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Sunday, September 6, 2020

[Interview] Schmidt Workshops Discuss Paradox Vector’s Impossible Geography, Old-School Visuals, and Cosmic Horror

The absurd and intangible art of M.C. Escher is not the most obvious foundation for a retro FPS about blowing up alien squids with a rocket launcher. Yet if the abstract premise of Schmidt Workshop’s Paradox Vector sounds overly cerebral or a little too highbrow for your taste, rest assured that it’s tons of fun. For context, the game draws inspiration from the Dutch artist’s optical illusions – which include shapes that defy the laws of geometry and trippy staircases that somehow loop in on themselves – to create inventive combat arenas and labyrinthine dungeons for players to explore. 

It’s one hell of an adventurous concept that, when combined with the classic vector graphics, makes for a refreshingly original experience. Solo developer, Mike Schmidt, ought to be commended for his ambition, especially since he tackled the project all on his own. To tell us more about he pulled off this miraculous feat, Mike took time out of his busy schedule (he’s still refining the game in early access) and answered some of our burning questions. Among other things, we talk about his history with Escher’s work, the old-school aesthetic, and the intricate design behind the geographically impossible levels. 

BD: To start off, could you explain where the idea for Paradox Vector came from?

MS: It is a combination of several ideas I’ve had floating around for some time. First, the style of vector graphics has been on my mind since the 1980s. I guess 3D graphics kind of took up where vectors left off, but there was always something about those stark outlines that I felt was unique and deserved more attention. 

The idea of a game with impossible geometry is also something I’ve thought about for a while. Ever since I was introduced to M. C. Escher, and later played Realm of Impossibility as a kid, those weird angles have been a great source of inspiration to me. Later titles like Monument Valley and Antichamber further convinced me that I should work on something similar of my own.

BD: It’s impressive that you’ve been able to develop this highly ambitious project as a solo effort. How did you approach such a massive undertaking?

MS: It would have been very intimidating, [were it not for the fact that] I recently developed another game called Star Explorers. It was a procedurally generated, space exploration title – one that I had been working on since 2013 – and it provided the catalyst for what would eventually become Paradox Vector

BD: How so? 

MS: The 3D mapping system was made using the same line draw commands. Once I had that working in Star Explorers, I realized it would be pretty easy to make a whole game based on the graphic style.  

Another factor that helped me as a [lone developer], was my general approach to art. I paint, I write, and over the last 20 years I’ve been making games. All these things take time to accomplish and if you are expecting instant results you will likely be disappointed […]  Some of my paintings have taken months or even years to complete. The secret is to try to get little bits done every day, and to resist the urge to “finish” something before it’s actually done or just rush. I can’t say I have been perfect at this, but I think I have improved over time.

BD: On that note, what was the most challenging thing that you had to tackle on your own?

MS: I guess it would be working out the impossible geometry of the levels. Moving the player through the complex virtual space was one thing, but the real challenge was making it feel seamless and erasing all the subtle clues that [reveal] how it is accomplished. Even now I am still finding little hints that threaten to expose the illusion, and I will continue to squish them out of existence.

BD: Could you talk a little about how you planned out the Metroidvania aspects of the game? For example, how do you keep track of where the various keys need to be placed or structure the rate at which players obtain certain items?

MS: Originally, Paradox Vector was going to be more linear in its design. The earliest builds did not feature the outdoor hubs that connect all the dungeons together and [upon completion] each level simply teleported you to the next one.

However, that felt very unsatisfying to me as a player. I wanted to know where I was and where I was supposed to be going. I also wanted to add little secrets that would allow you to unlock areas you’ve already seen but could not visit. So, I started with nine rough dungeons and arranged them in a way that made sense in the outer world.

Right now, the game has three main environments: the citadel; the caves; and the factory.  The citadel is where most of the upgrading takes place [and] the caves basically serve as a transition between the citadel and the factory. As for the final area, that tests you in new ways and allows you enjoy the full arsenal of weapons and items that you’ve [accumulated].

This was an [alternative] to the typical Metroidvania, where upgrading happens throughout. If I am nearing the end of a game, and I acquire an item that suddenly unlocks a bunch of areas, it almost feels silly to go all the way back to the beginning just to explore these hidden paths. So, I felt it was important to have a kind of cutoff point, where the player is fully equipped and can explore without all the usual back-and-forth. I also never liked the idea of getting a super powerful weapon right near the end of a game. I want the player to enjoy all their equipment and skills for the entire duration of that third act.  

BD: You mentioned earlier that you were inspired by the art of M.C Escher. How were you first introduced to his works?

MS: My mother introduced me to his art at a very young age, through the book “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” by Douglas Hofstadter.  She was taking a college course at the time that involved this literature, and I would flip through it just to look at the pictures. 

The images Escher came up with were so compelling to me. I would marvel at how a stairway could keep going up in a circle, or how a waterfall could flow downwards and around strange corners to feed itself. They are obviously illusions, and you can see how he did it right on the paper, but those impossible structures made me ponder whether it could happen in real life.  
BD: And were there any specific images that you drew from or wanted to incorporate into the game? Any favourite Escher pieces?

MS: Waterfall was always one of my favorites.  Another one was the triangle made of three right angles that often appeared in Escher’s work. I believe the concept for that was actually designed by an artist named Oscar Reutersvärd, and was then later popularized by Lionel and Roger Penrose. 

Finally, his image Relativity was a big influence on some of my dungeons. A room with three different centers of gravity offered a unique challenge. You have to play through quite a few levels to find the one that was inspired by this piece, but it is definitely included in Paradox Vector. I should also mention that a similar illusion was replicated in the 2006 game Prey, and later in the game Dusk (which is another incredible retro shooter that inspired me).  

BD: What is the average process like for creating these mind-bending environments?

MS: I wanted each one to be as different as possible. They tend to use similar techniques to achieve their various illusions, but I always tried to find new ways to present [them] to the player. Some are glaringly obvious, whilst others require a little exploration to really notice.  

Basically, each level has one or two geometric illusions that the player is required to pass through. They are crucially not puzzles and Paradox Vector itself is not a puzzle game either.  Rather, I call it an ‘’action game set in a puzzling environment’’. In terms of designing them, the first few were easy, being based on Escher’s art pretty directly.  Later ones required a bit more thought, however.

BD: Is a lot of playtesting required to ensure that players are able to figure the dungeons out and that they won’t get too lost? As the lone developer, you presumably know them inside out, but how can you be sure the layouts will make sense to everyone else?

MS: This is the benefit of having Steam Early Access. It gives a solo developer a [source of] good feedback from players who are not going to beat around the bush. If they don’t like something, or can’t figure it out, they will tell you. [For example] a few of the first streamers got stuck in similar areas, so I knew I had to make those more intuitive to explore. 

BD: Speaking of which, were there any design tricks that you utilized to signpost people around? 

MS: One [way] is to cut off access to other areas until a certain feature is implemented. For instance, in a certain dungeon the player is forced to use a time-bomb to blow up a wall and progress to the next area.  Having a cracked wall [texture] is a time-honored development clue as to which surfaces are actually removable, so I used that. I also made sure the player could not go too far between [encountering] the wall in question and finding the time bombs needed to destroy it.

Another thing that I picked up from Quake and Quake II is that you need to make secret areas visible from other parts of the map. That way players will be aware of their [presence] and will be actively encouraged to look out for ways of reaching them.  Finally, there are actual maps for each dungeon and the outdoor areas as well, [which] should help players keep their bearings.

BD: Aside from the Escher influence, another thing that makes the game stand out from the crowd is the aesthetic. Why did you choose to use vector graphics?

MS: Vector graphics, in my mind, were unfinished business. We saw games in the early 1980s developing along two very distinct graphic styles. Pac Man and Donkey Kong established the now-ubiquitous “raster” graphics that every computer and console uses by default. However, there were also games like Battlezone, Tailgunner and the original Star Wars that used an entirely different technology to render images on screen.

At some point things changed and all the games started to look more like Donkey Kong than Battlezone. Bright colors filled the monitors and the minimalist line art that had previously fascinated me went away […] Yet the idea remained in my subconscious: ‘’What would have happened if those vector games won the war against raster graphics? What if, in some alternate universe, game companies had decided to invest heavily in that alternate technology and it became the default look?’’

With all the pixel art games that have come out in the last decade or so, I had this idea to explore a different kind of retro style […] I felt like, as an indie developer, it was my job to explore new territory. Once I realized how easy it could be to draw 3D lines in my mapping system it was just a matter of time before I had an idea for a vector based game.

[Mine] is certainly not the first game to try [resurrecting] vector graphics, but none of the others have really taken hold. One significant attempt I encountered was called Vectropolis, and there was a near-successful Kickstarter for that. Unfortunately, they did not meet their funding goal and, as far as I know, the game was never finished.  Still, they raised enough money to demonstrate that there was quite a bit of interest in a vector-based game. Being a solo developer, I knew I could do my project without needing a huge budget and that set me on track to finish Paradox Vector.

BD: The score is very memorable as well. Is it original and if so, how did it come about?

MS: When I was developing Star Explorers, I took a detour for about six months. I was trying to produce interesting looking nebulae [and] I got really inspired by some of the procedural shapes that were being generated. To explore this further, I created a different script and started a new game that was initially called ‘’Trees in Space’’ (because that’s what those shapes looked like) and was later renamed “Anomalies.” 

Anomalies was pure experimentation and, compared to the task of having to design a procedural galaxy and planet, was such a freeing project to work on. So, I paused development on Star Explorers, and just let myself enjoy the unfettered art of Anomalies

Eventually, the ‘’space trees’’ began to move, change colors and produce noises.  At first these were totally random and strange, but I decided to [delve deeper] into how frequencies could work together. It was some of the most intense math I’ve ever done, and I don’t even think I could explain it to you now that it’s finished, but I was able to get the anomalies to play notes that matched some typical musical scales. I then started recording the “songs” made by various anomalies and now I have a whole catalog of albums on Bandcamp as a result. 

The music algorithm was then modified and actually found its way back into Star Explorers.
Anyway, some of those songs, where they are actually generated in real-time as you play, have been recorded and used in Paradox Vector

BD: The storytelling is largely confined to cryptic in-game documents. Was that a conscious decision to keep the momentum going throughout and or was it motivated by more practical considerations?

MS: I am one of those people who hates cutscenes in videogames. Honestly, if I wanted to watch a movie, I would just turn on Netflix and if I wanted a story, I would just open up a book. I don’t really like spending a lot of time without control over my character. So, for me, having a few short text messages is more than enough to get across a [narrative]. Of course, producing storytelling devices would also take up precious development time, and relying on brief snippets of text would allow me to focus more on the gameplay instead.

Remember, I come from a generation that was fascinated by a little block that you could move across the screen with your joystick. So, in my controversial opinion, it is the graphics, the sounds, and the interactions that make games what they are. Everything else is fluff.

BD: Finally, what element of the game are you most proud of?

MS: That’s a tough one. I think it’s the careful balance between combat and exploration. Some games are so action heavy that they can wear you out and overwhelm your senses. You may end up running backward and shooting all the time – a pet peeve of mine – and often it’s so obvious where you need to go that there is virtually no sense of mystery or discovery. 

On the other hand, games without combat can get boring for me, even when there are interesting puzzles. The lack of conflict eventually makes me feel like I have [no incentive] to play. In Doom there are demons taking over earth if I don’t wipe them out. I can’t just stop; I have to fight them!  But a puzzle game generally does not offer these kinds of high-stake situations. 

Having high energy combat, with more careful exploration is a balance that was part of the best Metroidvania games. Also, probably my favorite game of all time, S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl, has relativity long, quiet periods of exploration, punctuated with brief moments of intense combat. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. did not directly inspire Paradox Vector, but I assume its influence was as strong as anything I thought of consciously.

Paradox Vector is available now on Steam Early Access.


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