Indies Like To Party -- Matt Parker's Recurse


Posted August 24, 2012 - By Danielle Riendeau

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Matt Parker’s Recurse is an iPad game developed specifically to make you feel like a happy goofball. A party/puzzle game with allusions to Dance Central and Fruit Ninja Kinect, it’s a camera-based exercise in simplicity – touch the green shapes, avoid the red, push for high scores, and share your goofy pictures with the world. With origins as an art show installation and NYU Game Center No Quarter exhibit, the title recently won the “Play This Now” award at Come Out and Play.

We were able to get in touch with developer Matt Parker and talk shop about the game’s arty origins, the importance of being playful, and the reasons why indies like to party.

I couldn’t escape feeling like I was playing a funkier version of a Kinect game – like Dance Central, only with posing. It was a really addictive experience, and I very much enjoyed it. So, let me ask – what are your goals for the game?

MP: Recurse, like most of my work, is about getting people to let them just let go and play. Have you ever walked by a schoolyard during recess? Kids are running around, flailing every part of their body in every possibly way, screaming at the tops of their lungs. They don't care what they look like, they don't care about looking cool, and they’re just full engaged in enjoying themselves.

Somewhere just before high school we lose that. With Recurse, I want to let adults (and kids, too!) get back to that kind of play. Plus I'd like to make enough money to support making more games like this.

Where did the idea/concept come from? I’d love to hear about the original inspiration and your design process.

MP: Recurse was originally commissioned by the NYU Game Center for their inaugural No Quarter Game Exhibition, in 2010. Frank Lantz, the director of the NYU Game Center, saw a piece I had created ("Crystal Solitude," 2008), which was a camera based new media art installation. Frank wanted me to create a cohesive game experience in a public place where players could wander up and interact.

I decided that the game would have to run on its own, using the camera as its only input. Since this was the pre-Kinect era, I was limited in what kind of input Recurse could support. I decided to use a simple image processing technique that could detect motion, but little else. In play testing, that led to lots of jazz hands, head shaking, and leg twitching, activities I fully wanted to encourage in public spaces.

Rather than have players press buttons, the installation version of Recurse just ran on a loop, automatically advancing from one screen to the next (party mode in iPad version does the same thing). One major design challenge was figuring out how to record high scores without any text input. How could I identify players for a leader board without them entering any information? Then it occurred to me: the game takes 30 pictures a second of players, why not use a single one of those frames instead of a name?

This actually led to a deeper level of play and is where the name "Recurse" is derived from. When a player achieves a high score, their picture is displayed on the high score screen. Then other players see the high score and see what position those players were in when they achieved that high score. They can then use that information to inform how they should play. If they get a high score, their image will inform future players and so on. This feedback creates a loop of human recursion, thus Recurse.

Indies Like To Party -- Matt Parker's Recurse

Has it changed much from its time at No Quarter? If so, could you describe the iterations of the game?

MP: Recurse has come a long way since No Quarter. After No Quarter, it was selected as an IndieCade finalist in 2010, and then displayed at game festivals and events around the world (FILE Games Rio, BabyCastles, Monitor Digital Festival Guadalajara, etc.). In January, I was invited to show Recurse at the American Museum of Natural History at an event called "Space Arcade." The amazing response it received that night from a very mixed audience was what convinced me to make the iPad version.

The basic game play (Move in the Green, Don't Move in the Red) is the same, but the iPad version is much more refined. I decided to use the touch screen as an input, which allowed for a lot more options, most notably letting the users select different game modes. There are 3 game play modes now: Shuffle (the original), Slide, and Survival.

While I loved the streamlined look designed by Rachel Morris the installation version, the iPad needed a completely different look and feel due to differences in screen size and audience. Colin Snyder and I came up with the new aesthetic the iPad version has now.

Most of our time creating the iPad version was spent attempting to make it clear how to explain a game like Recurse to an audience that was not familiar with interacting with their devices in this way. We experimented with several different ways of explaining the game, and eventually added the dreaded tutorial because it was just too foreign to most players without having a step-by-step explanation.

Also, the installation version would automatically upload your picture to a flickr stream if you achieved a certain score. In the iPad version, the players can choose to tweet or post their images to Facebook.

It seems like a fairly new trend that indies are reaching out and really adding to the party genre – what’s your take on this?

MP: I think Indies like to party! Seriously, I think some of is related to the fact that Indie developers often want to show their games at events and festivals. Some of my favorite indie games, like Johan Sebastian Joust and Hit Me!, only really work when you've got a lot of people around to play them and are even better when you have an audience. I think there's incredible untapped potential for games when you take them out of the living room and into public spaces.

Indies Like To Party -- Matt Parker's Recurse

Social sharing seems to be a big part of the experience. Do you think that’s inherent to the genre, like, having your friends see you acting goofy?

MP: I think we take ourselves too seriously in general and play allows us to get away from that. What I love about the photos from Recurse are not only that people are caught acting goofy, but usually have a big goofy grin on their face, too. I think it's important for people to let their guard down a little sometimes and let everyone see them just having a good time. Plus, who doesn't like to brag about a high score?

G4: Finally – I seriously cannot get the theme song out of my head. Who did you work with on the music, and how did you find the right tone for something that would be infectious without sounding cloying?

MP: The music and sounds for the iPad version were created by Ithai Benjamin. Ithai is a musical genius, always seeming to walk the line between the absurd and familiar. When Ithai and I got together and I showed him the game, he immediately had ideas for what would enhance the game experience and make it feel right for the audience we were targeting. I wish I could take more credit for the music, but honestly other than few minor adjustments, Ithai did it all. The man just knows how to make good music.

Danielle Riendeau is a freelance writer, digital media professor, and nonprofit communications ninja in San Francisco.

Tags: Indie Games, iPad
Indies Like To Party -- Matt Parker's Recurse


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