During PAX East, I was able to sit down with Gwen Frey, the sole developer of Kine. She is a veteran animator, having founded The Molasses Flood which is known for The Flame in the Flood and has worked on BioShock: Infinite. Her current project, Kine, blends jazz and grid-based puzzles.
Quin: Why this? Why a jazz and puzzle game?
Gwen: Oh, man. It’s hard to say exactly how that happened. I mean I definitely never worked on a puzzle game and I definitely didn’t intend to make a puzzle game when I started. My background is in animation and I’m always looking for new and interesting things to do for procedural animation or animation systems and I had this idea of like what if there was a character that moved through the world by tumbling around and somersaulting and pushing off of walls and things and I started prototyping that with just a cube and I also had other ideas and things I played with. Like I had a tactics game. Kind of grid based. And in the end, at some point, I just had this idea of like, all right, I have this cube character that’s tumbling around and I have this tech that’s basically a tactics game where things can be existing on the grid and I had a swarm of ideas and I just kind of thought, maybe I should make a puzzle game out of this ’cause what I found was the most fun was playing with this little cube going around and I just started having fun with the movement of the little cube moving around.
Quin: In Kine, it’s kind of still a grid-based system, so you’ve adapted that from this tactics game to a puzzle game. Have you built those puzzles from that grid space all entirely?
Gwen: Yes. So very, very early on. I was having fun with this character, moving around on this grid, and the first thing I did was make a series of puzzles. I had never made a puzzle game before, so a lot of the initial ones were terrible. They were stripped way down. I remember I initially started making it and I thought, oh, maybe there’s nothing good here and I just stopped entirely for like months. And somewhere in there, I played Steven Sausage Roll and I was like oh, shit, I should’ve just made them way smaller. Well, now everyone’s going to do that so I guess nevermind and I just abandoned it for like months and months. But yeah, the idea that they were on a grid. These puzzles just had to be on a grid, it’s the only way it made sense.
Q: Yeah,and I think a lot of games, like you mentioned Into the Breach. Those grid kind of games, it makes it easier to adapt in some way. It makes it easier for a player or someone to see the actual movement because it’s piece by piece. Like a chessboard so to speak.
G: Like a game board. Yes. Obviously there’s loads of different kinds of puzzle games out there, right? It just so happens that a lot of the games that I adore tend to be either grid or hex-spaced or some sort of system like that.
Q: What is your favorite jazz album?
G: My favorite jazz album. Oh, man. I don’t think I have one. My love of jazz comes from, how do I put it, I used to work in theater and I loved musicals and I loved show tunes. And obviously I was a huge fan of La La Land. I thought La La Land was beautiful and it really kind of struck a chord with me. In a way that I think it actually kind of shows in the game quite a bit. Like clearly when I started with this project I was obsessed with La La Land, the film.
Q: The reason I posed this question is because in jazz, each artist is so different and I was thinking like, was there one core artist that helped you figure out the kind of style you wanted?
G: No, like I said, I started out, I was in love with La La Land, I thought that was a beautiful film, I got a series of soundtracks online to start off with and it wasn’t cohesive, initially. With the sound of the game so early on I had a very early prototype which is just the game design. Like the earliest puzzles and I took it to a local meetup and through serendipity there happened to be a musician there that had graduated. Recent grad. Like first chair trombone player, Mitchell Wong.
Q: He’s your composer, correct?
G: He is yes. I told him like hey this is a side project. At the time I had no intention to make anything commercial. This is just a little indie game I’m doing, I don’t have a lot of money but I took how much I could pay him and I said, “Would you like to make a soundtrack for this?” And he was like, “Yes.” He made the initial song and then later on, when I did get funding, I hired him to make the rest of the music for the game as well.
Q: That’s cool. It’s interesting how jazz influences a lot of things, but people don’t notice it. I’m happy that you are making a straight jazz influenced game. How are these genres like melding with each other?
G: The genres of?
Q: Puzzle and jazz.
G: So music has always been very important and inspirational in anything I’ve made. I wouldn’t say so much that the puzzles and jazz need to merge together so much as the tone and the vibe and the feel of the game matter a lot and part of the design, right? Like I wanted something that was cheerful and happy and to me when I think of cheerful and happy I think of show tunes and things like that and jazz music. I know not all jazz music is cheerful and happy but the kind I like tends to be. And so for me it was part of selling the vibe and the feeling and pitching that aesthetic. I felt like the jazz pushes that which I think as much part of the game as the actual puzzle design. I think design is more than just the handful of mechanics that make up the game. It’s the entirety of the game.
Q: And from what I played, I did get that like cheerful and happy vibe and that’s good because there’s a lot of jazz that is just sad and somber and somewhat grim sometimes. It’s refreshing to see someone appreciate that happy cheerful tone that jazz can bring. Why did you choose this art style? Why specifically cell shaded?
G: When I decided to make a game, I thought I would make something in my free time and I would put it on itch.io. And it had to be something that I knew I could finish and so I was looking for an art style that I could accomplish but would also stand out. And so, obviously, I had to be kind of a pushed style. Personally, I have an animation background, I love cartoons and that sort of thing and so I found an art style that I thought I could accomplish and that’s basically where it comes from. It’s a combination of things I like and what I thought I could personally do. So it couldn’t be highly textured. It had to be something that leaned heavily into just flat shaded. I also wanted to push into something that looks different. I feel like it’s really easy in the Unreal engine to make something that looks kind of gritty and dark or leans into their shader system in a way that I didn’t want to lean into.
Q: It’s funny that you chose this more artistic style because to put it simply, jazz is very artistic, it’s a very expressive medium. The way you have the game’s look, it does stand out and that’s one of the reasons that jazz is so interesting. Like I said earlier, every artist has their own different style and tone and like how they sound. Last question, why’d you choose the name Euler?
G: Euler. Yes. So the inspiration for the game, for me, and this is something that’ll necessarily come out for anybody else but there is a backstory to the game that’s very important to me. And you’ll notice that the names of the characters are Euler, Quat, and Roo, which Quat is short for Quaternion and Roo short for Rotate Order. If you’re an animator you’d know like Roo is the abbreviation in the different software applications for that. And right when you start the game, you’ll notice there’s a constant bass that’s playing, even on the main menu and so forth, and you’ll see in the very beginning, the bassist comes out. He’s the bass, he starts playing, and you’ll always hear that. The bass never changes. It’s very important that the world is built on a constant bassist.
Q: A foundation, so to speak.
G: Exactly. I was just messing around and making something to toy around with. I had some things that are important to me and I’m an animator and like a lot of my frustrations about gimbal lock are actually, ironically, in the game. Or like the idea that you’ll never have a level with just Euler and Quat. Roo always has to be there otherwise you can’t move between Euler and Quat.
Q: Because they’re both long versus Roo who is just like one piece and he’s able to move freely.
G: There’s also just some math stuff there like you can’t go between Euler and Quat without Roo. Euler desperately needs Roo whereas Quat doesn’t really need her. Euler is madly in love with Roo for that reason. A lot of the narrative in the game is that euclidean space. A lot of the inspiration for the game just came from me at work, bored, daydreaming. So I think a lot of that tends to come out.
Q: Nice. Thank you, Gwen. I really like Kine and I hope that this game is successful and it does well for you to keep doing things like this because it is unique. It is stylish and it is, like you said, different. And that’s a part of why I love independent games so much.
G: Yeah, I love making indie games, man. I hope [that] I get to keep doing it for a long time, too.
Gwen Frey was originally planning on having the game release for the Steam Store, but now is planning to release her game on the Epic Games Store. Kine is slated for release in Q4 of this year, follow her on Twitter for more updates on the game.