Expand was one of those unexpected gems of PAX. I’d never heard of it – let alone seen it – until I saw it on the expo floor. After playing it for a short while, I felt like it was necessary to find out where this astonishing game came from. To find out, I talked to the game’s designer and programmer, Chris Johnson.
So, Chris, what’s the reception been like here at PAX?
Chris: Aw, fan-f**kin’-tastic. It’s nuts, we’ve had people lining up for ages to play. The game is about two hours long, and we’re about 50% content complete, so we’ve got about an hour worth of content here, and we’ve got people sitting here and playing for an hour or more at a time. It’s kinda weird too because we don’t wanna kick people off the machines, but… Well, we haven’t done it yet, but you never know.
Where did you get the inspiration for Expand?
Chris: Expand started out as a game jam game back in 2010. For that jam, the theme was ‘The End of The World’. The game jam went for a week, so I started working working on a game inspired by Mario Galaxy where you’d have all these circular planets and you’d be sucked into a black hole in the centre. Towards the end of the week, I ran into some bugs that I couldn’t fix, stuff like people getting stuff between planets, all of that. So, I went to bed that night and had this kind of lucid dream that was basically what you see here. The last four years have basically been going through, on and off, and realising that dream, but it totally builds off of that original idea.
It’s quite a simplistic game, so how do you come up with ideas for the next puzzle?
Chris: The way I think about is from the base rule set. I pretty much came up with the idea of using polar coordinates from that game jam, and at that jam, I saw some interesting things. So then, I thought a lot about the rules, and I just sat for a long time and thought about the variations of those base rules. From there, the levels are pretty much there to serve those rules in different ways. So, they highlight different aspects of the system that are interesting or aesthetically beautiful or… I dunno, what fits in with that we’re trying to do. Most of the levels have an idea behind them, and, uh… Yeah. This game’s been in development for four years, and when you think about something for four years, you do end up with ideas.
When you play the game, it’s quite moving. Would you consider it an addition to ‘games as art’?
Chris: Yeah, a lot of people do say that. In response, I’ll just say that we care a lot about creating experiences that we think are important, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.
Your game is very unique and very simple. Would you say that that’s where it’s strength lies?
Chris: I mean, simple’s not a bad thing, right? Some of the best games are really simple games. Go is a really simple game. Go is also one of the best games ever made, probably better than any game on the show floor, you know? Simplicity is not a bad thing, and we use that in a way that is very beneficial. You look at all the games around us [Screencheat, Wave Wave], and we stand out. Partly because it’s high contrast, but partly because it’s so different. It’s different to the games that are different.
So, what are you hoping to get out of PAX?
Chris: A whole bunch of things. Last month we went to Tokyo Game Show, and we realised a whole bunch of problems we had had with the game. So, the open world bit, we reworked that, and that’s brand new for PAX. We’re getting feedback for it, as well as the later levels, because people are playing so long. The other thing is talking to the players and talking to press because no one seems to know about the game, which is a bit of a problem.
PAX Aus is like our coming out party. We put up a trailer for the game the morning of PAX, and that was done at 1am the day before. We’re pretty intense like that. Showing the game, publicly, in a big way to lots of people, and we’ve had a great response; meeting the press, talking to lots of people, it’s great.
If you’d like to keep up on Expand until it’s released in 2015, you can visit the game’s website.