ANIMAL’s feature Game Plan asks game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Hamish Todd about Music of the Spheres, a game inspired by Islamic art and viruses, which have only one thing in common: math.
“I don’t believe in Heaven, but if Heaven were to exist for me, it would be a puzzle game,” game designer and mathematical biologist Hamish Todd told ANIMAL. “Music of the Spheres to some extent is meant to be my idea of Heaven.”
It’s odd, then, that at its most basic, Music of the Spheres is about slinging rocks at angels. But Todd’s disdain for story in games is so complete that he believes a good game’s mechanics are its story. Space Invaders is not about defending Earth from aliens, he says; it’s about shooting aliens that enjoy being shot because you enjoy shooting them, because that’s the game’s mechanic, and that’s why you’re playing it.
“People in Grand Theft Auto don’t want to be shot, but in Space Invaders, they want to be shot. And in Music of the Spheres, the angels love getting shot,” he said. When the game starts, the angels give you the sling you’ll use to fire projectiles at them, lending a feeling of divinity to the execution of this mechanic, if not the act itself of hurling rocks at angels. “They wanted you to solve the puzzles, because I want you to solve the puzzles,” Todd said.
His thesis about Space Invaders is borrowed from a 2009 review of Space Invaders Extreme on Action Button, a site he’s written about game design for in the past. But that line of thinking is key to Music, Todd’s only released game so far. It’s a short game, and not exactly simple, though like any good puzzle game, it begins simply enough before forcing you to examine the rules of its world more closely. Gameplay consists entirely of walking left and right, climbing ladders up and down, and slinging ricocheting flechettes along the lines of geometric patterns. You’re aiming at the angels, which—-despite Todd’s claims that they want to be shot–do their best to avoid your bullets.
“In Music of the Spheres, you’re propelled by your own curiosity,” Todd said. “Curiosity is the thing that I love the most. That’s why it’s my idea of Heaven.”
Todd, a London native, came up with the idea for Music of the Spheres when he was in the process of dropping out of university in the UK. He was studying politics, philosophy and economics, which “turned out to be a terrible course for me,” he said. He learned to program gradually as he shifted his education more fully toward mathematics, working first on a different game that he said was too bad to release. He finally started developing Music a full two years after the idea for it initially coalesced.
Like most other humans, he wasn’t crazy about math growing up. But as he began studying computer science and mathematical biology, the beauty emerged. It really clicked when he studied under Reidun Twarock, a scientist who discovered a link between the HPV virus and centuries-old Islamic art: the pentagonal patterns on the virus’s shell were identical to patterns seen in classical art on Muslim temples.
“Why on earth did a culture from 1,000 years ago hit upon exactly the thing that turns out to be useful now?” Todd asked. “The answer is maths. Maths can make something useful in some obscure scenario like viruses, but it can also make something beautiful. Islamic artists wanted to put interesting maths into their artwork, wordlessly, for people to not find for many, many centuries. It just sat there, far ahead of Western mathematics, for hundreds of years. And it’s gorgeous.”
The Muslim artists who explored these principles hundreds of years ago were forced to look toward these seemingly abstract shapes because of religious laws that forbade portraying the human figure. As a result, “there was an interplay between the sciences and the arts that we don’t get in our culture today—except in video games,” Todd said.
That intersection of art, math and science inspired Music of the Spheres, both visually and mechanically. The patterns Todd is enamored with—layers on layers of geometric shapes that form ever-more complex designs—are present in every level of the game, and they increase continuously in visual complexity. The lesson, though, is that even when they appear impenetrably complicated, there are simple mathematical and physical principles underlying them. Even as the shapes in the environment multiply, the lines your bullets travel remain the same.
The desire to expand on that interplay has led him down an interesting path. Music of the Spheres was originally released over a year ago, but it wasn’t exactly a smash hit. It may be Todd’s idea of Heaven, but despite the intelligence of its design—or maybe thanks in part to that—Music is probably too abstract for mainstream success, and he recently re-released the game for free online. Now, hoping to start a PhD in mathematical biology and working to solve world hunger as an intern at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, Todd has turned his attention toward educational games. The project he’s currently working on is based on a system he’s developed that he says will make for both a fun puzzle game and an accurate way of modeling viruses like HIV.
“I like the power and universality of mathematics,” he said. “I’m not a religious person, and certainly I’m not a Muslim, but my friends sometimes tell me that the way that I talk about maths reminds them of someone talking about God. I’m very awed by it — by its complexity, by its enormity, by its age, by its seriousness.”
“So much of human life, we’re distracted by little things, or we’re easily amused by things, but this great big thing, it’s very serious. You get a sense of that really well in cathedrals and in art forms from hundreds of years ago. In operas or cathedrals, these old artworks, there’s so much seriousness. And in stained glass. You go to stained glass, you look up, and you’re like, ‘The point of this artwork is that they wanted to awe me so much that I felt as though I was in touch with the force that created the universe.'”
And with a little magic and a lot of math, he believes games can do the same. Music of the Spheres is available for free for Windows PCs at musicofthespheresgame.com.