Developer interview: Gwen Frey (Lab Rat)

One of last year’s most charming puzzle games was Kine, a game that featured unique movement and puzzle mechanics set against a narrative backdrop of musical instruments hoping to make it to the big stage. Gwen Frey, who developed Kine, is now working on Lab Rat – and we got in touch to ask about its development, what to expect and how working on an indie title is different from Gwen’s previous work on franchises like Bioshock.

After Kine, you’re developing another puzzler – how did you develop an affinity for the genre?

A: Puzzlers are a relatively new obsession of mine. In the past I would often find myself playing stunningly beautiful and interesting games where the core gameplay loop involved shooting things. I always found this jarring. There was this disconnect between the actions I was performing and the lovely world I was experiencing. I always wanted there to be more games where you could lose yourself in an engaging story or a beautiful world without combat being the primary player action. However, I never really liked purely narrative games either. Video games are engaging because you can interact with them in real time. I find most visual novels aren’t exploring what games can accomplish as a medium.

Puzzles can be interesting and interactive, and they can act as a wonderful core loop for a game. At the moment I would rather build a world around satisfying puzzles than one around combat. I think there is a ton of untapped potential in the puzzle game genre right now!

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As with other puzzle games, Lab Rat has a prominent role for an AI (with an attitude). What are some (AI) examples that you’ve enjoyed and that have inspired you?

Obviously I am a huge fan of Portal! I can’t speak highly enough of the writing and the well-executed comedic timing in that franchise. However, a more recent indie title that piqued my interest is “Eliza” by Matt Burns. Eliza didn’t star an AI, but instead featured human “therapists” that had to read from a script dictated to them by a piece of software. This game had a lot of insightful things to say about our industry, technology, and humanity. It was very meaningful to me and was an early inspiration for Lab Rat.

Who do you have working with you on Lab Rat, and how is everyone adding their own touches to the game?

So far my closest collaborators are Mike Snight, Lucas Le Slo, and Matt Seiji Burns. I am extremely grateful to be working with these exceptionally talented folks.

Mike Snight was the lead level builder on Bioshock Infinite – a game known for its stunning vistas and gorgeous world. Environment art is not my strength and I consider myself fortunate to be able to collaborate with Mike for the background environments in Lab Rat. You can easily see his contribution in the stunning backdrop and the detailed environments of this game. Mike is an old colleague of mine. His work is breathtaking, and we work together very, very well.

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Lucas Le Slo has been designing niche block pushing puzzles for over 7 years now. I am the one crafting the experience and coding the mechanics but Lucas is the one exploring every possible puzzle that we can create with them, and I am frequently surprised with what he comes up with! I can not overstate how satisfying it is to see the unexpectedly interesting puzzles he creates out of the pieces that I give him. Together we collaborate on the overall structure of the game, the difficulty curve of the game, and the specific types of puzzles that we want to explore further.

Matt Seiji Burns is an extremely talented writer that is best known for his visual novel Eliza. I deeply loved this game, and I reached out to him early on in the production of Lab Rat. I am so very lucky that Matt is collaborating with me on the narrative. It was his idea to have VO in this game – I was planning to tell the story entirely through text. He is also the reason that this game has an overarching narrative. If I was doing this on my own there would be funny jokes between each level, but I would never have crafted a larger, more engaging plotline without him. This is all thanks to Matt’s involvement!

Going indie from a AAA background brings benefits, but what are some of the things you miss?

Being indie definitely limits the scope and scale of what you can achieve. I often wistfully look at the incredible immersive experiences coming out of AAA and sigh to myself. I remember a specific moment when I was playing Outer Worlds where I opened up a door to reveal this stunning interior vista: lights were shining down on this gorgeous, dusty, interior space. NPCs were bustling around the bright, lively corridor… In that moment I honestly considered polishing up my CV and reaching out to that team. A small indie team can’t create a large quantity of beautiful moments like this, and also have compelling gameplay, and also have a witty engaging story, etc, etc. A team of 4 can launch a rocket, but a team of 4 cannot send someone to the moon! Sometimes I dream of going to the moon again.

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How has your own role in the development of your games changed?

My role as a senior animator on a large team crafting BioShock Infinite is completely different from my role now as a studio founder and lead developer on indie games. It would be easier to say how these jobs are similar than to outline how they are different! Managing a company is not a trivial task. Directing a game is very different from working as a specialist to craft a specific part of a game’s experience. I had incredible pride in my work before, but I did not need to understand the complete vision for every part of a game in order to do my job. In AAA I knew that we needed to be successful in order for the studio to survive, but that success wasn’t completely, entirely dependent on me personally. Being wholly responsible for your studio’s continued existence is empowering! But it is also utterly terrifying. This responsibility is by far the biggest difference between those two roles.

Where in the development cycle is Lab Rat at the moment, and when can we expect to hear and see more?

A: We are midway through production on Lab Rat right now. I am planning to have a closed beta for the first quarter of the game in a few months. You can sign up for this beta for free at LabRat.study. You can also opt in by using the new beta feature on the Steam storefront page for Lab Rat.

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