thing that a player can do in Quantum Conundrum?
Kim Swift: Erm, so, one of our favourite techniques is "safe surfing." So what you essentially need to do is, in Fluffy dimension, you grab a safe and then you throw it, switch to Slow Motion dimension so it's kinda like floating in the air and then you run and jump on it. Then it will carry its forward momentum going straight. You then switch back and forth between Reverse Gravity and Normal and you'll float your way accross the level. I think that is amazingly cool.
Dealspwn: Yeah, that was really cool. Oh, just out of interest, who is Ike? What's his deal?
Kim Swift: Haha, so IKE (which stands for Interdimensional Kinetic Entity) is Professor Quadwrangle's lab assistant-slash-pet. So there's actually a whole species of these guys and one managed to follow Quadwrangle home on his interdimensional travels one day. He has the unique ability of being able to see in multiple dimensions at one time, so it's made him a little unhinged. He looks really cute and cuddly, but when you get up close, there's something just a little 'off' about his eyes. There's a little crazy in the eyes! That was definitely an artistic direction we wanted to take.
Dealspwn: Yeah, I wish he'd bring the dimensional batteries over to us a little more often. So, finally, what's... next?
Kim Swift: So, the first thing is waiting to see how the game does. We're working on something right now, but we can't talk about it right now.
Dealspwn: Ooh, but you can. Go on, you know you want to.
Kim Swift: No, no actually I can't. No. Haha!
Quantum Conundrum will release on Steam, complete with Team Fortress 2 pre-order bonus items, on June 21st. A PSN/XBLA launch is slated for "Summer 2012."