This Indie Developer Focus series is going to focus on the students of University of Southern California's Interactive Media Program. These students are all part of the program and they worked on games throughout the school year. When I went to Demo Day a few weeks ago, I saw games of all types, from first person space exploration, to fighting games, to art games. USC hosts many international students, and one of them is Miguel Oliveira, from Portugal. His game is Thralled.
The game impressed me, with its striking visuals, and clever gameplay. I played it for a little while at the show. It was on the iPad, and at first I was a little lost. Oliveira approached me with a smile and handed me some headphones. The sound effects were integral to the game. The bundle I kept setting down so I could push a cart around was in fact, a crying infant. And the thunder of my shadow self stalking me from the edge of the jungle got my heart racing a little. I knew I wanted to talk with Oliveira, and he agreed to an interview.
VGG: How many people were involved in Thralled? What was your specific involvement?
Oliveira: "On and off, a total of 24 people worked on Thralled. The team was composed of USC students from various programs, except for our composer and our sound designer, who worked with us from the Berklee School of Music in Boston. We also had advisers and faculty members accompanying us throughout the process. I served as the creative director and lead designer."
VGG: Who came up with the idea and what was the motivation behind creating the game?
Oliveira: "I came up with the concept because I am interested in discussing the themes that Thralled approaches – slavery, and how the relationship between a mother and her child is conditioned in such extreme circumstances – through interactive media. I am a strong believer that interactive entertainment has an enormous amount of potential to deliver highly emotional and intellectual experiences that can be impactful and influential, that can shape a person in the same manner literature and film can. We want Thralled to be such an experience.
Going back to the theme of the game, slavery - I decided on this topic because I grew up in Portugal, which was the nation that pioneered the Transatlantic Slave Trade and under which most Africans were enslaved. It is estimated that 30 to 50% of enslaved people at the time were taken to the Portuguese colony of Brazil. Nevertheless, this is barely ever mentioned in school curricula or popular media. These were about 5 million people that my ancestors tied in chains at the holds of crammed slave ships, and forced to work for 16 hours everyday on sugarcane plantations – In my view, the topic is not talked about often enough and is not handled seriously enough, and I want to bring it up to discussion."
VGG: What are your plans for completing the game?
Oliveira: "Now that the academic year is over, Tiffanie (producer) and I are trying to reassemble a team and work on Thralled over the summer. We’ll see how it goes from there."
VGG: What are your plans for when you finish school? Will you go into video game design?
Oliveira: "I am planning to go into game design, yes! I actually just finished school, and my immediate plans are to get a game design job and keep working on Thralled!"
VGG: What started your interest in making video games?
Oliveira: "Again, I think that video games have immense potential in regards to storytelling and emotional/intellectual impact. I also think that that potential is mostly unexplored. I am interested in game development because I want to create experiences that explore interactive media’s artistic potential."
VGG: What do you want people to take away from Thralled?
Oliveira: "We want people to stop and realize thoroughly that slavery happened and that it still happens on a widespread scale, and really feel how repulsive that is. Really realizing the things that are wrong in the world might well be a good step to encourage people to make it better."
VGG: What were some unexpected challenges you faced in the creation of the game?
Oliveira: "In terms of design, it was finding the mechanics that fell in line with the plot. Since our story is told exclusively through gameplay and environment aesthetics, that was quite a challenge. However, I admit that managing the team was the biggest hurdle. The team was exclusively made of students who had other classes and commitments, and who couldn’t devote as much time and dedication as a professional team would, and managing around that was quite difficult."
VGG: Can you tell me a little about the game design program at USC?
Oliveira: "The USC Games program encompasses two fields of study - Interactive Entertainment, which is a part of the Cinema School, and Computer Science Games, inside the Engineering School. I majored in the former. The interactive entertainment program is very much focused on design, and on teaching its students such things as the iterative process of game development and the value of play testing. We embark on a number of small projects over our first 3 years in college and usually, during our last year, work together with engineers from the Computer Science program on a big 1-year project. These projects are selected from amongst a number of pitches that a faculty board must green light - Thralled was such a project."
Oliveira informed me that he was very proud the team was able to get together to make the game a reality. They've been thinking about an Android version as well, but that's far in the future. The game is also language neutral, which is nice for an international audience.
While it might be a while before Thralled is available for the public, it's still worth keeping an eye on. The game blurs the lines between serious and casual. Oliveira's development team worked hard on the visuals, the mechanics and the overall feel of the game. They took full advantage of the iPad's capabilities: players must change the orientation of the tablet in order to solve certain puzzles, the layers of graphics served to create a sense of depth and the excellent sound design pulls players into the world of Thralled. Best of luck to Oliveira and his team!
All images courtesy of Oliviera