A game within a game: ATUM

A silhouette of a man runs across a platform. He can climb up and down ladders, he can leap as high as his feet will take him, but he needs help. He runs into walls of complete darkness — unlit areas that block his path. There's no way to go forward because he can't venture into what he can't see — what doesn't exist to the eye — and if he goes back, he runs into another wall. He needs help.

At some point players realize they can help him, although not by doing anything within the game. The player has to step out of the game — out of the darkness with the silhouetted man — and into a different game: the meta-game of a virtual character playing the game on a virtual computer.

Developed by Sassybot Studio and Team Cupcake, a development team from NHTV IGAD's University Gamelab in The Netherlands, ATUM explores the idea of a game within a game and the ways in which players can affect one game world by influencing another.

"We introduced the idea of recurrence and we wanted to use a literary technique, like in Hamlet, where you have a play within a play," says Marta Clavero, one of the game designers of ATUM. "It kind of meta references what is happening in the story, so we thought it would be interesting if we could have a player playing a game and try to make a reference to the actual player who is playing the game."

"We wanted to use a literary technique, like in Hamlet, where you have a play within a play."

In ATUM, players begin by controlling the silhouetted man on the screen, running across platforms, climbing ladders and encountering walls of darkness. By zooming out, players realize they're actually controlling a virtual "player" who is sitting in a 3D room playing the platformer on a computer. Moving the camera reveals that the virtual player is sitting in a white room littered with books and various knick knacks — ashtrays, lighters, a burning cigarette and piles of books that reference the literary techniques used by the game. The player — the physical human in the world as know it — thus plays a game of a person playing a game.

"We wanted to create an interaction between the 2D platformer and the 3D scene," says game designer Thomas Buijtenweg. "We decided to combine the two in a logical way that would make sense."

Buijtenweg gives the example of red barrels and how the 3D game interacts with the 2D platformer to solve a puzzle. Red barrels are a common feature in many video games and are known to explode when shot or set alight. So the developers included red barrels in ATUM, but instead of arming the silhouetted man with a weapon or fire, players have to step into the 3D meta game to find an object that can interact with the 2D game. To light dark areas in the 2D, players must find solutions in the 3D.


Buijtenweg says the red barrels are instantly recognizable to most players, but placing some of the solutions in the 3D game makes players rethink how they interact with objects.

Clavero says that there are essentially two games in ATUM, but neither can exist alone. The two games force players to weave between the 2D platformer and the 3D meta game to find solutions to problems presented in the 2D world. The game encourages players to think creatively and consider new ways to approach video game clichés, and at one point it reaches out even further and effortlessly draws the player into the game.

ATUM is playable now.

NHTV IGAD's University Gamelab's ATUM is a 2013 finalist of the Independent Games Festival Student Showcase. The Independent Games Festival will take place during the 2013 Game Developers Conference, in San Francisco from March 25 through 29.

Polygon will be speaking with the IGF's student showcase winners and Nuovo Award finalists almost daily for the month of March. Follow along with their stories in our StoryStream below.

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