Cell: emergence

Interview: Sheldon Pacotti

From leader writer on the first two Deus Ex titles, to novelist and now Indie game developer.

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Sheldon Pacotti has had a varied career thus far. His latest project, Cell: emergence, is an intriguing indie title that blends tactics-based arcade action with Pacotti's ideas - "simulation, emergence, choice" - into a compelling whole.A trailer was recently released showcasing the game's remarkable design. We talked to Sheldon about the project, discussing his interest in the digital domain, and his thoughts on the game industry and the latest Deus Ex.

Obviously when Deus Ex is mentioned there's preconceived notions that come with it, to such a degree Cell seems a complete curveball in comparison. Did you intentionally want to create something so different to strike out further afield?

Sheldon: The grass is always greener, as they say. After a decade as a salaried employee in the game business, I had the itch to do something completely small and adventurous - and I didn't want to miss the "app" revolution, as I missed the Internet revolution by sitting in coffee shops writing short stories.

Nevertheless, I actually see Cell as an extreme manifestation of ideas that appear in the Looking Glass games and run through Deus Ex and games like it - simulation, emergence, choice. With about a million dynamic cells, the game may be one of the densest simulations out there, and "emergence" is an inherent part of cellular automata. I've had to experiment extensively with emergence, finding - somewhat to my disappointment - that quite a bit of predictability needs to be crafted into a simulation, in order for players to have any fun.

So, really, I think Cell is a logical extension of work I've done before, just on a deeper and somewhat theoretical plane.

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Cell: emergence

How long has the game been in development for?

Cell has taken about three years to create, though during one of those years the project was mostly dormant. Roughly speaking, it took about a year to create the underlying technology and then another year to design and build a game in collaboration with a small team.

Can you detail exactly how these interactive voxel cells work, and how they factor into gameplay?

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The world of Cell is built from "living" blocks of color, meaning that everything you see can grow, transform, or be consumed. There are Membranes (which you must protect), Growth (the purple infection that wants to devour the patient), Germs, T-cells, Antibodies, and a variety of substances you can deploy. Though the graphics look low-fi, they exactly represent the complexity of the gameworld. Cell doesn't lie - every speck of color has meaning. Despite appearances, the game is as complex as many much more realistic-looking games.

Players almost never see the actual game they are playing. If they did - if all that were rendered on-screen were collision hulls and the like - I think they would lose interest in contemporary games pretty quickly. I see Cell as a glimpse into a future time, when simulation will run much deeper in games, and we'll all be fighting self-replicating slime-molds from Alpha Centauri. (With flame-throwers.)

Following from that, what form does gameplay take? Is this an on-rails shooter that has you eradicating specific colours, and what's the endgame? Is this a Score Attack title?

The "sweet spot" for Cell, mostly manifested in the later levels, is tactics-based arcade action. Though the goal is generally consistent - protect Membranes and destroy pathogens (i.e. "survive," no points involved) - there are both destructive and constructive tools at the player's disposal. You have the choice to neglect pathogens momentarily - to, for instance, open a flow of Antibodies by constructing a Buckyfiber pathway from a T-cell. You can build up both defensive and offensive capabilities this way - but you're under extreme time pressure, due to the nasty nature of the disease. Without building up an RPG character or branching the story, you're nonetheless choosing different paths through a level via second-to-second tactics.

Cell: emergence

Are the art stills we see in the trailer indicative of story cut-scenes?

Cell has a spare but eventful storyline. It follows Eva Lozano, a pepenadora or "trash digger" from a Mexico City slum, as she succumbs to a mysterious disease - and as she is defended by what ultimately turns out to be an even more mysterious cure (you).

I'm a big believer that for gameplay to be compelling it must be meaningful. It must be "meaningful play," to take the phrase from Zimmerman and Salen's _Rules of Play_. So I strove to give Cell just enough story to heighten the action. Often, the scenes are no more than 2 or 3 panels, like Pac-man cut scenes - an amount of story appropriate to an arcade-style game.

Why this graphical style? Was it a budget decision or are you eager to go down the Jeff Minter route?

I had no interest in cashing in on the 8-bit trend. I deliberately confined myself to showing only visuals that convey game-state - a sort of extreme experiment to see if I could create enough game-state to allow compelling visuals to emerge on their own. When I watch the title screen roll - accompanied by an ethereal title track by Logan Middleton - and watch Growth surging and falling back, Germs sprouting, Antibodies dancing through the translucent Membrane... I feel like I've succeeded.

And keep in mind... all of this was created with an eye toward the next generation of hardware, which will offer much greater resolutions - and many more game types - than I can achieve today with the simple vertex shader I'm using in XNA (Microsoft's indie game SDK).

What was the interest in releasing this on Xbox Live's Indie Channel? What's your thoughts on Microsoft's digital platform?

I've been very enamored about digital distribution from the beginning - the idea that small, strange cultural artifacts can find their way to small, strange audiences via the magic of the Internet - so to me Microsoft's Indie Channel was a happy development for gaming. Hinted at well before the creation of the iPhone app store, it was one reason I struck out on my own.

Cell: emergence

Will we see this on other platforms like iOS?

I love Apple's SDK and tools, too, but Cell will remain a PC and Xbox Indie title. Something Cell-like might make its way to Windows Phone, but that's about it. Thanks to hundreds of pages of C# code, I'm in bed with Microsoft for the near future.

Do you think the gaming industry's split into vast blockbuster titles at one end, and Indie titles at the other is a natural progression, and is there still room for middle-tier titles?

I'd like to think that in the Internet age markets of all sizes can coexist. The only difference is that "middle tier" can't mean "so-so knockoff of a top-tier game;" it has to mean games that honestly serve some sizable sub-population.

What do you think of Human Revolution now, as we believe you had some input right at the start of development?

Human Revolution is looking great. The team in Montreal approached the franchise with complete reverence. From the glimpses I've had into the effort, I can say that they've honed the gameplay, art style, and story with a rigor I haven't seen anywhere else. I can't wait to play it!

Cell: emergence

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"I had no interest in cashing in on the 8-bit trend. I deliberately confined myself to showing only visuals that convey game-state."

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