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Exploring time with the Tessallation crew

Remember Tessallation? I talked about it a few days ago as one of the stranger and more intriguing titles I’d played with in recent months. It features a girl with a Tetris block/Rubiks cube head, cryptic clues about a Poly War, childrens’ drawings of people with calculators, NES controllers and all sorts of other weird and wonderful things… as their heads. Oh, and did I mention that Tessa can create infinite versions of herself and watch their actions play-out through time?

Yup, Tessallation is a strange game, with good gameplay mechanics and striking visuals. What’s most impressive about it though, is that it was created by a bunch of graduating students. To find out what they plan to do next and if we’ll ever see more of Tessa, I had a virtual sit down with the guys behind the game to ask them what’s what.

Needless to say, this interview does contain some “spoilers” for the game, so if you want to give it a try first, download it for free, here.

For the purpose of this interview, KitGuru’s questions will be prefaced with “KG,” and the Tessallation team, “TT.”

KG: Hey guys, thanks for speaking with me. For those that haven’t had a chance to play Tessallation yet, can you give them a quick run down of what it’s all about?

TT: Tessallation is a first-person puzzle game in which you play (and replay) as Tessa, a gradeschool girl exploring a school and the potential of your own time-traveling talents. You have the ability to record every interaction with the world and loop back in time to branch as many paths in time as you want. We introduce puzzles that would otherwise be impossible without multiple versions of yourself.

[yframe url=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yy4BJsymaYw’]

KG: Not exactly simple concepts. How many people worked on the game?

TT: Our team consists of six people, all recent graduates from DePaul University. As a final graduation requirement, students form small studios and work over the course of six months to produce a complete game experience. This game is that result! Our members include Kristen Lambert–character artist and animator, Graham Gilreath–sound designer, Eric Spevacek– systems programmer and creator of pretty effects, Chris Klein–tutorial designer and environment artist, Sean Cannata–level designer, and David Bayzer–a little of everything and specular mapper extraordinaire.

Team Tessa works hard… and plays hard.

KG: A lot of time and work has obviously gone in to Tessa’s world. Why release it for free?

TT: Given that this began as a student project, we never really focused on developing a product that we could turn a profit on. We’re all very young in our development careers and scoped this project accordingly, aiming for a shorter but more polished experience. There is a replayability of sorts, but we didn’t work on the project with any ideas for monetization – it just didn’t feel right. Our goal was to make a fun game people would want to play. Most importantly, we wanted to make a game we liked that really pushed our abilities as developers. If we had intended to make this game for profit, it probably wouldn’t have turned out the way it did.

KG: Time travel has featured in a few other games, but not really to the extent of having an infinite loop of protagonists all helping each other. What made you go down that route when creating Tessallation?

TT: Well, we definitely did as much research on games with time travel mechanics as we could, early on. So we’re actually aware of a lot of the games we’ve been compared to– Portal, Braid, a certain section in Ratchet and Clank, In the Company of Myself, etc. We love those games, but we think the main difference between ours and them, is that most time related puzzle games aren’t in first-person 3D, and for Ratchet and Clank, it isn’t the main mechanic. There’s this really playful, really trippy experience of seeing your own actions play out in third-person, when they’d originally been experienced in first-person. You don’t get that in the other titles.

Movies inspired us too though. Ones like Looper and the Time-Turner from Harry Potter got talked about a lot. We were also inspired by a wide variety of things for the game’s setting and art style, but that’s another story.

KG: Well with that in mind, what the hell is going on in Tessa’s world? Why are there giant squirrels? Whale memorials? Block heads? Poly Wars? The wall pieces with square cutouts?

TT: We really don’t want to say. There is lore behind the world and everything you see (like Boris the Whale’s Memorial Statue and the classroom about the Awblock Family) goes together. But the vague nature of the objects was designed to have players create their own lore and meaning. Some are just Easter eggs and references to things we like, though. Haha. We were just trying to have some clever fun with it. We at least wanted to set up a crazy world to build on in the case that we do take development further. There’s a bunch of fantastic narrative and meta-narrative ideas we’ve thrown around and they’ve sorta trickled their way into the current game in small bits and pieces.

The wall sections are just non-interactable doors. They’re there to make the game world seem bigger than it actually is.


KG: It’s all certainly intriguing. Does the lack of people have something to do with the world’s ethos too?

TT: Earlier in the project, we intended there to be more interaction with other characters. However as development went on, we really ended up designing more of the environment and the character than the story. As development continued, we played with a few ideas for other interactions for the player to have, but as time dwindled we decided it was better to have a more solid game without extra characters or forced story. This comes down to one of the first things the team bonded over: things we hated about games. One of those things, was a forced story.

Originally, the refrigerator (KG: the game’s occasional, psuedo-antagonist) was actually intended to be a bully, another object-headed student. But various iterations actually led the team to decide that having something that’s supposed to be inanimate act as the “bully” actually kind of held it’s own weird appeal and charm. There ARE other people in this world– and they’re all object-headed like Tessa is. That’s hinted at in the environment, as well as in the credits, which features portraits of us envisioned as object-heads ourselves. They’re just not present in the game. “Why” exactly that is, is up to the players to decide.

KG: So come on then, when are you going to turn Tessallation into a full game?

TT: Right now we’re all just out of school and half the team is still looking for stable jobs. Some of us are set, and some of us have temporary or contract positions, but we’re all trying to get settled before embarking on anything overly adventurous. We’re still motivated, and at this point, all the systems are in place to easily produce a lot more content, but the real-world comes first. We are discussing submitting to IGF come October, so some improvements, bug fixes, and polish are definitely in the works. We’re going to have to wait until we all settle down post-school to determine exactly how much more content we’re going to be able to create though.

KG: If it’s a question of money though, you could look into a Kickstarter campaign? I hear all the kids are doing it these days…

TT: Our school professor and project advisor really wants us to! He has told us multiple times that we have something special and that it could be worth it. Some of us aren’t a fan of the Kickstarter process and would rather pursue other ways of selling content though. What we offered everyone now for free would be just a taste in comparison to what the project could really turn into if we pushed it to our creative limits. Maybe there’s potential for releasing various “Acts” in a similar vein to how Chicago-friend developers of Kentucky Route Zero pitched their project. Greenlight is always a possibility as well since 3 of us got passes from GDC this year.We definitely feel that there’s a spark of an idea here, and that has the potential to be something more, but again, we’re just graduating, have a lot on our plates, and at the moment don’t know whether or not forming a company together would be very feasible. Moving from graduation to the professional world is kind of a really big transitional time in anyone’s life– it’s hard to say exactly what we will or won’t be doing over the new few years. To actually  sit down and make this a full game, we’d probably need to buckle down, bring in more help.

Right now, we’re just focusing on making it a nice little package and continuing to polish and expand it for IGF.

In Tessallation, you’re never alone

KG: So let’s speculate for a second. Say you do end up taking Tessa on a full length adventure, where is she headed? What sort of story can we expect?

TT: Everybody has their own ideas of what else we’d love to add to the experience. Again, there’s still a huge amount of creative energy behind us, but we were mostly limited in terms of our scope and deadlines to complete the student requirement aspect of the project. Our designers want to push the mechanic even further (we have some damn hilarious ideas), our character artist wants more characters obviously, our programmers want to re-write all the horrible old code. We agree that there’s a deficit of narrative to the game and not a completely satisfactory ending. This would be something we would definitely address. We don’t want a story with characters talking necessarily, but something to give the player that sense of progression and understanding of their character and the world. We have tons of subtle and hinted-at lore but nothing structured yet.

KG: Well whatever you end up doing, good luck with it. Tessallation is a fun game as is and I’d recommend all puzzle loving KG readers give it a try.

A big thank you to all the guys who worked on Tessallation for taking the time to answer my questions. If you want to learn more about the game, you can head to the official site, follow the developers on Twitter here, here, here and here, or check out the official Facebook page.

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