You may have seen them already: luminescent, moody, glitchy-looking gifs on Twitter and Reddit. No, they're not teasers for the next Tron movie, but snippets from an indie title called Recompile - a 3D platformer by Phigames.
After weeks of observing these teaser images, I was finally able to get my hands on the game at this year's EGX Rezzed, and ask the game's creator, Phi Dinh, about the process behind designing the game. Unsurprisingly, it turns out Recompile feels just as good as it looks, but it also boasts a variety of unexpected influences. And that's not all - as the developer has some ambitious plans in mind.
Hearing the term computer virus normally doesn't bring positive images to mind, but in Recompile, you are the virus. You're tasked with infiltrating a pseudo-military facility during an "apocalyptic war-type future", and according to Dinh you'll function as "a catalyst for creating the first ever sentient AI".
"The idea is the facility is semi-sentient, semi-intelligent, but you're a catalyst to make it fully sapient," Dinh explains. "It's like a Skynet - Terminator situation there at the end of the game, you merge with the world and everything turns into a technological singularity, and suddenly the computer system becomes self-aware - that's kind of the ending."
Getting to that point, however, is another matter. Puzzles, robots and winding pathways are just some of the obstacles in your way - and in the mainframe (the overworld between levels) a sinister presence closely watches your progress.
"My inspiration for the overworld is Zelda Breath of the Wild," Dinh says. "You can see the volcano in the background, and you can't get near but you know eventually you will get there. Like in Lord of the Rings you can see Sauron's Eye, or Mount Doom.
"That focal point is the hypervisor core, and that is the all-seeing eye of the AI you're trying to get to, that you eventually merge with. So we kind of want that in the distance, and to have the levels built around it."
3 weeks since we announced and already the game's environmental visuals have vastly changed.— Phi Dinh (@phi6) March 25, 2019
Here's me messing with rocky pillars, floating islands, bodies of water & hypervisor core color changes!
Wishlist #RecompileGame on Steam: https://t.co/3dtql6oHBu#gamedev #madewithunity pic.twitter.com/xIMPgfnVit
Thankfully, your piece of malevolent code can byte back: there's a shooter element to this game, and players can zoom in to attack robots with a gun. If combat isn't your thing, it's also possible to out-manoeuvre enemies, and there's a huge range of abilities to help you zoom around the world, such as dashing, hovering and my personal favourite, "infinite jump". Mobility in Recompile is one of the game's greatest strengths, and presents players with a wealth of options for how to tackle each level. And then there's the Hulk smash-style impact on the platform's tiles after a jump. The ripple is very satisfying.
The demo version I trialed at Rezzed pretty much threw all these abilities at me immediately (which made sense, given players only had about 10 minutes to try the game) but Dinh explained these will be more evenly paced in the full version. I can imagine the point at which you gain infinite jump being a pivotal moment in the game, allowing for a complete change in play-style, movement and perspective. Even during the demo, I was stunned when I realised I could fly as high as I wanted. Recompile grants an unusual level of freedom to players compared to any other platformer I've seen.
The increased mobility could, in theory, lead to players getting lost, but thankfully Recompile uses obvious visual hints to help guide players, such as flickering red walls to show the way. Approaching these prompts the pathways to gracefully unfold in front of you, meaning your exploration essentially helps construct the world itself.
Dinh explained the different play-style options will also have an impact on Recompile's story - something he describes as a "dynamic narrative".
"We want to be the first ever Metroidvania that has a branching narrative. If you think about Twine interactive fiction games, or Bandersnatch, or Netflix... we want to combine that with pure platformer Metroidvania gameplay.
"You can go round shooting and killing things, and that will lead you to a different path in the game than if you were to go around hacking stuff - that would be more peaceful and more stealthy."
It's certainly an ambitious idea, and one I can't wait to see in practice.
Beyond the game mechanics, Recompile is an interesting case study in how social media can be essential for the success of an indie game. After doing several tutorials and articles on how the team created the incredible effects, Dinh gathered a large following, which eventually led to the game being discovered by its now-publisher Dear Villagers.
The character design in Recompile seems to be the main reason for the success of these gifs - and this has an interesting backstory in its own right.
"We didn't have a character artist, so instead of hiring one or figuring out how to make a character, Vin, who is already a VFX artist and an animator, said, 'OK, how do I make the character just particle effects and purely animation?'
"We worked an idea where we asked 'how about the character is just a representation of pure energy?'. There's a scene in Hunger Games where Katniss is training in this holographic area while shooting holograms, and one of the characters had blocky effects there - so we made that.
"But really the answer is the constraints that we had: we didn't have a character artist, couldn't afford one, so we made a character that was just the effects, and then we tweeted about that and got 12,000 likes."
After three years in development, Recompile is due to release on PC sometime next year. According to Dinh, the long term plan is to bring it to a range of other platforms, but these are not ready to be announced just yet. For now, work continues on the narrative (with a newly-hired writer), while Dinh also has plans for a range of accessibility options (such as invincibility, one stick mode and a slower option).
"It's fine if people want to take advantage of that or not, I don't really care about the vision of the game as intended," Dinh explained. "We'll let people know how we want them to play but ultimately the more people who play the game, the better."
Given the potential shown in Recompile's demo stage, I can only agree.