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Linelight explores the art and play of minimalism

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Efficient and fun

Linelight

Linelight is a study in minimalism.

It is a platformer stripped of the colorful aesthetics of backdrop, of setting, of characters.

What is left is a line and a dash, sometimes dashes, and a very attentive design which so absorbs players that they won't notice what isn't there.

The game is the first solo project created by Brett Taylor, who designed it in Unity over the course of about ten months.

"In college, I discovered programming," Taylor tells me at the Manhattan hot chocolate shop where we meet for an interview and a bit of game playing. "I lost like ten pounds. It was everything I always wanted to do but could never put into words.

"I exploded with productivity."

He created a few smaller projects, he said, working on and off on his designs. He got a job at Arcadium working on casual games for three years. Then last April he came up with an interesting idea and took some time off to begin thinking through it.

"The concept was 'What if everything took place on a line? What if you reduce a puzzle game or any game to its absolutely simplest form?'"

Taylor describes the process of making the game its own sort of puzzle game.

"Linelight whispered to me, 'I'm going to be obstinate. I'm going to be difficult to work with.' And I said, 'I don't care. I'm going to crack you.'"

So he quit his job and set about deciphering Linelight.

It was Taylor's idea to meet at L.A. Burdick Handmade Chocolates in the Flatiron district. It was Take Your Child to Work day, so I asked if I could bring along my son Tristan. Taylor didn't mind.

As we sat chatting about his game and how it came to be, sipping on single-source South American hot chocolate, my son quietly explored Taylor's game.

It proved distracting not just to Tristan, who became completely absorbed in the singular play, but to Taylor who watched with fascination as Tristan zipped through levels, sometimes exclaiming, almost as if by accident, how cool they were.

Tristan couldn't stop grinning and Taylor broke out with a smile on occasion too.

Gameplay is simple. A player used a controller or the keypad of keyboard to move a dash along a line. The further you move it the more complex things get. The single line gives way to paths, paths to junctions. Soon other dashes are there that can destroy your dash. Switches appear, dashes become longer lines. Eventually, you're so deep into the complexity of the game you don't notice that what you're doing might look impossible to a passerby.

Sometimes Taylor interrupts a question I'm asking him to ask one of his own, to Tristan.

"Where are you?" or "What happened there?"

It's clear that Taylor is obsessed with his game and the process of making it.

He says as much as we watch my son play.

"The original idea, the one that occurred to me within the first 30 seconds, was 'What if you move only along the walls or floors?'," he tells me. "After a few moments, I thought 'Why have gravity? Why have up? Why not have everything be lines?"

Taylor confuses me briefly at times with the way he refers to the game as if it's alive.

"We started seeing each other in June full-time," he says. "I knew visually what I wanted it to look like. I feel like this entire game, all of the design decisions are incredibly obvious in retrospect. But there was a lot of experimentation.

"I'm at the stage where the game has not let up providing me with rich, cool ideas. I've prototypes a few things which have a lot of potential, but I really want to just release it. I'm considering DLC."

Currently Linelight has 252 levels, but Taylor says there's so much more that needs to be added to make it feel like a full video game.

"I want a climax sequence," he tells me as we watch my son play.

I've played through the demo he brought to PAX East several times, every time it feels fun, fresh, complete. But Taylor worries over the minutia of design.

"I could go 'And here's one concept' and then make all of the levels in that area explore the concept," he says. "In other areas where the levels are two or three minutes long, that gets no so much fun anymore, it gets repetitive. I could could take ideas and cluster them together, but you're going to get burned out by certain concepts."

Tristan is noodling back and forth on the same level for a few minutes when Taylor notices and looks over at him with an unspoken question in his eyes.

"OK," Tristan says. "I'm stuck."

"Oh yeah," Taylor says. "That's a good one."

I know Tristan wants to ask how to solve the puzzle, but Taylor obviously won't tell him. Instead he suggests that maybe you can't solve this one puzzle.

"The game is like performing a magic trick," Taylor says. "And I can see how it's done, so it seems so easy to me."

The key to immersing people into the game, to pushing them to solve what looks unsolvable, Taylor says, is to incrementally increase the difficulty.

"It makes them believe they can solve the game and they develop a relationship with it," he says.

Tristan keeps messing with it until he gets it and smiles.

Taylor's biggest problem right now is getting himself to stop designing.

"I'm reaching the point where I'm at all six of the worlds being finished for the first time," he says. "There will be seven or eight if I don't stop soon.

"The chief struggle is managing all of the stuff in my head."

Not surprising, given that Taylor is doing the art, design, coding, music and sound for the game, along with marketing it. The game is coming to Linux, Mac, Windows and, hopefully, PlayStation 4.

But only if Taylor can stop creating it.