Scanner Sombre

Wonderfully Inhuman: Q&A with Introversion Software

The frozen human figures in Scanner Sombre tease a mystery
The frozen human figures in Scanner Sombre tease a mystery

Whilst there were plenty of fully featured experiences on offer at Tobacco Dock, one of the standout parts of Rezzed for me this year was a room turned over to two simple prototypes. It’s hard to imagine many studios being given an entire room just to show off a couple of undeveloped new ideas that they’d spent a handful of weeks on, but this is Introversion Software, developers of Prison Architect; a game which not only gives them a good degree of pedigree, but shows how accomplished they are at running with an idea and fleshing it out over time. Is it any wonder that people would be eager to see what they’d come up with next?

Whilst the new console version of Prison Architect (out this spring, so soon) was on show in the corner, it was Scanner Sombre and Wrong Wire that were really competing for attention – and votes too, because Introversion were cleverly using the event to gauge public interest in the ideas. Scanner Sombre is an immersive exploration game with a rather unique aesthetic based on Lidar scanning. But what’s exciting about the game is that the aesthetic is also the core mechanic. In a pitch black cave you’re finding the way by painting the environment with light, and the structures you then navigate stand behind you like an incredible piece of 3D sculpture. There’s a sense of bringing a hidden world to life like in Unfinished Swan, but here the aesthetic seems to have a more logical purpose. Running against this is a completely different game. A complex puzzle game that sees players having to defuse a series of bombs, by reverse engineering the device with a series of tools and gizmos. The solutions require you to think like a programmer, but also to occasionally think like a psychopath.

The two ideas seem remarkably engaging given how little they have been worked on and not only are they very different from one another, they are completely different from Prison Architect, demonstrating that the studio were eager not to be typecast. I chatted to designer Chris Delay about the two works, VR, his inspirations and his desire to do something new.

Scanner Sombre sees you building the environment out of Lidar point data
Scanner Sombre sees you building the environment out of Lidar point data

Ready Up: Start off by telling me a little about yourself and Introversion Software?

Chris Delay: My name is Chris Delay. I’m a designer at Introversion Software and we’re probably best known now for Prison Architect, which we’ve been doing for the last five years of my life, and it’s been on sale for two years. Prison Architect is now coming out for consoles as well, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and here at Rezzed we’re showing two new game prototypes: Scanner Sombre and Wrong Wire.

RU: OK so let’s talk a little about these, because I just played them both. Let’s start with Scanner Sombre. It’s a really interesting game where you’re exploring a dark environment by scanning the space and its painting it in dots of light. Tell me a little about the idea behind it?

Chris: It’s like a Lidar scanner isn’t it? It’s a real thing. It’s how they do actually image larger environments and buildings. Essentially you sweep it with a very high resolution laser scanner and you get a whole load of point cloud data back. It’s very geeky, but I’ve always loved the look of it, because it looks really inhuman. It lacks any warmth. It’s sort of a very clinical look. And, in terms of game design, it’s about as far as I could get away from Prison Architect. I really wanted to do something completely different, something that was not at all system driven, not at all simulation driven, that was actually more like an experience. It would be atmospheric and moody and a little bit dark, and you would just think: “ah, that was nice!” You know? That’s the basic thinking behind it.

RU: It may be a kind of inhuman aesthetic but I think it looks quite beautiful as well.

Chris: It looks quite striking doesn’t it? That rainbow spectrum of dots. Because the dots vary in colour based on their distance, so you get all of your depth information from the colour of the lights without even realising it. You’ve got no depth perception, because there’s no light. When you scan something it looks like random dots, but you move a little bit and suddenly it resolves into a three dimensional shape. I really love that about it.

RU: Right, so it’s red when you’re up close and green when you’re further away?

Chris: And blue furthest away of all, and that’s when you get all of your impression of the three dimensional space that you’re moving through, along with the audio. So essentially you’re in a pitch black cave, so there’s no visible light whatsoever, but you have a hand scanner and some sort of headset – Google Glass or 3D goggles or something – that lets you see the point cloud.

For Prison Architect we’re always thinking months in advance where we’re going to go. We just wanted something creatively different. My intention is that it should be very atmospheric, there may be some puzzles but it’ll only be very light if there is, it’s going to be more about the feeling.

RU: Are you going to develop this for VR do you think? Because I think it would probably be a good fit.

Chris: We’ve done a prototype of it. But the problem with VR, obviously, is moving around in first person can make people very sick so it doesn’t lend itself brilliantly to VR. I’ve seen quite a few VR games now where you teleport. You have a little gun and you teleport around. That seems to be becoming the way to move in VR at the moment without being sick. So I don’t think that would really work. I don’t envisage it really as a VR game.

RU: There’s a game called A Light in Chorus which uses a similar lidar, point cloud kind of aesthetic. It’s by a couple of art students who went into game development. Have you come across that?

Chris: Interesting, I’ll check that out. I’m a big Radiohead fan, and this might seem a bit off kilter, but they made a music video in about 2009, I think it was for House of Cards or one of those In Rainbows tracks and it was rainbow coloured lidar scans of a city with Radiohead music playing over it, so very melancholy, and the lidar was just kind of falling away. It would start as a rigid city with power lines everywhere and it would just melt away. And it was incredibly atmospheric and evocative and that was the first time I can remember thinking that that would be an amazing game environment. That would be wonderfully inhuman. You’d be in a real place, but you wouldn’t necessarily feel like you were really there. The audio could be really realistic but the visuals could be very abstract and it would make you feel things and that’s what I think has been the aim for me. I’d say that was the original source inspiration really. That Radiohead video.

RU: It’s definitely an aesthetic that’s got a lot of legs.

Chris: It looks nice in screenshots. This is the first time we’ve actually seen anyone play it and so it’s the first time we’ve seen the kind of range of rainbow graphics that come out of the game.

RU: I was trying to imagine who I was with the scanner, but I’m not sure if that’s just me trying to impose a narrative.

Chris: I think we’re missing a couple of things in the first room. You’re meant to pick up the scanner and then the headset, and that would give you your scan cloud data, rendered visually around you like an overlay, and the scanner would be connected to it. But it’s only a prototype, so we didn’t have a chance to put that in.

RU: So obviously it’s at the prototype stage at the moment so how are you going to go about fleshing it out? Will it be puzzle based or will it be more of an exploration game?

Chris: I don’t really know yet. I mean that is really everything we’ve done. We spent a month doing both prototypes in total. We spent a bit longer than a week on that one [Scanner Sombre] and two and a half weeks on that one [points to Wrong Wire] and we did a bit more to polish them for Rezzed, so they’re very quick prototypes. They’re very much kind of like: we’ve just had an idea, let’s just go for it and be creative and not over think it too much. For Prison Architect we’re always thinking months in advance where we’re going to go. We just wanted something creatively different. My intention is that it should be very atmospheric, there may be some puzzles but it’ll only be very light if there is, it’s going to be more about the feeling. The things that you see in that cave are a little bit freaky, a bit scary. It’s going to be more about playing on the psychology.

RU: I noticed that you were finding human figures in the cave as well, so that was a little bit unnerving. I guess you’re going to do something narratively with that?

Chris: We probably will yeah [laughs]. We have a vague plan, but it’s not going to be a huge game like Prison Architect and its certainly not going to be a five year project or anything crazy like that. It’s going to be a game that you’re going to play for maybe an hour and that’ll be the end of the experience. It’s going to be one of those types of games.

Wrong Wire is about bomb defusal Hollywood style
Wrong Wire is about bomb defusal Hollywood style

RU: So what about Wrong Wire? That very much does look like a puzzle based experience.

Chris: Wrong Wire is more traditional introversion fare. It’s a bomb defusal puzzle game, where you have to defuse a series of increasingly complex, elaborate bombs. It’s kind of movie bomb defusal. We made the game Uplink which was about movie hacking and now we’re doing movie bomb defusal. So every film where you’ve had a cackling villain who’s made some dastardly device… like Die Hard 3 or something, where you had Simon Says making all those crazy bombs. Very much that end of the spectrum and not the Hurt Locker end of spectrum, with real IEDs and stuff. And we’re just playing around with the logic of understanding how these devices work. You’ve got tools like wire cutters, you’ve also got chip readers and serial port readers and vault meters, and you kind of have to reverse engineer how the device works and  then figure out how to defuse it. It’s been a lot of fun to make. We’re going to try to make it quite a technical puzzle game. Essentially I love games for programmers. I love SpaceChem and Factorio and I wanted to bring an element of them in, mixed with a bit of The Room and maybe a bit of The Witness.

RU: I noticed a bit of The Room in there, I’m a big fan of that series.

Chris: Yeah, you’re kind of orbiting the puzzle and trying to figure out what’s going on.

RU: The bit I enjoyed the most was cutting off the dude’s finger to use the thumb scanner.

Chris: You’re one of those are you? That’s classic Introversion, that. We like our dark themes. His hand is right there but you have to cut his whole thumb off.

RU: I mean he was dead, so he wasn’t using it right?

Chris: Exactly. I think probably the demo… we’ve been watching a lot of people play and it’s a little too hard at the moment. You kind of play the first two levels and they’re tutorial like levels and then you jump to this subway suitcase which is much, much harder, and requires you to make several leaps of logic. I think they’d be lots of levels in between in the finished game, but  for the purposes of the Rezzed game show we wanted to have a nice meaty puzzle that would really separate the men from the boys. We’ve seen some people solve it entirely on their own, but not many. Most people are needing a few hints. But that’s puzzle design isn’t it? The perfect puzzle game is just a little bit harder each level.

RU: And obviously everybody is going to find certain things harder than others. You’re getting people to vote on the two prototypes aren’t you? So are you only going to develop one of them?

Chris: I don’t know. I really don’t know. The vote isn’t really going to be the deciding factor. It’s just another piece of information. Because we really didn’t know, because Scanner Sombre is a strange game and I thought maybe people would play it for ten seconds and then leave, so if no one had voted for Scanner Sombre I would have been: “Yeah alright, that idea is dead in the water.” But actually Scanner Sombre seems to be doing a little better, but it’s about even. Lots of people are voting which is good and both games are getting lots of votes. Some people tell us they really like Scanner Sombre and they really haven’t seen anything like it. Some people really like Wrong Wire because it’s much more typical Introversion, tech demo kind of fare.

RU: We’ll good luck with it, they both seem really interesting.

Chris: Which was your favourite?

RU: It’s close, but I really liked Scanner Sombre. I think that’s a really nice, beautiful kind of thing, but I very much enjoy defusing bombs as well.


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