FRACT has finally come out after an arduous development journey lasting over three years. We sat down with Richard E. Flanagan and Henk Boom, two of the three-person team at Phosfiend Systems, to reflect on their musical exploration game and their own personal revelations.
FRACT isn’t a game for everyone and that’s a good thing. There is an aesthetic of “Myst meets Tron.” You’re placed into a world with no language, no specific narrative, and no direction. It’s purely exploration and discovery with puzzles designed around analogue synthesizers. Your interaction in the world builds an electronic soundscape and your progression brings the world to life. If your eyes haven’t glazed over by that description, then this game will give you the cathartic experiences you’ve been seeking.
“We wanted people to go into this world and leave their mark and take away whatever they take away. I think by doing the non-language, very open, no-hand-holdy approach we walked the fine line of empowerment versus bewilderment. You want it to be on the line because if you stray in one direction too far you can’t get the other. “
Having those personal discoveries has always been a design goal in FRACT, but determining how to do so is what took the game so long to develop. It’s not uncommon to hear developers underestimate how much time it will take to make a game. The process of making a game, making something from nothing, is where developers discover what the game is. It’s almost as if games have a life of their own.
Discovering the Game
Richard described the first year of development as just realizing what the game was and how it was structurally going to work. That realization was difficult because the original goal behind the game was to teach people how an analog synthesizer worked. It took some time to understand what as Richard described, “isn’t only a bad idea, but it’s not translating into a fun game.” They had to shift their focus.
“In all honesty it felt like a failure to me. I felt like I had given up on the better idea. But not long after making that decision did I realize that was the most important decision we made.”
I believe part of what excites me about FRACT beyond the exploration and puzzle-solving has been a passive interest I’ve always had in making music. I’ve picked up and put down so many instruments, but more recently have messed with digital synthesizers. I haven’t yet learned how to make music, but that exploration and sense of play is appealing. Richard explains injecting that feeling into FRACT:
“Playing with a synthesizer for the first time and that feeling of play. Loose experimentation, completely no judgement, just jamming. We made that realization that we don’t need to teach, but we can inspire.”
FRACT is Richard’s baby, but the collaboration with his wife Quynh and programmer Henk allowed the game to evolve into everything it became. The nature of having a few people so invested in a single thing reveals a blending of each of their skill-sets and a byproduct they can call their own.
Henk described that there was a constant back-and-forth during the project. As he was working on the tools, he’d see how Richard used them in ways he hadn’t yet conceived.
“We both would see what we had made and see the ways in which we could help the parts that the other wasn’t able to because of limitations.”
Richard described that Quynh was essential in a lot of the games design. “When we started to really understand what the world is going to be mechanically, the game at that was highly systemic. That worked well from a mechanical perspective, but we lost the charm and randomness and Quynh pushed us to bring that back into the world, to break things, to make it feel more alive, more accidental.” Those changes ended up not only having a profound effect on the world design, but would echo into the puzzles and mechanics.
It goes without saying that a music exploration game relies a great deal on the soundtrack. Mogi Grumbles (Alex Taam) in that way is the fourth member of the group and his music provides much to the overall experience. When solving a puzzle you’ll begin to hear the build up of a track. As you get closer to the solution, Mogi’s track reveals itself and with an explosion of light and sound it is revelatory experience every time.
The team jokes about the ups and downs during the long development process. Even during their humorous Golden Sushi award speech at PAX you get the sense that they’ve experienced a lot of emotions together. Of course there is the feeling that FRACT consumed them more than they ever imagined it would. Three years is a long time to work on any one thing. Henk described a perspective that many people can probably relate to.
“Whenever something takes this long to make it’s like you reach a point where it’s like, ‘I’m sort of collaborating with a version of myself with three years less experience.’ And sometimes that’s a very frustrating process.”
Despite the frustrations and long hours, you get the sense that everyone on the team is happy with where things are now. FRACT OSC is a game worth being proud of and the type of game that we’ll continue to highlight for years to come.
If you haven’t already, head over to their website and pick your digital download on Humble, Steam, or GOG. Definitely pick up the soundtrack from Mogi Grumbles on his Bandcamp. Follow FRACT on Twitter and if you wanted to get more personal you can find Richard and Henk on Twitter too.