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From film school to video games: The story of Blackwell's Asylum

You wake up from a fog, not sure where you are, breathing heavily. Struggling. Two men hover above. The one with the mustache has you pinned down. The other holds a syringe, fills it, and approaches mechanically on crutches.

"Easy now, Nellie," he says. "We've been through this before. It doesn't hurt a bit."

He administers the shot somewhere you can't see.

"There, there," he says. "That wasn't so bad now, was it Nellie?"

The world blurs into blackness.

Blackwell's Asylum is provocative, designed to make players uncomfortable and provoke reactions. Judging by the buzz that surrounds the game, it's working.

Created by a group of students from the Danish Academy of Digital Interactive Entertainment under the direction of Claudia Bille Stræde, the game is a finalist in the Independent Games Festival's 2013 Student Showcase. Polygon spoke with Stræde recently about Blackwell's Asylum, its genesis and what the group's plans are for the future.

Blackwell's Asylum began as a mandatory student video game assignment. It was Claudia Bille Stræde's third such project, and this time she was the director. She's a film major by training, so the director role would seem to fit. But she had little personal experience with video games.

The first project she worked on was "a huge failure," Stræde said. The second fared a bit better. By the third, she thought she'd learned enough about video games to make something that mattered.

"When you're a director, a lot of the work starts before the team comes in," she said. And at the beginning of the months-long process, she set set out to find something meaningful, inspiration like she would have when making a film.

"One suggestion from a team member was to make a 'girlie game' where teens wanted to do makeup," she said. "I was like, 'You know what? I can't direct that.'"

Stræde is fascinated by the 1800s, both visually and historically. She sees it as a time that looked optimistic but had a sometimes seedy underbelly. The story that she and her development team settled on combined her two fascinations. It's based on a journalist of the era, Nellie Bly, who faked insanity to infiltrate the Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island in New York and then wrote about the mistreatment there through her experience.

Stræde and her team distilled the first few months of pre-production into six weeks in which they created Blackwell's Asylum on a computer. The game puts players in Bly's shoes, as she attempts to escape the literally twisted and mangled confines of her prison. Blackwell's Asylum's aesthetic and controls are a visual way to convey the sense of drug-induced hopelessness.

"The feeling of controlling the Nellie Bly character was something we worked a lot on — getting dizzy, getting blinded by the light, the ringing in her ears," she said.

Stræde is largely happy with the result. She's not quite scared when she plays the game, but she can still feel her pulse elevate during the tensest moments as she hides from the staff. If you're interested in testing your hear rate, you can download the game for Windows PC and Mac at the game's official website and on Steam.

Now, long after finishing the game, she and the Blackwell's Asylum team disbanded formally. But they still talk once every couple of months about what they might be able to do with the game and perhaps even other projects.

Claudia Bille Stræde, the filmmaker who barely knew games before she started making them, has other projects in mind, too — and not just of the celluloid variety.

"The game industry is really young, compared to the movie industry, and there are a lot of things yet to be discovered there" she said. "I find that really intriguing. It's found its form very early.

"It's really fun to feel that there's actually something here that you can find that nobody else has found."

Danish Academy of Digital Interactive Entertainment's Blackwell's Asylum 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 25-29.

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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