A Perspective Retrospective: Looking Back on the Student Game that Beguiled the Internet
Posted Dec 5, 2018
Perhaps it’s fitting that Perspective, which has tripped out hundreds of thousands of players since its release in 2012, would end up tripping out its own creators too. Back in June of 2012, after a year of hard work, student game team Widdershins had just finished preparing a video of their junior year project to present at DigiPen’s annual Student Showcase ceremony.
“That was just for what we called the ‘gold release,’” says design lead Jason Meisel. “We ended up working on the game for six months after that.”
Although Perspective wasn’t technically done, the trailer was soon posted to DigiPen’s official YouTube channel, a bit of info team Widdershins had missed. “It’s funny … we didn’t even realize it was public,” Meisel says. “The very next day, some websites started posting articles about it, and all of the sudden it hit the top of Reddit. Meanwhile, we’re still working on this unfinished game that, as far as we knew, we hadn’t even released an official trailer for yet. And this showcase of the game we had made for the school was going viral. We were freaking out!” Six years later, that same original trailer remains the top-viewed video on DigiPen’s YouTube channel.
That gameplay footage of Perspective went viral, even in an unfinished state, isn’t surprising. The game’s ingenious core concept – a 2D puzzle platformer set in a 3D world, controlled with a first-person camera – is tricky to explain in words, but immediately clicks once you see it in action, leading Unreal and Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski to dub it “one of the most innovative game ideas I’ve seen in quite some time.” Interestingly enough, the idea for Perspective came about as a total accident, born from a misunderstanding that snowballed into a DigiPen classic.
“We had an idea for this … Halloween themed racing game or snowboarding game,” Meisel says. “I said, ‘Maybe we’ll make something like that, but it’s … not as interesting an idea as I was hoping for.’” So, Widdershins went back to the drawing board, talking about different games they enjoyed and why they liked them to brainstorm new game concepts. Out of the blue, someone pitched an idea for a puzzle game involving a camera and a projector.
“But then this interesting thing happened where someone else on the team didn’t understand what the first person was saying and said, ‘Wait a minute. Do you mean something like this?’ And someone else was like, ‘Oh, wait, you mean like this?’” Meisel recalls. “It was sort of this chain of misinterpretations.”
Those misinterpretations proved unusually productive when, somewhere down the line, the camera and projector idea mutated into: “What if we made a 2D platformer you control with a first person camera?”
A spark went off.
“When we hit that, it was like, ‘Oh, wow. We can do all these things with this!’ It was just immediately really cool conceptually,” Meisel says. Widdershins had landed on an exciting, heady idea, but now came the hard part – making it work.
"We spent at least a month on this issue just trying to figure out why these random triangles would pop up."
The fun of Perspective is right there in the title – the player’s flat avatar treats 3D space as a 2D plane, allowing you to cheat impossible distances and heights by shifting the first-person camera’s perspective on the environment. When it came time to build the game engine that would make that concept a reality, things got weird. “It kind of was trippy to program,” Meisel says.
At first, Widdershins tried turning the game’s 3D shapes into 2D platforms by approaching the challenge as a complex geometry problem. Using complicated triangle intersections to achieve the desired effect, Widdershins got 90 percent of the way towards completing the engine before they ran into a fatal error. “We spent at least a month on this issue just trying to figure out why these random triangles would pop up,” Meisel says. “There was something wrong, and the algorithm we’d made was so complex that it was hard to diagnose the problem.” The team took a step back and tried a simpler approach, this time involving far less geometry, and landed on a far smoother, functional engine.
With the engine completed, the next logical step was designing the levels that would make the game’s concept sing. At that point, Widdershins consisted of five students from the BS in Computer Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation program, so the hunt for a bona fide game design student began. Widdershins didn’t have to look too far for the perfect fit. Logan Fieth from the BA in Game Design program had created a sophomore game called The Fourth Wall, a mind-bending 2D puzzle platformer where the boundaries of the screen warp the player to the opposite end of the level.
“I think [for them] it was definitely kind of like, ‘Oh, it’s a puzzle game that’s got a crazy mechanic,’ so Perspective was definitely in my wheelhouse,” Fieth says. Widdershins approached Fieth with a working version of their engine and asked if he would be interested in joining the team. “They were really modest about it,” Fieth says, “but I came over and was just like, ‘This is amazing. Of course I’ll work on this!”
“By the end of development, I was like, ‘Oh my god, everywhere I look I’m thinking about the world as a 2D plane!’”
Fieth set about designing levels for Perspective, starting, as always, with pen and paper drawings. “I almost always try to draw it out first, but that’s really hard to do for these type of games,” Fieth says. “If you saw my notes and my drawings, they would not make sense to anyone but me.” Wrapping his head around the 2D/3D duality of the level design took some getting used to, but Fieth got lots of help from his own surroundings. When sitting down to design a level, he often drew inspiration from whatever was in the room, observing how a computer, table, whiteboard, and chair might form a platform when observed from the right angle. “By the end of development, I was like, ‘Oh my god, everywhere I look I’m thinking about the world as a 2D plane!’”
With the engine and levels completed, the final challenge was figuring out a proper ending for the game. Widdershins held a long team meeting with Game Software Design and Production professor Rachel Rutherford to hash out what to do for the ending. After hours of back and forth, they found a solution in the sophomore game that Meisel and Widdershins producer Pohung Chen had worked on the year prior. In Nous, a game about a rogue AI, the game at one point acts as though it crashes, flashing a blue screen and returning to your desktop, only to jump back into the game moments later.
“That was one of our favorite moments in the game and we knew it worked – watching people play through it was super fun,” Meisel said. After pitching the idea for Perspective, the team thought it might make a good fit for the game’s topsy-turvy mood, and decided to adopt it in a new way. “We didn’t want to do the same thing, so instead of going to your desktop in the middle of the game and acting like the game crashed, the player actually hits the exit button at the end of the game. But instead of exiting, it goes to this fake clone of your own desktop. That’s even more powerful, because instead of it being this unexpected thing the game does on its own, you are expecting it to go to your desktop, so the reveal that you’re still in the game is even more powerful.”
The twist ending worked like magic. After the game’s release, Fieth made an 8-minute long YouTube compilation (warning: contains adult language) of all the numerous Let’s Play streamers who jumped or screamed on camera when the reality of the game’s fake ending dawned on them. “Oh, that scared me!” one man shrieks in a high-pitched voice when the desktop screenshot falls down to reveal the real ending.
“Some people quit out and they’re like, ‘Thanks! Like, share, and subscribe!’” Fieth says. “And then right after they’re like, ‘Wait a minute. The game is still going!’ That was really fun to watch, because it was so unexpected for people.”
Upon its full release, game news outlets found that the initial hype they’d given the game’s rough trailer was earned, with Rock Paper Shotgun, Geekwire, The Verge, Gamespot, Destructoid, and PC Gamer hailing its innovative core mechanic and level design. Like Tag: The Power of Paint and Narbacular Drop before it, Perspective established itself as the successor to DigiPen’s lineage of critically acclaimed first-person puzzle games, something Meisel attributes to the unique framework the genre provides for scrappy student developers. “It’s a great way to create something that maybe doesn’t have a lot of breadth of content, but a lot of depth of content, which is a great sweet spot when you’re working on something without a lot of resources like you are as a student at DigiPen,” Meisel says.
After graduating, Meisel went on to Good Mood Creators, an indie studio composed mostly of DigiPen graduates, where he shipped Mekazoo, a 2.5D platformer where the player controls a host of mechanical animals. In August, he shipped his latest game Electronauts, a VR music creation experience created during his time at virtual reality studio Survios in Los Angeles.
Museum of Simulation Technology
In 2016, after a successful Kickstarter campaign, Fieth shipped the spiritual successor to his sophomore game The Fourth Wall, a 2D platformer titled Four Sided Fantasy, through his own indie studio Ludo Land. Today, he’s working on a game that began as a student project at Carnegie Mellon University that’s giving him a bit of Perspective déjà vu. “It’s called Museum of Simulation Technology, which, for those who don’t know it, you’ve probably seen a GIF of it floating around where you can scale a chess piece up or down based on your perspective,” Fieth says of the game, which is built around the player’s ability to resize objects based on forced perspective.
The aforementioned GIF, like the Perspective trailer before it, went viral online early in the development process. “I think with Perspective, and now Museum, it takes five seconds or less to understand the core of the game, and I can probably explain it faster showing someone a GIF than I could trying to explain it to them,” Fieth says. “I think that’s probably why they both went viral.”