I believe that Incredipede was the best game of 2012 (if it’s played it on hard mode). Itâ€™s whimsical, yet complex, and while considering its often-formidable challenges, I’ve learned real, beautiful things about real, important subjects. This is why I wanted to talk to Colin Northway, who created Incredipede, along with his wife, Sarah. Our discussion wound up focussing on design philosophy, subject-matter-treatment for game designers and creationism vs. evolution.
Statik: Could you describe Incredipede for us?
Colin Northway: Incredipede is about playing with the raw wet strings of life. You play as Quozzle, an Incredipede who can grow new legs and muscles wherever she likes. Mold her into any creature you want: a horse and monkey, a bird or a human to solve problems and rescue her sisters.
Statik: Why did you choose to make a game with this subject matter?
CN: Sarah and I were living in Honduras for a few months when I first came up with the idea. We were staying in a little house slung out over the water in the middle of nowhere.
There was life everywhere. In the trees and the water and raiding our kitchen, it was all around you all the time.
I’ve always loved nature and the way life organises itself and moves. Incredipede lets you play in that world, lets you build up creatures using the same tools nature uses: bones and muscles. Quozzle is a stand-in for all living creatures.
“Games let you explore places and ideas in a way that no other medium can.”
Statik: Honduras sounds inspiring. Whatâ€™s interesting is that some might have been inspired to paint pictures, compose music or write something. But you guys chose to make a game. Does that mean there is some aspect of what you saw that you felt you could only communicate with a game?
CN: One of the things I love about games is that they can let you play in a world that is otherwise closed off to you.
Looking at and reading about life is fascinating, but inevitably, you will end up daydreaming about what life is capable of and what weird animals could exist and how they came to be. In a game, you can take that daydreaming out of your head and put it right in front of you in the real world.
Being able to experiment and play with a world is wonderful. Human beings are inquisitive by nature and are born wanting to play with and understand things. Games let you explore places and ideas in a way that no other medium can.
“I want them to chafe against my control and break free of it.”
Statik: That’s a beautiful perspective. And it comes across in your game. Incredipedeâ€™s levels are extremely freeform; the only game levels I know to be more freeform are Scribblenautsâ€™. Is that freedom a manifestation of your philosophy?
CN: Absolutely. The goal is to get out of the way and let the player be the star. Some games are clearly about how smart the game designer is. The games I love are about how smart the player is. Because, in Incredipede, the challenges are very simple, and the solutions are complex, the player owns the experience. The accomplishments are real and yours. No one makes the same creatures; everyone brings different things to the game.
Statik: But there are some puzzles with intended solutions, right? In one level I enjoyed , you start out perched on top of a rolling boulder, and youâ€™re supposed to make an animal that clings to the boulder.
CN: Ah, yes, the clinging boulder is one of the few levels with an intended solution. Usually, I shy away from those, but it’s just such a great idea I had to put it in.
Statik: Though some people, with time and luck, complete the level in other ways. Is it a good thing or a bad thing when theyâ€™re unwilling to see the clinging solution?
CN: I love that people subvert the intended solution. That’s how I play games myself. I am forever trying to do things wrong. To slide under an enemy I’m supposed to kill, or run up a hill that’s supposed to be out of bounds. I chafe under all that authorial control and just want to take the experience back for myself.
There are levels in the first world (which is really all tutorial) that give you a picture of suggested solutions. One of them is intentionally far from the best solution. I want people to look at the situation and think, “Hang on; that’s bad advice. I’m going to do this instead.” I want them to chafe against my control and break free of it.
Statik: Interesting, but hang on; isn’t that a kind of meta-control?
CN: Yeah you could see it as controlling. But how you solve it is up to you. I think of it as a gentle push towards the edge of the nest.
Statik: My favourite level is â€śLava tube,â€? [embedded below] which made me understand how cleverly the action of â€śflappingâ€? allows real animals to manipulate air. Did you intend to provoke realizations like that?
CN: Oh, yeah, that’s the heart of the game for me.
I spent a lot of time just playing the game as a sandbox, figuring out all the problems and how the muscles would work and everything. I would figure something out and make a creature work and just laugh in delight. I’d just be sitting in my chair, beaming at this little creature I had made and watch her hop around or skitter back and forth. The entire goal of the game is to bring players those experiences. If I can give you one of two of those, then I’m happy.
I still love the spider – the best of anything I’ve ever made. I learned so much about how spiders move making that. It’s simple now that I understand it, but it took quite a while.
Statik: Now I’d like to ask you some questions about your treatment of the subject matter.
“…there was talk of making Incredipede a sort of spoof on creationism, or having you compete against a genetic algorithm.”
Statik: In some ways, Incredipede departs from real biology. Regarding bones and muscles, real animals worry about resources. â€śCan I store enough energy to use this big muscle?â€? â€śCan I eat enough protein to keep this bone strong?â€? But bones and muscles in Incredipede have no limits. Did you ever consider adding resource management?
CN: Games, for me, are all about simplification. Incredipede started out much more complex. There was a nervous system and different kinds of muscles. The UI was crazy.
All that stuff is secondary to the experience I want you to have, though: making little creatures.
There are certainly games that ramp up the complexity and have a ton of little stats and buttons and things, but that’s not what I like. I like things to be just as deep, but without the complexity, like the depth of Chess versus the complexity of Axis and Allies (that’s a complicated WWII board game).
I wanted Incredipede to be like chess, though it had started out Axis and Allies. The biology was originally also more realistic: muscles didn’t spin bones 360 degrees.
Statik: Ah, I was just about to ask you about the joints. As you say, in Incredipede, an animal can have a bone joint thatâ€™s capable of twisting all the way around without breaking. But real bones never do that; only a few microbes have â€śrotating parts.â€? With this going on it can feel like the game is linked more with engineering than biology. Do you know what I mean?
CN: I think of those as being shoulder joints, rather than elbow joints. For a long, long time, the game had elbow joints, but it’s very hard to just move around with only elbow joints. The breakthrough came when I was thinking about Mudskippers.
The Mudskipper was one of the first species to leave the water for the land*. The first level of the game is a replication of this act. If you watch how Mudskippers move, they kind of slump their body forward, then swing their arms forward and slump again. That kind of motion is impossible in a 2D game. But if you let the muscles swing the bones totally around, then you can get an approximation of this movement.
So the Mudskipper inspired that bit of design and is featured in the first few levels in tribute.
Statik: Huh… so to model a real, 3D joint, you had to make a 2D joint with impossible flexibility. Itâ€™s like, to make the game more insightful, you had to make it less realistic.
CN: In the first few builds, muscles only â€śpulled,â€? like in real life, so you had to set up two muscles if you wanted to move back and forth. That was a nightmare.
If the movement strikes you as implausible, I encourage you to just imagine there’s another muscle on the other side. If I were to actually have shown that muscle, it would just add too much visual clutter.
Statik: There’s one more important way Incredipede breaks with the real world which I’d like to talk about. This time, itâ€™s a philosophical issue, rather than a technical one.
The animal bodies in your game are designed with conscious thoughts, whereas real animal bodies come about with random mutations and gradual changes. Do you have any strong feelings about that dichotomy which youâ€™d be comfortable sharing?
CN: My wife Sarah and I have talked about this a lot.
I am not personally religious, and I think evolution is a wildly convincing mechanism for creating the astounding variety of life on earth.
I will say that early on, there was talk of making Incredipede a sort of spoof on creationism, or having you compete against a genetic algorithm.
“Iâ€™ve spent months trying to make a game where little insects evolve better and better brains.”
Statik: Sorry, could you briefly explain what a â€śgenetic algorithmâ€? is?
CN: A genetic algorithm is an attempt at copying the way evolution works on a computer, to solve problems. You randomly generate a bunch of potential solutions, and then try them out. You take the ones that perform best and combine them in some way to make the next generation. You just keep doing that until you get something as good as you want.
Statik: Thanks! Okay, you were talking about the theme of creationism.
CN: Well, there are some really interesting questions there that I don’t think Incredipede really has an opinion on right now. I do, but the game doesn’t. It’s certainly not intended as a creationist polemic.
Statik: Gotcha. But do you think there are strengths that “consciousness” has that enables it to come out with animals that “nature” never could? Or vice versa?
CN: Nature has the big advantage of time and processor power.
Just take viruses. You have millions of viruses living inside you right now. Every one of them is doing all kinds of complicated things to reproduce itself. For human beings to approach that amount of effort themselves, or to simulate it with machines, would be pretty much impossible.
I’ve spent months trying to make a game where little insects evolve better and better brains. You hit the wall of processor speed really fast.
Statik: But humans do have an edge over nature, it seems. We can at least adapt much quicker than animals. What, as you see it, is the thing that gives us that edge?
CN: So the answer to this is â€śCreativity,â€? but “Creativity” is a big word. We don’t really know what creativity is or how it works.
Although I have a theory. My theory is that creativity is metaphor. That basically our frontal cortex is a big metaphor engine. That it’s constantly trying to liken one thing to another, trying to see the hidden similarities. And when it finds them, it extends the metaphor to find ideas that no one has ever considered.
Human beings are also pretty much the only creative problem-solvers on earth. No animal can approach our abilities. If you really look into some of the famous examples of animal problem-solving, they start to look more like rare flukes than actual puzzling thought.
So since video games are all about creative problem-solving (perhaps with the exception of Super Hexagon), they are a distinctly human pastime. Starcraft, Spelunky, World of Goo and Incredipede are what separate us from the beasts.
*Note: sadly, Colin was actually wrong about the first land animals being mudskipper-like! If you’re interested in how land vertebrates really originated, I recommend this documentary about the great paleontologist, Jenny Clack, who cracked the question in the 1990s.