There’s a brand new game out of the NYU Game Center. Meet Gemini, in which players navigate a star through a series of colorful, futuristic tableaux set to music. It was built by Atlas Chen and Nick Zhang, both graduates of NYU’s MFA program in game design, in collaboration with graphic designer Kevin Chen, composer Tony Yen and technical artist Zack Zhang.
The game is designed as a metaphor for life’s journey, as Chen explains on his personal website. The star each player navigates moves in tandem with another star, and it’s up to the player to figure out how both interact. (The game designers “began with the idea of building an emotional and meaningful relationship between the player and a non-player character,” Gemini’s website reads.) After one round of play, the game unlocks a two-player mode, so that players can invite friends to join. It’s set up as a quest, and the different scenes draw from cultural influences such as Greek mythology and Buddhist teachings.
Gemini has already racked up a slew of recognition, including being selected in 2015 as a winner at the Independent Games Festival‘s Student Showcase in San Francisco and a finalist for South by Southwest‘s Gamer’s Voice award. It also landed the title of “New Game You Love” on the Apple Store last Friday.
Gemini is currently available for the iPhone at a promotional price of $2.99. Watch the trailer for the game below.
Technical.ly caught up via email with Chen, the game’s lead developer, on why he sees video games as a medium for exploring culture and spirituality.
How did you get into game design?
When I was only 12, I started creating custom campaigns, or gameplay scenarios, with the map editor of a game called Age of Empires II and joined Hawk Studio, an online group of Age of Empires campaign designers in China. Over the years, I made 13 campaigns and learned so much about the craft of game design: from word building to gameplay design, from storytelling to difficulty balancing, from building a beautiful scene to implementing music and sounds.
In this non-commercial environment, we made games simply because we loved it. It wasn’t unusual to see a designer spend one to three years working on a game. I learned a lot from making games with those great designers, and I saw this value of games as a medium of culture and meaning.
Why did you decide to come to NYU?
NYU’s game design program is not like many others. It is focused on games, design and scholarship. It honors the idea that games matter, that it is not just a branch of interactive media or an evolution of motion pictures. Chess and Go are ancient games we have played for thousands of years. I wanted to answer a question: Why do I want to be a game designer, instead of a filmmaker or a writer, if my purpose was to present cultural values in my works? And I found my answer here at NYU.
You’ve spoken in the past about the difference between games in China and the U.S. How do you incorporate those cultural and artistic influences into your work?
"It's more meaningful to to be egoless, be transparent, find something more universal and fundamental and express it in an art form that is meant to reach everyone."
I think I’m less like a typical gamer that plays a lot of games. I’m more influenced by the broader culture outside of games. When I was in China, as a fan of Age of Empires, I got really into Western history and culture. I could talk about the legend of Richard the Lionhearted for three hours nonstop with friends. In my Age of Empires campaigns, there were a lot of stories and settings influenced by medieval chivalry.
When I just arrived in New York, everything was so fresh. Visiting MoMA and seeing modern art was a shocking experience to me. Then I fell in love with the beauty of minimalism. I started to create a bunch of experimental games with radically innovative mechanics, such as a game that needs no control, a game without failure and a game without graphics.
But after one year’s innovating for the sake of innovating, I felt my creative passion was being sucked out. More and more I began to recognize that part of me is still deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture, which places more emphasis on universal values than on individualism or innovation.
As an artist, you can try making something very personal to stand out, and it will definitely cater to a niche of fans sharing your taste, but it will also turn off others. Or, you can try to be egoless, be transparent, find something more universal and fundamental and express it in an art form that is meant to reach everyone. Either way is fine, but to me, I feel the latter one is more meaningful and fulfilling.
How did you come up with the idea for “Gemini”?
I’ve been reluctant to talk too much about our inspirations in the past. So if anyone reading this hasn’t played the game, I would suggest playing it first.
The summer before my thesis year at NYU Game Center, I played Journey at [Gemini developer] Nick [Zhang]’s and was amazed. One day, an idea came into our discussion. Could we create a relationship between the player and a non-player character that is as meaningful and emotional as the bonds of the two human players emerging in Journey?
Later, however, I wasn’t contented with this single descriptive goal. I was reading some psychology and mythology books at that time and was fascinated by the idea of mental growth and spiritual transcendence: becoming something bigger than yourself, maturing. I spent an afternoon explaining the idea to Nick, and he agreed to add it as a separate goal to the project.
After setting the design goals, everything was still in the air. At that time, we attended the Indie Speed Run game jam and were assigned a theme, which was “constellation.”
“Hm, constellation? What is your constellation?” I asked Nick.
“Isn’t that perfect? We can make a game about two stars!”
— Gemini (@geminithegame) August 26, 2016
What was the process of developing it like? Three years sounds like an intense process.
It was intense. Gemini’s design goals and core mechanism are so special that there weren’t many games that we could use as good references. In most games, when an AI (artificial intelligence) companion is introduced, in order to not annoy the player, it will always be either so totally controllable that it feels like a lifeless tool and object, like the hostage in Counter-Strike or merely helpful (or at least not a goofy drone that drags down your progress) like Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite.
We wanted to use game mechanics, the behavior of the AI, to create a character with its own personality that cannot be totally understood, and thus feels alive. Gemini’s little star can never be someone like Elizabeth because it is not a just an extra helper, and you are totally dependent on it to fly.
The lack of similar games meant that we were mostly on our own. We had to do tons of research, design and prototypes to achieve our design goals. We were still making fundamental changes to the rules of a chapter in a very late stage of development, which is normally a no-no in the game industry.
And to make it even harder, we were so ambitious wanting to stick to having no text. We were definitely inspired by thatgamecompany’s works on this, but as a game designer who previously used texts and cut-scenes a lot, I also wanted to learn to build a narrative with gameplay instead. I think that is the beauty of games. They honor human free will more than other media and arts.
In the whole experience of Gemini, the player is told no goal, no rule and no direction. This means you need to teach the player to do things without words and ugly arrow symbols, which resulted in hundreds of play-test sessions and more than 70 iterations of the game.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in developing the game?
After we decided to make Gemini a commercial product, the reality of the world of commerce hit hard. We had a promising publishing deal get canceled all of a sudden after 10 months of intense collaboration, which was heartbreaking to both parties. We had no luck looking for another publisher because the game is too experimental and commercially risky. We went into debt as recent graduates lacking funding and incomes, and we had to find freelancing opportunities while working on “Gemini” in tandem.
We faced challenges applying for a visa to stay and work in the U.S. as Chinese students. Our artist Kevin [Chen]’s visa petition wasn’t successful, and he had to return to China this spring. My parents asked me to get a real job every time we had a phone call. Nick began working on his plan for a new startup in China. The team got fragmented over time. Sometimes it felt that we would never make it.
But we had worked so hard on this game. I couldn’t let go of it. In the end, I didn’t follow my parents’ advice to look for a job and was determined to work on it full-time until its release. In the past eight months, I was mostly sitting in my room working on the project all alone. I occasionally met with Nick to implement music and sounds he got from Tony [Zen], or with Zack [Zhang] to get his design feedback and technical consultations.
Gemini is more of a mission to me. I want it to be there. It was the same desire when I spent three years designing an Age of Empires campaign in my childhood. Nostalgia.
What’s next for you, in terms of game design?
I haven’t had time to make concrete plans. After a game launches, you have to help make sure it works on everyone’s personal device. You need to rest your mind and your soul. I hope I can continue to contribute to work that helps people to learn, to reflect and to grow.
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