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FRACT OSC: Making a world through music

FRACT OSC is a difficult game to define. It's a first-person exploration game, but it has no action or violence. It has a large puzzle element, but puzzles aren't exactly the focus of the game. There's also a music component where players use synths to solve puzzles, influence their environment and unleash their own musical creativity — but it's not a music game, either.

The world is sparse and quiet. Towering structures, abandoned monuments and strange mechanical contraptions litter a landscape that is long forgotten. A player discovers this place — a place of abstract ruins — and decides to explore. The world may as well be dead — silent and stale. But as the player moves through the space, interacting with the structures, the nobs, the synths and the machines, music emanates through the air. New pathways crawl from under the player's feet. A lively world is born from music.

FRACT — currently in development for Windows PC, Mac and possibly Linux with a planned 2013 release — sits at the intersection of several genres and tries to capture what is magical about each of those gaming experiences. There's the sense of wonder and discovery that comes from exploration games. There's the challenge of puzzle solving. There's the sense of satisfaction of hearing the music you've made and seeing it shape the world on your screen.

"To us, FRACT is a musical exploration game," says Quynh Nguyen, one of the developers at Phosfiend Systems, who has spent the past few years working on the title. "It's about exploring a world and, in turn, exploring music."

"It's about exploring a world and, in turn, exploring music."

Phosfiend Systems is attempting an ambitious project. The indie studio is creating a world where the player-generated music influences the game's paths. Some parts of the world are blocked off, and to unlock new areas, a player will have to learn what kind of notes to hit and music to create to gain access. Once an area is unlocked, players can have come up with new note combinations to make their own tunes, from which new paths will spawn, and the music they've made will fill the world.

According to Phosfiend's Richard Flanagan, each road corresponds to a note and whole areas have their own syntheisizers that players can use to affect the world. Players can sequence a series of notes to solve puzzles, the placement of notes will influence objects in the world and the paths in the space, and one player's musical result could be radically different to another player's.

"We've got this really powerful synth engine running under the hood of the game, and as the player progresses, they're kind of solving these abstract puzzles and fixing these old, derelict machines and structures in a forgotten space," Flanagan tells Polygon. "Progressively, you start to unlock certain elements to synthesizers, so you start to change the sounds of the spaces in these puzzles.

"As you move through the space, you develop a vocabulary for what these synthesizers are and you start creating your own music and passages of music."

FRACT also features a "studio," an area that Flanagan describes as the "sandbox-like" element of the game, where the synth tools that players unlock in the main world are made accessible in a studio environment, allowing players to make their own music for fun. These songs can then be exported and shared with friends, and Flanagan hopes the studio and the main game serve as primers for more creative expression.

"The basic idea is it's exploring — you're poking around and you're discovering what makes this world tick, and a lot of cases what makes it tick is based on sound," he says. "But I also wanted to try to capture that playful, open, unintimidating kind of musical exploration, and maybe have it be a primer for some users to go and explore it a bit more.

"Discovering electronic music-making tools was a big deal for me. I've been in a number of bands and it's always difficult to organize people, but with these tools I could do it on my own and it gave me that freedom. It was like, wow, I was so excited. I always wanted to make these sort of musical toys that capture that."

"I want them to discover, to explore, to rebuild. And then I want them to create in this space and feel a sense of ownership of their experience."

Flanagan says he wants FRACT to give players the opportunity to experience the sense of satisfaction he has when he makes his own music — whether it be creating silly or crazy-sounding tunes with a mish-mash of notes, or carefully sequencing sounds to make something that is musical to them.

FRACT is Phosfiend's first video game, and it is still many months from release. The developers know the game is difficult to define, and screenshots and trailers will not explain exactly what the game is trying to achieve. According to Flanagan, it's a game that will require time for the player to really dig in and grasp how they are affecting the world, but ultimately, the player will affect the world.

"I want the takeaway to be that players have put their mark on this world," he says. "I want their experience to fill this world because this world is empty for a reason. There's a sparseness to it. I want them to discover, to explore, to rebuild. And then I want them to create in this space and feel a sense of ownership of their experience.

"They'll have proof of it. They'll have the world. They'll have the music."