Post-Portal: Kim Swift and her Quantum Conundrum

Tuesday, 3rd 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.



  1. The_Red

    Nice. This game need a lot more exposure than what it’s been getting so far. A lovely new puzzler from one of the main creators of Portal deserves better marketing. Square Enix! Do your job and sell this game properly.

    #1 3 years ago
  2. ysleiro

    Can you just ape another game like this? This game SCREAMS Portal.

    I know some of the devs made Portal but couldn’t they differentiate a bit more?

    #2 3 years ago
  3. OrbitMonkey

    ^ So a first person physics bending puzzle game made by the LEAD DESIGNER of Portal, reminds you of Portal? Fascinating.

    #3 3 years ago
  4. LOLshock94

    Kim swift 7/10 would bang

    #4 3 years ago
  5. manamana

    Thats what I call a beautiful mind. The gameplay looks really promising.

    #5 3 years ago
  6. TheWulf

    Swift is definitely making the sort of games that I want to play, and her inspiration really speaks to me.

    I’m a rare beast – a gamer that doesn’t fetishise violence to worrying degrees, and is frequently bored to tears by too much of it. I find dialogue and exploration more interesting in games than other elements. I’m still a gamer at the end of the day, I just don’t fit into the standard spectrum of things.

    Maybe that’s because I’m not neurotypical–a fact I’ll never get away from–but I’m just not a very violent, bloodlusting sort of person. I don’t see a polygonal representation of a creature and think “WELL GOLLY GEE I’D SURE LOVE TO KILL THAT THING!” but instead “I wonder what’s going through its head right now? Can I communicate with it in any way?”

    Communication and experimentation often yields far more interesting results in gameplay than violence does. I think Yahtzee put it best by saying that violent games are just an overly simplified point & click adventure. You point your gun at the person and you click ‘shoot.’

    A lot of shooters these days don’t even require skill, so it’s just instant gratification for violent people. That was my problem with Skyrim, really. It was purely instant gratification for violent people. You can’t play Skyrim without killing anyone, it’s impossible. In fact, after a certain level, the game enforces a stringently high kill count upon you.

    So it’s all just about some kind of crazy bloodlust gamers have, which is kind of depressing when you think about it. It’s not for skill or even about the game any more, it’s just so that we can press a button for a graphiical depiction of violence. Look at the 1.5 patch for Skyrim – it had more of that.

    “Hey guys, we just patched in a metric shit tonne of new kill cams, so you can now even get more bloodthirsty thrills for your money!”

    This is why I hold New Vegas to such a high standard (and why I’m so irritated at those mindless types who’re too busy with their bloodlust to notice how good of a game it actually is). New Vegas you can complete without killing even once – it takes work with the stealth boy and really damned high diplomacy stats, but you can do it. I did it.

    Even right at the end of the game you can talk a general into having his army retreat. That’s brilliant. That’s a paradigm shift right there, that’s taking all that we accept about games and turning it on its head. There seems to be an intrinsic thing about too many games, these days – that they’re about suffering. Either that of the player character, or the victims of the player character.

    And people enjoy it.

    Schadenfreude I guess.

    But I don’t. I don’t know why I’m the exception. It’s not a high horse, so don’t even go there. I just recognise my difference, but I don’t really understand it. Violence is a massive turn off, for me. That’s why I view Skyrim to be a fairly shit game compared to New Vegas because of its lack of choice, and Amalur to be absolutely awful by comparison.

    Violence is boring. I find it narcoleptic. There’s no thrill, no enjoyment… it’s just… oh look, another guy’s head was split open. I get nothing from it. Absolutely nothing at all.

    I’m really not a fan of killing, I avoid it when I can.

    So my favourite games are usually games which avoid that, and often, I’ll take deviations away from some games just to avoid it. I mean, some of the best news I heard about Guild Wars 2 was how they’re going to reward explorers. And that’s incredibly exciting!

    WoW had something similar to that, but it was a glitch that Blizzard completely patched out of their game. “NO EXPLORATION FOR YOU, GET BACK ON THE MURDER GRINDMILL. NOW!” And that was that. But ArenaNet took this and actually made it into a game feature… and now I really want to head into that world and explore. That boosted my interest in GW2 to ridiculous levels. I already knew that there was exploration based stuff in there, but seeing that…

    Anyway. I do have a point, here.

    I think all of this bloodlust is basically just targeting the lowest common denominator. The lowest common denominator loves blood, loves gore, loves kill shots, loves violence, and so on. That’s fine, I guess. Not everyone sits down to a game or an MMO wanting to actually have to think, they just want to turn their brains off and enjoy the suffering of virtual creatures. Not my thing.

    But then you get games which tend to target the HIGHEST common denominator. What’s that? Fun! Yes. FUN. What a completely ALIEN concept. FUN. Something you just have fun with, not something that you need to appeal to the lowest, most visceral sides of people to achieve, something that’s just merely entertaining to play.

    I’ve spent more time playing Whale Trail and Draw Something lately than I have playing other things. I’ve also revisited Dizzy: Prince of the Yolkfolk (hooray for a remaster of that!), and a bunch of remastered Revolution point & click games. And they’ve been FUN.

    That’s what I want from a game.

    A game can be entirely brainless, and it supplants fun with buckets of blood. Usually a game has fun OR buckets of blood, frankly. Skyrim wasn’t at all fun, not even remotely. It was a dull grind, it was almost a single-player MMO. And yeah, Amalur was worse. I see so many developers sacrificing fun for gore. Opting for the lowest common denominator rather than the highest.

    I don’t give a shit if it looks like Portal. I want to play it.

    #6 3 years ago
  7. DSB

    @4 A 7?!

    You’re either blind or starved, or both.

    #7 3 years ago
  8. TheWulf

    Sigh. Why is it that whenever we bring up women in videogames, things turn toward misogyny and those rating them like meat.

    Do you really feel so… inferior… that you have to display your ‘manliness’ like this in a comments thread whenever women are mentioned? :|

    Yes, I’m empathic. I wouldn’t like it if it were me. And just because it may not bother you, that wouldn’t make it right.

    It really makes me sad to see this.

    But, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised…

    #8 3 years ago
  9. OrbitMonkey

    ^ You do realise women rate men? It goes something like this….

    Definite shag
    Would settle for
    Naughty shag
    Drunken/Desperate shag
    No fucking way

    #9 3 years ago
  10. Len

    LOl @9, thas has made me spurt tea throgh my nose!

    #10 3 years ago
  11. sb319

    The credits for Portal don’t actually list her as “lead designer”. Do Valve even have such a thing?
    I don’t blame her for wanting to make the most of the best thing on her CV, but Narbacular Drop was a piece of shit before Valve taught those kids how to make games.

    #11 3 years ago
  12. sb319

    Initial impressions of Quantum Conundrum: It all looks very zany etc but not immediate or intuitive the way Portal was. It’s rather try-hard and contrived by comparison.

    “Hi I’m Kim Swift, and I’m the creator of Quantum Conundrum”

    Impressive, she did all that art and programming by herself? Very good for a one-woman project.

    #12 3 years ago
  13. DSB

    @9 Right on. And in my experience they do it a lot faster than we’ll ever be able to :P

    TheWulf is likely just intimidated by things relating to boys and girls. At least it’s a bit weird to talk about something as simple and harmless as attractiveness in ways of “meat” and “misogyny”. That’s awfully removed from what’s actually going on.

    I get a little suspicious when men react a lot stronger to that sort of thing, than most women ever would.

    She’s a 4. Doesn’t say anything for how she makes games or what her potential is as a human being. She just happens to be a 4.

    #13 3 years ago
  14. LOLshock94


    #14 3 years ago

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