THE SPECTRUM RETREAT
The Spectrum Retreat could be this year’s The Witness
”I’ve spent a quarter of my life making this game,” jokes Dan Smith, creator of the new colour-based, first-person puzzle game that could be this year’s breakout indie hit.
That statement sounds alarming. Just how many decades has Smith spent creating his puzzler? Not that many, it turns out. The 21-year-old has spent the past five years on The Spectrum Retreat, creating his first prototype aged 15 because he was “bored”.
That prototype won him the BAFTA for Young Designer Of The Year and gave him the impetus to turn an idea into a complete game. “There’s no escaping how much weight the BAFTA offered. It definitely opened doors. Because of the stage I was at, the game wasn’t public at that point, so it was a great way to get the game in front of people,” says Smith.
As well as landing him a publishing deal with Ripstone, which has ushered in a number of changes, Smith managed to get advice from his developer heroes. One of those was Thomas Was Alone creator Mike Bithell, who, Smith says, has “been really supportive of me, and has been there to offer advice, which is great. But I find that’s quite typical of most people I’ve met in the industry; people want to foster new people and help them progress.”
dev talk “When you’re attached so closely to a project [working on it for five years] I was so familiar with how the mechanics worked I could no longer be relatively objective about the whole experience.” Dan Smith Creator, The Spectrum Retreat
When it came to pushing his prototype on, Smith was encouraged by publisher Ripstone to add a narrative to offer an emotional connection to the puzzling.
Smith explains: “I definitely think it [the story] enhances the experience. It’s really nice, especially when you’re solving puzzles, to have a motivation. It allows you to attach something to the task you’re carrying out rather than being just arbitrary puzzles you have to complete in sequence.”
Inspired by his love of games as well as TV (Portal and Black Mirror are among his favourites) The Spectrum Retreat has you waking alone in the Penrose Hotel. It’s populated by mannequins that have a scary desire to stop you leaving.
THERE’S NO ESCAPING HOW MUCH WEIGHT THE BAFTA OFFERED.
To explore the hotel and escape you’ll need to prove your mental dexterity
with the game’s colour-themed puzzles. Using a gadget you can manipulate coloured blocks in the environment in order to navigate the levels and uncover clues to who you are and why the Penrose Hotel wants you to stay. Throw in head-spinning teleportation and gravity affecting rooms – you can walk on walls – and The Spectrum Retreat soon gets vexing.
Smith comments: “It’s simple in principle, but the way they [the coloured blocks] interact makes the puzzles more and more complicated. People will be surprised by how such simple mechanics can present such interesting and, ultimately, mindstretching puzzles.”
Smith tells us that ensuring the quality of the puzzles is maintained has been the biggest advantage of working with a publisher. He says he was “apprehensive about giving over control of the creative process,” but soon found having other people to bounce ideas off proved invaluable. Having spent five years working with the game’s mechanics, a simple puzzle for the Newcastle-based indie dev proved too difficult for his advisors at Ripstone. Not fun.
“Now, I tend to try to make things as hard as possible and then make them easier according to feedback,” he explains.
The key to making puzzles, says Smith, is that “every puzzle has to be unique in one way but still be recognisable by someone who’s played through the game.” The dev explains it’s very easy to make 10 puzzles in the same way once the core mechanics are understood, which is something he’s avoided doing in The Spectrum Retreat. “The rule I have is that if I show someone a screenshot of a puzzle they’ll be able to tell me ‘yes I remember that specific puzzle’.”
So has Smith finally found the formula for the perfect puzzle? He laughs, saying: “That’s a good question; I hope I’ve figured it out.” Watch The Spectrum Retreat trailer on YouTube: bit.ly/spectrum-retreat.
You can only hold one colour at a time but need to swap and match them to escape.
Just as it’s looking easy the game comes up with rooms like this.