IndieCade 2011: Halcyon

Halcyon, an iPad game developed by Zach Gage in concert with his friend Kurt Bieg, was another impressive finalist at IndieCade this year. Released back in November of 2010, the game is described as a "generative instrument and puzzle," and leverages the device's elegant touch-screen functionality to create an easy to learn experience that starts off relaxing before it grabs you by the throat and demands that you keep calm.

At this year's festival, I was able to ask Gage a few questions about developing the critically-acclaimed iPad title (also recognized as an IGF finalist), and he dropped some hints about a couple of new iOS games he's got in the works.

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At its core, Halcyon is a simple matching game. A number of horizontal strings serve as pathways for triangular, multi-colored currents to travel across. The player's goal is simple: by dragging a finger from one string to the next, pathways are created that allow like-colored currents to connect, before they game-endingly collide with different-colored currents.

I had a lot of fun playing the game. It's very easy to grasp conceptually, and its intuitive touch-screen controls make it easy for anyone to hit the ground running. Though the first handful of levels were very easy for me to complete, the addition of more and more currents began to induce a pleasant sort of panic. I found that the more I was able to remain focused and calm--against the wishes of the multiplying currents--the better my success. "Be ZEN!" the game seemed to yell at me, while simultaneously upping its challenge. Can a game be both stressful and relaxing at the same time? Halcyon does a really great job doing exactly that.

Halcyon's musical component is also quite special. "It's all on top of this very complicated, but subtle, musical system," Gage explained. "The strings and the different levels are all representing different aspects of nature and humanity. As the currents move along the strings, they're also playing this instrument--which is the game." Case and point: tapping the strings creates sounds, as do moving the various currents. The end result is that that game's background music is created dynamically, as you play.

"We created our own music system for the game," Gage told me. "As the pieces get close to each other, it shifts all of the octaves that everything is happening on from major to minor. So, the actual background music shifts in this really subtle, but nice way to kind of inform you that you're in danger and change the tone of what you're playing."

Though Gage has found himself neck-deep in game design over the past year or so, he hails from a background in new media art. His artistic background is readily apparent in Halcyon's design. "My interest in all of this... 'touch' stuff, and all of Apple's stuff is all about exploring making very, very simple systems that are very, very deep," Gage said. "When I do conceptual art, I'm kind of exploring these systems that are in the world and finding ways to make them simpler so that I can craft things out of them that are interesting."

This desire is what also made the iPad such an attractive platform for Gage to explore. The goal with Halcyon was to "build a game that really took advantage of the iPad, but in a very natural way."

As it turns out, the way Gage designs games involves an inversion of the approach he takes to make conceptual art. "Instead of exploring a system, I'm creating a system for other people to explore," Gage clarified. "Being able to understand the system is really important to me. And so it starts with this very simple thing, but it leads you into these very complex interactions and ways that you can engage with it, because it's initially so simple."

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Halcyon has been available through the iTunes Store for over a year, and I asked Gage if he had any other projects in the works. He told me about two iOS games in the works, both of which fuse familiar game elements into a brand new experience. "[The first game] is called Scoundrel, and I'm not going to into the mechanics, but basically it's like a roguelike solitaire game. It has the moments of interesting choice that go into a roguelike--and the extreme difficulty and constant death--but it's also literally playable with a deck of cards."

The second project is an especially intriguing asynchronous game called Wardoku for the iPhone that Gage describes as a "sort of a mix between Chess and StarCraft."

"I know those are two big games to pick," he admitted, "but it has this resource-mining aspect from StarCraft, but is a board-based game, sort of like Chess. You would play it against somebody and try and kill their king." Wardoku, as the name suggests, also borrows a bit from the puzzle game Sudoku. "We've taken this idea from Sudoku, which is that you can never have a piece in the same row or column as the same type of piece, whether it's yours or your opponent's."

"So, it has this very deep strategy so that even if you don't understand the game, shows up very quickly," he said. "All of a sudden, the board is in this configuration you've never seen, and you have to figure out how to constrict your opponent in such a way that you'll be able to beat them, since it's so easy to block [attacks]." Gage then explained that Wardoku will only have a couple of different unit-types, but that each will serve strong defensive capabilities, as well as a special ability to help turn the tide of battle. It's a very intriguing concept, to say the least.

If you have an iPad and a couple of bucks burning a hole in your pocket (and haven't picked the game up, already), I really recommend checking out Halcyon. It can be grabbed for $1.99 from iTunes.