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‘Glitchspace’ Wants to Teach Us How to Code By Actually Playing a Video Game

Space Budgie's puzzler might make you consider a career change; or, failing that, have you sympathising with the people who do coding for a job.

Mike Diver

Mike Diver

All screenshots via Steam

Glitchspace is the brainchild of Space Budgie, a small Scottish studio whose previous release, 9.03m, addressed the 2011 Japanese tsunami from the perspective of someone on a Californian beach, observing the objects washed ashore. It was short, and its makers didn't categorise it as a game, as such, more an interactive experience designed to stir feelings of empathy and remembrance. It came out in 2013 to a warm reception and made £10,000 for charity.

Glitchspace is more traditionally game-like, aesthetically, than what came before it. It plays from a first-person perspective, and its elevator pitch of being a minimalist-visuals puzzler where you have to overcome a series of challenges, almost in test chamber-style environments, has something of the Portals about it. The deep red objective blocks, set against lighter backgrounds, mark your path out a little like Mirror's Edge, too. But this is what you think you already know twisted into a form you've never encountered before. Progression in Glitchspace necessitates the learning of basic coding. In other words: to master Glitchspace, you have to become fluent in its own language.

And that's fantastic, isn't it? The very best way of learning something is by doing it, but to people coming in cold to game design the sheer verticality of the difficulty spike can be incredibly off-putting. Glitchspace looks to break that intimidation into an accessible curve, using simple visual stimulus to prompt players towards their goals. It's still a little bewildering, with its various nodes impacting on malleable programmes, allowing the player to shape the world around as they see fit, with late-game stages offering multiple paths to completion. But it doesn't take long for it to begin making sense – much like any other, more action-focused game's own set of rules and responses. I spoke to Space Budgie co-director Ronan Quigley about the studio's attempt to translate the complex field of coding for idiots like me.

VICE: I appreciate the game is set up to highlight the game-making process, to articulate it in such a way that the player can easily understand. Other games have attempted this, in various different ways – just recently we've had The Magic Circle, for example. So what is Glitchspace doing that's truly unlike any other game to take this approach before?
Ronan Quigley: As you say, other titles are about fundamentally reprogramming the game itself, and so with us, what we've taken inspiration from, at the start of making the game, were visual tools. Have you heard of something called Scratch? It's this online learning tool that you can use, and works sort of like a jigsaw, where you arrange pieces to create a programme. And that's catered towards a very young audience. So we looked at that for inspiration, and game development engines like Unreal, which has a blueprint system which is all visual scripting. We wanted to encapsulate that in a game, because most of the alternatives out there are very text based. To give you an example, one of the games that came out last year that explores similar ideas is TIS-100, but where we differ is in having a core essence of visual programming.

The look of the game alone is very striking, in its slick minimalism. That, presumably, is so as not to confuse the language of the game, to ensure that each element that the player needs to manipulate is easily found; it's just the "what you do with it" that comprises the challenge?
So if you looked at our game, as it was two years ago, it was really simple, literally just white backgrounds and simple geometry blocks. The problem we had with that, though, is that it was actually hurting people's eyes. We wanted to update the visual style, anyway; we just didn't have the resources back then. We wanted to keep the same philosophy of everything being simple and clean, though, and we didn't want a cluttered background. The player needs to be focused at all times on the programming aspects. So it was very much a conscious decision to keep the environments as clean as possible, and our artists were a lot more about using shape and form to create a sense of space. They took influence from Piet Mondrian, to create all those patterns you see on the walls and floors. The game isn't about the art style, of course – for us it's about trying to make the programming aspect at the forefront of the experience. So to achieve that, we needed to go minimalist.

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How simplified is the in-game coding, versus the level of coding necessary to make this game work, at all? What level of coding understanding would a player coming in cold to Glitchspace gain from playing it through?
When the game starts, it's all about really basic puzzles, which can be moving a platform up ten units, and we give you the number that you need to use. What you have is everything you need to use. Then you have nodes, which are like the building blocks of the programme that you're trying to create. Now, one of these nodes is called "move object forward", so that takes an input, which is measured in units, and that determines the length that any object moves in a given direction. We also have this thing called "abstraction" in the game – as you proceed it becomes more complicated, and you break apart the abstraction nodes, inside them is more sub-nodes which can combine together to create a new programme. So it's almost readymade, and we've simplified it in such a way to make it very accessible at the beginning. Towards the end, it's less about the abstraction stuff and more about having the player really think about how to approach the problem from a clean slate. So, we give you more tools, so you can combine creativity with logic, to try to overcome your surroundings.

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So there's no way it can be as complex as the process of actually making a game?
It's a complicated answer, really, because we did have it harder a couple of years ago. But the problem we ran into was that it'd be completely confusing for anyone who'd not done programming before. It was totally alienating. So for a game that was supposed to teach you about coding through play, that was defeating the purpose. In the end, we took everything a step back and sort of rebuilt the game, which took about a year. We worked with a local university to make sure we were speaking to people who'd never coded before. With this version, we've made the difficulty curve more consistent, so there's this sense of flow throughout the whole game.

And what about the response from people who can code, for real?
It really depends on who you ask. Generally, people from a coding background really like what we're doing. We've had people who've shown the game to their kids to encourage them to get into coding, who see it as a great learning tool. We managed to get the game into a couple of schools that way. The other side of the coin is when you have very experienced coders who've found it a little boring, because they want to rush into having all the nodes, and go into the finer details right away. So it's been a difficult balance to achieve, which is why the entire process has taken three years, to reach this point where we're content with where we're at.

Glitchspace is available now through Steam, with the Space Budgie team considering versions for other platforms. Find the studio online here.

@MikeDiver

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