Bright Ideas: Tracy Fullerton

An experimental developer leads gamers to enlightenment through savvy design.


Breathe in, slow down, and look around. Explore, and don’t for a second think about pulling out a gun or blowing a baddie away. In Tracy Fullerton’s games, enlightenment, not adrenalin, is the goal and getting there is a matter of thinking introspectively. The director of the University of Southern California’s Game Innovation Lab, Fullerton spent her pre-USC days developing game tie-ins for television shows like The Weakest Link, Jeopardy!, and Wheel of Fortune before moving to academia where she has served as faculty advisor on several student projects that hit the commercial markets, including flOw for PlayStation 3 and The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom for Xbox Live Arcade and PC.

Her current projects aim to break new ground in the gaming world by incorporating philosophy into play. The Night Journey, a game developed in tandem with video artist Bill Viola, requires players to explore inverted black and white landscapes with no obvious goal in mind, encountering narrative elements influenced by mystics ranging from the 13th century Islamic poet Rumi to St. Anthony along the way. The game has continuously been on exhibit at museums around the world for the past three years. Walden, a game adaptation of Henry David Thoreau’s transcendentalist book of the same name, offers a 3-D simulation of what Thoreau would have seen and experienced during his time writing the work at Walden Pond. The goal, for both projects, is for players to use the games as new ways to look inward and explore ideas of philosophy and enlightenment by actually playing through them. 

Get In Media: When you start a concept as nebulous as enlightenment, how do you start the process of figuring out the best way to capture that broad idea in a game?

Tracy Fullerton: [The idea for the mechanics of The Night Journey] came from a very long set of discussions that the team had with [artist] Bill [Viola] and sitting in front of different inspirations that we would bring in, pictures and pieces with Bill, possible visual styles. We would sit there for hours and have these discussions around what the potential interaction would be, what the feeling and the tone would be. We would go away and we’d make more prototypes and bring them in and have another discussion and kind of meander toward a solution. … I specifically remember the moment when we knew we had it. It was a general moment when everyone’s like, “Yes, this is it. This is the direction.” There were so many failed prototypes that went into that process, but that’s just part of it. That discovery process is core to what we do.

With Walden, it’s interesting because rather than having a person like Bill, an artist whose vision we could go to and see, does this work? Are we touching the same idea? Are we grasping the same idea? We have Thoreau. We have his words. We have this kind of relationship with an artist, but from far away in time and place. When we decided to start the game in earnest, I went out and bought copies of Walden for the whole team and we just started reading and started talking. In a similar way as with The Night Journey, we started thinking about Thoreau and what he meant and what he was trying to do. Once you start reading Walden with the eye of how can this be made into an activity, a system, a game play experience, you start to realize that Thoreau was in equal parts a scientist and a poet. The book reflects that. It’s equal parts system and equal parts philosophy, poetry. We kind of started with the system and allowed the system to inform the underlying mechanics of the game. Allowing the rest of the more expressive, philosophical, and poetic ideas to inform the visual design and feeling of the environment.

GIM: For Walden, what did you try that just didn’t work?

TF: [Laughs] We were really successful in Night Journey in integrating video into the piece and we really loved how that turned out. I had this vision that we might be able to use video again as part of the experience. I literally went out and shot all this test video with my brother acting as Thoreau and it was horrible. It was just the wrong thing to do. It’s funny how games just tell you. They just reject these ideas that you think.

GIM: Both games are radically different, even from some of the more popular experimental games. When you’re creating something that’s going to have a radically different design, do you have a specific process for coming up with that design?

TF: Yeah. First of all, I almost always work in teams. That’s just my preference. I have a strong idea, but I always work with other amazing people. There’s always a brainstorm. There’s always a collective process coming up with ideas. The first thing we always do is make paper or non-digital prototypes, acting them out or building models of the ideas. We almost never go straight to a digital prototype and we may spend months or in the case of Walden, for example, years, on the paper aspect of the prototypes before we ever touch code. Those prototypes will be played internally. As they become more articulate, we’ll play them with close confidants and then bring in people who are hopefully target players of the eventual game.

For example, when we were doing the playtesting for The Night Journey, one of the things we knew is that we had a really divided audience. The game is intended to be shown in galleries and museums in an installation format. We knew it would be shown as a Bill Viola piece, so the people who would come to it would be people who go to Bill’s works and go to galleries regularly. They are not necessarily going to be people familiar with gaming conventions, yet we also knew that people who were interested in experimental games would be coming. We actually had two groups of playtesters we would bring in and the goal was to get to a place where we had a design that both of these groups felt was working. Even if they used the game in totally different ways, which they did, they still were experiencing something that was close to the overall goals of the piece.

GIM: Do you have any specific process for figuring out who’s going to be your audience and what you should do to accommodate that?

TF: It’s project by project. If I’m doing a project where the audience is determined, that’s fairly easy. From the outset, it’s a matter of making sure that we have access to people in that audience to come in on a regular basis and test. When it’s determined, that’s easy. It’s all done for you. If you’re talking about something like The Night Journey or Walden, it’s not a done deal. It’s much more personal, so I’ll handpick playtesters. I’ll handpick other game designers and I will use them for the kind of critique I know they’ll give. For example, we’ve brought in people for Walden who almost never play games because we want to see if it’s accessible enough. Every single project has a different set of needs and a different process for picking those people.

GIM: You’ve recommended that new developers keep a journal of play experiences. Would you mind going into why, what people should include, what they should get out of it?

TF: In my intro to design class, the first thing I tell students is to keep a journal of design experiences, basically anything you’ve interacted with in the world that give you some insight, some perspective on what it means to have these participatory experiences. It can be games, but sometimes it can be interacting with an ATM machine or interacting with the telephone and one of those automated operators and you just think, “What is it about this that’s just driving me insane?” Write about that, deconstruct it, because too often the moment passes and we don’t remember. All we remember is that it drove us insane or that in a game, for example, that we loved it completely, but why? When was the exact moment that made us love it completely? Write about that in the moment.

First of all, the act of writing clarifies it in your mind and then secondly, the keeping of the journal lets you go back and remember those moments with more depth than if you just allow them to fade away. As a designer, you’re often calling on your personal experiences. Keeping a journal then becomes this toolbox of moments that stood out, or analyses of different system dynamics that you’re like, “Oh, that is so beautiful how that fits together.” You kind of have this toolbox in a way that’s available to you that’s very personal. … It makes you more reflective. You have more touchstones to grab when you’re thinking of potential design ideas and design solutions or even design problems.

RELATED: Indie game designer Erin Reynolds discusses Nevermind, a game that tests the player’s ability to handle fear and anxiety while delving into a story of repressed memories.

GIM: We’re seeing a lot of rehashes of the same games in the industry. Do you feel like that is a problem when it comes to trying to educate a new generation of really innovative game makers?

TF: Uh, yeah, I feel like that was a softball [question]. … One of the great things about being a student is you are not on someone else’s payroll. You are not beholden to someone else for what they need to put out in the market. You don’t have to design what they’ve designed so many times. You don’t have to use their tools and their engine and you don’t have to be strapped into what’s basically a rocket that’s already engaged.

Many companies are moving forward at that speed. They’re invested in a particular style of play, particular technologies, a particular market segment, and you just as a designer. You’re just strapped in and go. There’s no time to think about something new, but as a student, it’s all you have. You don’t have all the wonderful things about being in a company like being paid and being part of a large commercial team. No. What you have is yourself and your ideas and you have your experience of life. You have time and you have the people around you who have all those things, too. Your opportunity lies in striking out into new territory.

GIM: What do you recommend for someone who wants to follow in your career footsteps?

TF: I don’t think anyone should follow in my footsteps, first of all. I think they should strike out their own path. I don’t recommend anyone follow anyone else. I recommend that everyone seek out their own way. I think that it’s lovely to find people you’re likeminded with and to grow alongside them in your practice. That’s different from following in someone’s footsteps. My recommendation is to follow your own interests and if you are lucky enough to find other people who are aligned with those interests or who are in conflict but spur you on, stick with those people and keep that relationship strong.

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