Post-Portal: Kim Swift and her Quantum Conundrum

Tuesday, 3 April 2012 09:54 GMT By Patrick Garratt

Lead designer Kim Swift indelibly etched Valve’s Portal on core gaming’s history, before going to Left 4 Dead then moving to the fluffy dimension with Quantum Conundrum at Airtight. She talks to VG247 about trying something new.

“The eureka moment for Quantum Conundrum was completely uninteresting. I was taking a walk. I wanted a croissant. There was a bakery up the street. I was getting some breakfast. Game ideas come to me at completely inane moments.”

Portal is one of the rarest of games: a single physical hook that needs no explanation. There are two holes. Things go into one and come out of the other. Everything else is periphery to one mechanic. Many of the most successful games are built this way; Angry Birds is about throwing a bird from a catapult; Mario is about a man jumping; Burnout is about driving fast and crashing; Left 4 Dead is about four people killing zombies.

Kim Swift was Portal’s lead designer, head of a student group from the DigiPen Institute of Technology responsible for indie game Narbacular Drop in 2005. Valve saw the potential and bought the farm.

Valve ran with Portal 2 into wholesale Game of the Year territory, but Swift moved on after the first game, and is now heading up a small team at Airtight making Quantum Conundrum, a cartoony first-person adventure due for release this summer. From the sound of things, glory comes secondary to reinvention for Kim.

“I was lead designer on Portal and I had a lot of fun making that game,” she says, speaking to VG247 in San Francisco. “I wanted to make another game like it because it was so much fun to make the first time. It’s the type of game I want to play. The more games there are like it in the market, the happier it makes me.

“I ended up leaving Valve just to try something different for a little while. I met up with some friends at Airtight and then wanted to work on a game with me so I jumped ship and we started working on this game. We’ve been working on it for a little under a year now. We have 16 people. It’s been a blast.”

Portal’s success wasn’t enough to hold Swift in place, even within Valve.

“I really wanted to work with Randy Lundeen, who’s one of the best environment artists at Valve,” she says. “He moved over to the Left 4 Dead franchise and so I followed along so I could learn from him a little bit more, and also so I could try something different for a little while. I’d never worked on a first-person shooter. It was fun.”

A new dimension

Fun, new, different. Swift says it a lot. Quantum Conundrum certainly looks to be all these things. It’s a first-person puzzler as was Portal, but the tone and mechanic are a world away. A 12-year-old boy visits the mansion laboratory of his uncle, professor Fitz Quadwrangle. The eccentric inventor vanishes in an explosion. The boy discovers a glove with the power to change dimensions, and off he sets to find the absentee.

Quantum Conundrum gameplay.

“I think it’s a game for everybody,” says Swift. “It definitely strays away from bad language, so kids can play. The same was for Portal; there were no real swear words. I just thought that this kind of stylized cartoon aesthetic fit the gameplay really well. I mean, we have a fluffy dimension. I can’t really imagine that in a real-world situation being as inviting and interesting as something that’s a little more custom tailored to be cartoony. Also, I think it’s really iconic. There aren’t a whole lot of games that look like this. Once again, it’s trying something different and new.

“I don’t think cartoony necessarily appeals to children, per se. There are plenty of cartoons that are for adults. I wouldn’t want to sit a five year-old in front of Family Guy, for instance.”

The accessibility isn’t just limited to the game’s looks. Don’t expect a 20-hour slog.

“I like smaller games. It’s nice to be able to know that people are actually finishing the game. I’m horrible at finishing them. I love games, but I’m not a completionist. Having it be shorter is really nice for people, especially those who have full-time jobs and kids.”

The size of Swift’s team also played an important part in creating Quantum Conundrum’s form.

“We definitely made decisions with the scale and the gameplay to be able to scale to our team-size,” Kim says. “It was one of the great things about the game design itself, and it was one of the things that I kept in mind when I was coming up with an idea for another game, was scalability. If you wanted to make Quantum Conundrum really big it’d be easy to do, to add more dimensions and add more gameplay objects, and vice versa. Having that as an ability comes in handy for a small team.”

Considering Swift was largely responsible for one of the greatest core gaming achievements in recent years, she’s remarkably down to earth. She rolls her eyes when I annoy her with stupid questions and she flaps her hands around with passion. She’s standing next to a single TV screen in a back-room at Microsoft’s Spring Showcase and certain “names” in games development would do well to note her unassuming air. When I ask her how she comes up with her ideas she laughs.

“The eureka moment for Quantum Conundrum was completely uninteresting,” she says. “I was taking a walk. I wanted a croissant. There was a bakery up the street. I was getting some breakfast. Game ideas come to me at completely inane moments. ‘What if we could switch the entire world, on the fly, any time we wanted? I want fluffy dimension now, because I need to move that table. Wouldn’t it be neat if I could slow everything down whenever I wanted?’”

She shrugs. I ask her about pressure. She will forever be Kim Swift That Made Portal. She snaps the answer back.

“I try not to think about it,” she says. “I don’t really think about it. I just focus on the day-to-day of making a good game and making good products, of having a good time with my team of people and enjoying my job.”

Quantum Conundrum releases this summer for PC, XBLA and PSN.

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