The Spectrum Retreat is a neat narrative puzzle game we rather liked, thanks to a great setting and some very well conceived puzzles. It's a big achievement for Dan Smith -- a 20-year-old computer science student who built the game while balancing his university work. We were lucky enough to fire a few questions at the award-winning designer about how The Spectrum Retreat came to be.
Push Square: You won the BAFTA Young Game Designers Award back in 2016 for your ‘Spectrum’ prototype. How did you get to that stage, and had you always set out to make a puzzle game in particular?
Dan Smith: I won the award after 3 years of working on 'Spectrum', as it was called at the time. I began the project as a way to learn game development and went from there. Puzzle games are just a small part of my interest, but it's where I wanted to start. It's a nice place to begin, because it is so pure and logical. You're not worrying about the complexities of emergent gameplay or branching narratives. That's a nice place to start.
What happened between you receiving your award and the release of The Spectrum Retreat?
I continued development solo for a period and continued to pitch the game to publishers and investors. About 4 months after the YGD BAFTA win, I pitched to Ripstone and they understood the project better than anyone else. Once they came on board and the game was funded, I was able to be more ambitious. Over the next year we worked to create the game as you see it today and I'm really proud of what we've achieved.
How involved was Ripstone in the creation of The Spectrum Retreat? Did you enjoy working with them on the game?
Ripstone funded the project and their in house team also worked with me on development. They helped bring the game to a higher level of graphical fidelity and were instrumental in porting the game to console. They were great to work with and allowed for a bigger scope than I had originally planned.
The story in the game is pretty mature. How did the narrative side of the game come together?
We spent a lot of time working on the narrative side of the game and it was constantly evolving. I had decided on the premise before I pitched the game to Ripstone, but most of the events changed in some way by the time the final script came about. The beginning and end were unchanged, as well as the setting and tone. Giles Armstrong from [outsource game writing studio] Talespinners also came onboard and wrote a solid treatment that switched the focus of the story to escapism and we went from there.
What were your main influences or sources of inspiration when making The Spectrum Retreat?
The main inspiration was probably [PC first person puzzler] Antichamber. I really wanted to take the way it handled impossible spaces and apply it to a more graphically grounded experience. Films like Memento and shows like Black Mirror influenced the narrative a great deal as well. I tried to learn from those ideas and find a space for their tone and storytelling within games.
Creating a commercially released game while still studying at university must have been a tall order. How did you balance your academic work alongside The Spectrum Retreat?
It's been both the best and hardest year of my life, and balancing the two has been tricky. The game took priority and university took more of a backseat. I'm lucky in that, for the first year at least, I was familiar with a lot of the content I was learning at university so I was able to make things work. For a few months it was a case of university in the morning, game dev in the afternoon and evening, heading out at night then repeat. It's not sustainable and thankfully it doesn't have to be!
It’s quite a feat to have achieved this success at a young age. What advice would you give to young, aspiring game creators?
I think the best advice I can give is to think of something small and make it. See it through to completion and make sure it works. Good or bad you'll learn a lot. The tools and resources that exist for free basically eliminate a lot of the barriers to entry, if you're motivated enough... just do it! The smaller you keep the scope, the more likely it is you'll succeed.
We'd like to thank Dan Smith for taking the time to answer our questions. The Spectrum Retreat is out now on PS4. Have you played it? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.