FRACT OSC 'the intersection of traditional puzzle mechanics with creative musical tools'

Indie developer Phosfiend Systems had been working on its musical puzzle adventure game FRACT for a couple of years now. Recently rechristened as FRACT OSC, the first-person game with a Tron-like aesthetic has evolved quite significantly since the initial prototype demo was released back in 2010. Hot on the heels of an impressive new video diary that was recently unveiled (check it out for yourself, below!), I reached out to Phosfiend Systems' founder Richard E. Flanagan to suss out some details about the game's rather dramatic improvements, which include synthesizing the game's musical components in real-time.


The abstract world in which FRACT OSC takes place is comprised of colorful geometry. In the game, players explore and solve puzzles that bring life back to the world's broken-down machinery. The sound of the world and its various puzzles are synthesized in real-time, and can be manipulated by the player, in many cases, to create original and malleable soundscapes. As it turns out, FRACT OSC's current state is much closer to Flanagan's initial vision for the game, one that he feels Phosfiend is much closer to realizing.

"It certainly has come a long way!" Flanagan said. "And to be honest, what we are currently doing with the game is probably closer to what I had originally envisioned for the world of FRACT, even back in 2010."

Flanagan, Henk Boom, and Quynh Nguyen make up Phosfiend's lean staff of developers. When I contacted Flanagan, I noted how noticeably the game has improved from the 2010 prototype (which can still be downloaded for PC and Mac from the official website).

"The idea for FRACT had been brewing for a long time in my mind, and the prototype only began to touch on what I had always wanted to achieve," he said. Back then, Flanagan was flying solo, and teaching himself to use the Unity engine for the first time. "It was far from perfect, and there were a lot of things I was unable to achieve due to the technical constraints (ie. my lack of programming skills)," he admitted.

"After the IGF last year, we decided to try and take it further and got our technical director Henk Boom on board," Flanagan explained. "That's been a huge factor in the game's evolution, allowing us to some really cool stuff with audio. It let us aim for what I had always wanted to do, which is to have real musical creation be a much more integral part of the game."

Achieving this goal has required some serious iteration. "We've actually bulldozed and paved over the world three or four times since that first prototype," he said. "The tools we've developed along the way have equally influenced the direction and design of the game, which takes us to where we are now."

BOOM video 12003

As you can tell from the most recent developer diary for FRACT OSC (above), synthesizing all of the synth sounds in FRACT OSC in real-time, is far more than just a gimmick. In the developer video, for example, there are a number of instances where the player can tweak the sound of their compositions using colorful dials. The change in audio is computed on-the-fly based on the player's actions. "There are a lot of advantages to this approach, in that it allows for a much greater degree of flexibility and musical expression for the player," he explained. "Also, it better emulates the experience of using real music-making tools, which was something we were hoping for. If we do our jobs right, there will be a better sense of ownership and implication on the player's behalf when it comes to the sounds they create."

Designing puzzles around these tools of player agency, however, can be a tricky and challenging proposition. First qualifying that "there is still a lot left" for the team to "nail down," Flanagan illustrated the key challenge is effectively balancing the tools with the gameplay and puzzles.

"The difficulty lies in the fact that we are trying to design puzzles--in the context of this strange world--while at the same time trying to introduce and teach the player about some of these musical tools," he said. "So we're finding that gameplay lies at the intersection of traditional puzzle mechanics with creative musical tools, and as such, is an interesting (and difficult) feat to try to achieve."

The impressive virtual "studio" featured in the latest FRACT OSC gameplay video also begs questions about how it will ultimately be utilized in-game. I told Flanagan--solely based on the recent video--that its functionality seemed very "robust," and "perhaps even a little intimidating."

It was reassuring to hear that Phosfiend Systems' plan is to educate and empower the player gradually. "One thing to keep in mind," Flanagan assured me, "is that the tools in the studio become available to the player after they've progressed through the game and have been introduced to some of these ideas in the context of gameplay. So the hope is that by the time they arrive in the studio and have access to these tools, they will be more familiar."

Given how much control over the music FRACT OSC's virtual studio seems to give to players, I also asked Flanagan to equate it to a real-world counterpart. Flanagan responded:

The tools in the studio are by no means supposed to capture the complete range of capabilities of a digital audio workstation - we'd like to think of it more as a primer for future musical exploration. That's not to say that we won't offer a lot of control to players to allow them a good range of musical expression. We want to make sure it is still accessible and fun for people of all different musical (or even non-musical) backgrounds.

Of course, when you give folks the ability to create music, they'll often bring along a desire to save and share those creations. Though nothing concrete has been decided, Flanagan and company seem hip to that idea, as well as the notion of post-release improvements. "There are a lot of things we would like to try in the FRACT world in the future. So if the game does well, this will hopefully allow us to push it further," Flanagan told me. "However, saving and sharing remains one of our top priorities for FRACT OSC, but we're still evaluating the best way to go about it."

FRACT OSC is still in active development, and though Phosfiend Systems doesn't have a specific release date yet, the team is currently pushing towards a number of different milestones. Flanagan says that the game will see a release on PC and Mac "sometime in 2012."