When 21-year old Mahdi Bahrami took the stage at this year's Experimental Gameplay Workshop, the audience was entranced by his game Engare.
Projected onto a large screen to a crowd of hundreds of people, Bahrami showed solutions to his geometric, ancient Iranian art-influenced puzzle game. "So you have an object on a table," he said to the audience, pointing to a screen where a rectangle sat on the edge of a desk. "Now if you draw a point somewhere on that object, what kind of line would it make if it fell?" He placed a dot on the corner of the rectangle. He hit "play." The rectangle tumbled off the table, leaving behind a squiggly line.
In the early build of Engare Bahrami showed, at the start of each level players were shown a line they had to replicate by placing a dot on a moving object. Perhaps it was a hook-like curve they had to recreate. Perhaps it was something that resembled the McDonald's golden arches. Each of these puzzles was mind boggling on their own. Then Bahrami got meta: what if you drew a dot on the game's menu tab so when you pulled up the menu, it created a line? And then what if you got rid of the menu and the table and the moving objects and just allowed the line to replicate itself again and again and again?
The audience was mesmerized. The line replicated itself to form a beautiful, intricate pattern. After a while, it stopped. On the screen was a mandala-like creation. The audience erupted in applause.
RECONNECTING WITH ESFAHAN
Mahdi Bahrami was born in Esfahan, Iran. His father was an electrical engineer who encouraged him to learn how to code. His mother was a homemaker who, in her youth, weaved carpets. He grew up watching his older brother play video games.
With help from his father, he learned to code in C++ and C# when he was 11.
"I was very interested in mathematics when I was young, and I knew that to do coding with mathematics I would need to know how to program," he told Polygon. "In our school, there were competitions for students to make software that involved mathematics, and I wanted to win, so I made something, and I won. And because of that, I decided to study programming more."
The prize-winning software Bahrami created as an 11-year old was a basic calculation program. He says it wasn't a particularly impressive piece of software, but the win motivated him to continue on his path to become a programmer.
In his teens he learned of the connection between games and mathematics. When he turned 19, he moved to The Netherlands to continue his education. It was here that he connected games and mathematics with culture.
"When I first came to The Netherlands, I felt disconnected from my country," he said. "When I came here, I didn't feel part of this country. The culture was so different; I couldn't connect with people.
"When I came here I couldn't drink beer, I didn't like it, and that's a big part of Dutch culture," he said. "So I couldn't connect with the people or the culture, and on the other hand I was far from my city and my family, and I was like why did I come here? Why am I staying here? Was it worth it? What am I going to do here if all my friends and family are very far? The culture, the language, everything ... I was unsure why I came to The Netherlands."
In an attempt to feel connected with his home, Bahrami spent his free time making a game that reminded him of home. His first game project while in The Netherlands, Farsh, was a puzzle game that used Persian carpets as its central motif. Players would furl and unfurl carpets to connect and create pathways.
He made the game in two weeks and uploaded it to the internet. "I got really good feedback from people," he said. "The interesting thing is people in Iran were really interested in the game. I heard from a teacher in Iran who said he liked the game and was going to give it to his students so they could solve the puzzles. I felt connected to my people."
Engare is Bahrami's latest creation, which was accepted into this year's Experimental Gameplay Workshop. "It's about how shapes are drawn and what patterns are."
The idea for Engare came during a high school geometry class when Bahrami's teacher posed the question of what kind of shape would be made if a point was drawn on a ball, and the ball rolled. "Everyone was so fascinated by this question, even those who didn't know geometry wanted to know the answer to the question. I thought this question was so interesting I wanted to make a game about it."
While Engare was not designed to have a connection to Islamic art, the pattern making process explored through the geometric puzzles mirrored that of Islamic art making. Seeing this strong connection, Bahrami said it made sense to play it up in the game.
"Islamic art is all about mathematics," he said. "There are many different types of Islamic art, but the architecture and tiling, most of those principles are based on mathematics. When you see the architecture, you completely understand that the people who made it knew mathematics."
Host of the Experimental Gameplay Workshop and co-founder of game studio Funomena Robin Hunicke first heard of Bahrami more than four years ago.
"Mahdi submitted his first prototype of Engare, which he called Everything Can Draw, to the 2010 Experimental Gameplay session at GDC. I was instantly struck by the core mechanic and the cleverness of the puzzles, which really twisted your brain and made you think to solve them," Hunicke said. "And when I realize the submission was from a 16-year old kid from halfway around the world, I was really blown away."
According to Hunicke, one of the first thing many people notice about Bahrami's games like Farsh and Engare is the Islamic theme, but his games are interesting even without the cultural veneer.
"As you look at Mahdi's current body of work, that drive to explore experimental mechanics is at its very core," she said. "At first glance, you may notice the gentle way he weaves his cultural heritage into the setting and music and visuals of the game. But when you begin playing, you are immediately swept into the puzzles themselves. It's this craft that makes his designs compelling."
For Bahrami, he says he has ideas for his next game projects, none of which are related to Islamic art. "I want my games to be interesting because they're interesting, not because they're related to Islamic art," he said.
As he completes his studies in The Netherlands, he says his long-term plans are to go back to Iran and start his own game development studio. For now, he no longer feels disconnected from his home, he's settled into The Netherlands, and he's content to keep making mind-bending puzzlers. "I just want to make games," he said. "I just want to make interesting games."