How Eric Zimmerman, Naomi Clark and the Brooklyn Game Ensemble are avoiding trends and tropes to create a metaphysical experience.
Procedural, infinitely re-combinable and re-playable. The Brooklyn Game Ensemble hopes to create a game that, like a game of Solitaire, doesn't exist in a representational physical world. Squaring the player against entropy, randomness and chaos, Library (working title) is a far cry from the ensemble's earlier work on Diner Dash and Sissyfight 2000.
"Infinite, yet incomplete. Theoretically knowable, but experientially unknowable." Eric Zimmerman tries to explain the game, based on Jorge Borges' short story "The Library of Babel." "It's all of these metaphysical paradoxes." He pauses before looking to his colleague Naomi Clark.
"I have no idea if I'm making any sense."
The story, which has been the fascination of mathematicians, philosophers and procedural generation geeks since its publication in 1941, describes an infinitely large library containing every possible book. With a quick search, you can find hundreds of interpretations and reinterpretations of this never-ending collection of books, words and letters; from philosophical writings, to postmodern fiction, to computational simulations.
"In the 21st century, information has this new form ... it's digital, it's modular, it's infinitely copyable and combinable," says Zimmerman. He explains the game is far from being a literal interpretation of the bookcase-lined hexagonal rooms described by Borges.
"The library doesn't have to look like a bookstore."
As a child, Eric Zimmerman would make games. Constantly. For science projects, as presents and just when there was nothing to do.
"I'd make board games at any opportunity," he says. For Mother’s Day one year he created a board game called "Oh, Mother" as his gift.
"It's certain kind of structural analytic mind ... combined with something else, like an interest in imagination, fantasy storytelling or social interaction," he says.
As an undergrad pursuing BFA in painting, the installations and performances he produced were game-like. As a hobby, Zimmerman created tabletop role-playing games but, despite his best efforts, none of them were ever published.
Meanwhile, Zimmerman's future colleague Naomi Clark was figuring out how to play Netrek on college networks. Clark had also spent her childhood creating games, and in high school was building rudimentary text-based virtual worlds. "I like how they structure interactions — you see some interesting dynamics emerge between players," Clark says.
Out of college, both were exploring the digital world, Zimmerman interning at R/GA interactive, and Clark at e-zine Word. The online magazine was playing with idea of creating interactive content in the late '90s. "I was encouraging the magazine to go in that direction," Clark says. "We finally got a chance to make a game."
Knowing Zimmerman as a mutual friend, the team at Word got to work on their first game: Sissyfight 2000.
Sissyfight is a turn-based strategy game that pits school girls against each other to ruin their popularity and self-esteem. As one of the first browser-based multiplayer games, Sissyfight was ahead of its time. The game has been praised for depicting all the players as female and non-sexual — ahead of a lot of games today — and when Word magazine closed down in late 2000, Zimmerman's startup GameLab ran the servers until late 2009, until the studio closed its doors.
New forms of play
"Invent new ways to play" was GameLab's mission from the outset.
"I've always wanted to invent new forms of play," Zimmerman says as he describes the early days of his company. It was founded in 2000 with members of the Sissyfight team, including Clark, and is most acclaimed for creating Diner Dash, a game in which you seat and serve guests at a restaurant — now the template for the time management genre.
"It invented the genre," he says. "There was no FarmVille. There was no Diner City." Many of GameLab's games, while more commercial than some of his other work, were just as innovative as Library.
"There weren't female protagonists that weren't either princesses you were rescuing or action pin up sluts with two guns. It was innovative in that way."
"We were pretty early among the studios doing game jams," Clark adds. "We were always trying to push something forward, to learn something new and produce a breakout hit like Diner Dash."
Games like Arcadia, which involved playing four Atari-style games at once, are some of Zimmerman's proudest creations and preface the pixelated aesthetic found in many modern indie games. "There's a whole history of experimental work at GameLab," he says. "We should try to curate it at some point."
Diner Dash, in its later PS3/360 incarnation.
The team assembles
Sitting on the ninth floor of Tisch School of Arts as the induction for NYU's Game Centre MFA unfolds, it's clear that Clark and Zimmerman are well-known names in the New York game development community.
The Brooklyn Game Ensemble also includes five others, mostly long-time industry veterans, mostly with experience in online and casual games. Vincent LaCava, who worked with Zimmerman at his internship at R/GA, founded thisispop, which has created many of the Adult Swim games including biblical brawler Bible Fight.
He is joined by Joshua Debonis and Kristoffer Schlachter, who have collaborated in the past and worked with companies like Nickelodeon, as well as Zimmerman's girlfriend, Nathalie Pozzi, who has built large scale physical games, recently shown at the Museum of Modern Art. The most recent addition to the team is programmer Michael Hansen.
"It's kind of an all-stars group," says Zimmerman.
All in a room together for the first time, their first goal was to find common ground. They exchanged games that had influenced them and ideas that excited them; from films to artists and authors. Pozzi (who has less experience in games than the rest of the group) brought a lot of visual and aesthetic influence drawing from her experience in architecture, Clark says. "It became a fusion and blending of everyone's interests from different fields."
Out of this meeting emerged a common theme. "One of our big influences was meta-physical fiction," says Zimmerman. "Something which felt like a fairytale and had a fable-like quality, but was also philosophical." As it does for many geeks, "The Library of Babel" fascinated the group and it became a conceptual heart of the project — a common reference point.
From games, the team found it was inspired by roguelikes such as Desktop Dungeon and Spelunky. "A procedural game that was highly replayable, but didn't focus on combat, hit points, health and damage," Zimmerman says, pinning down the inception of the game.
"That's still where the heart of the project is." Even a year into development, having showcased no gameplay to date, the ensemble is focused on its initial vision.
Luxury of time
Some games are made in months, some in days and some pretty interesting things have been created in 48 hours.
Experimentation drives the heart of the Brooklyn Game Ensemble, and this might explain why the project appears to be moving so slowly. Last year an early build of Library was submitted to the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, and was rejected in favor of mostly finished games. Zimmerman admits the actual game is only 5-10 percent complete. "Conceptually it's more like 60-70 percent," says Clark. "We've spent a year doing pre-production, which I don't feel bad about."
The ensemble meets once a week, and each member is working on the project alongside other full time gigs. Zimmerman explains that the development method of "I'm going to set my life aside and starve and spend all my time working on this game" portrayed in Indie Game: The Movie isn't the only way to make an indie game.
"We have the time to think — potentially overthink — through each idea ... You don't often have the luxury of conceptually digesting every decision you make. I've been called an iteration fundamentalist, or an iteration fetishist."
With platforms changing so fast, Zimmerman explains, there tends to be a compulsion towards rapid development and quick release in indie titles. "We have the luxury of not having commercial pressure," he says.
He refers to the films of David Lynch and DuChamp's "The Large Glass" work as examples of a slow artistic processes that take decades to complete. "I'm not trying to put us with them," Zimmerman says. "We're just trying to make a simple game that's so weird and different that we have to hit on a thousand things before it feels right."
"I love indie games, but most of them are really just twists on platformers," he says. "We're really trying to do something that's quite different."
Clark mentions Daikatana as an example of a game that suffered from industry pressures. By trying to build a game while keeping up to date with new graphics techniques, the multiple delays and engine switch led to one of the more memorable failures in gaming. While Library is a 3D game, the team isn't going for photorealism or high-end graphics. "You see a game like Journey, which isn't based on high-end graphics, that uses abstraction as an aesthetic language," she explains, "and it has a longer shelf-life by result."
"I think we've managed to keep our process because it's so different from the business, technology and scene trends that are going on," Clark says, describing how she has heard indie developers worrying that they need to get their 2D platformer out before "2D is over." "We're relatively insulated from that. Hopefully it'll lead us to a game that'll stand that test of time."
"Come on, everyone developer wants their game to stand the test of time," says Zimmerman. "But we will," he jokes.
Exploring the space
The ensemble has generated piles of gameplay notes and plans exploring ideas and features that, for the most part, never made it into the game. "We have a pretty rich map of what the conceptual terrain is," Clark says. "It's increased our confidence over time that we know this terrain."
"I think we've honed in on something that’s going to be quite fun," Zimmerman says. "It's quite an abstract game right now."
The game does in fact take place in a library — of sorts. Zimmerman makes it clear that it's a physical space structured around meaning.
Inside this procedurally generated space are lots and lots of books (Zimmerman makes it clear that these block-like objects may not end up being books in the final game). The player (currently represented by a chess piece) encounters books containing with words or phrases amidst a sea of nonsense-filled pages. Some words might have a common theme of emotion, mathematics, water and so on, Zimmerman explains.
"The player is trying to work against entropy in the library. There are other things that shuffle the library — sort of enemies, hazards, and obstacles and ways to deal with them. They all have to do with meaning and words that you find."
As the player learns how the space is structured, and starts to sort these books and words, they will discover more of this infinite library. "It's hard to describe," says Zimmerman. "But it's about the player coming to understand that this physical space is also a space in meaning."
Zimmerman is quick to point out that Library isn't a Proteus-style exploration experience: "It's definitely a game."
"People often think of games as a virtual world, where you're this character exploring a space. I like to think of the classic game of Solitaire. People spend years of their lives playing solitaire over and over, on cards and computers — what space are you exploring there? My hope is that our game, like Solitaire or a class of roguelike, will be a space of recombinable possibility that you explore over and over again."
Zimmerman takes inspiration from roguelike RPGs, and their creation of a meaningful choice and reward loop that makes for a satisfying game. (He also says he managed to complete all of Desktop Dungeons while it was in beta.) The simple concept of damage is influenced by so many other variables; timing, position, range, attack rate, armour, equipment, abilities, healing and chance multipliers. And that's just taking one player into account.
"The tropes of existing video games have all these pivot points that manifest into — I don't want to say 'ready-made,' but familiar devices," says Zimmerman, going on to explain why 2D platformers are so popular in the indie world. It's such an efficient way to densely pack space with things that make the game come alive with possibility, he says — positive and negative space, elevators, trapdoors, spikes and teleporters.
"We're trying to rely less on these established tropes," he says. "It's like we're inventing new languages of interactivity."
With such high concept motivations behind the game, Zimmerman reminds that the group is making all the right decisions to ensure the game is actually fun.
"Even if it's a weird kind of fun," he says, "if it doesn't have some kind of glimmer of pleasure, no one's going to play it."
Hitting the shelves
Still working with early glitch-ridden prototypes, the ensemble isn't rushing towards release any time soon, and a public demo is a while down the line. There's no set release window. Library will be out "when it's ready."
"That's the Valve-style answer," Clark jokes. "We very deliberately didn't have a deadline on it."
When there's an Experimental Gameplay Workshop, IndieCade or Independent Games Festival around the corner, the team might assess whether it's worth adopting a deadline so they can show off the game. "Sometimes it's good; sometimes we need to let it evolve a little more in pre-production," says Clark.
"We have a development blog," adds Zimmerman. "So we're not trying to hide away in secret."
By the time Library emerges, the development story — like a good book — might take some unexpected turns. Let’s hope for a happy ending.