Feature Article

Source Wants to Bring a Childlike Sense of Awe Back into Games

Follow the source.

"We just had our first son born nine months ago." Brian McRae--one of the two-person, husband-and-wife team designing the upcoming PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC adventure Source at FenixFire--explains the inspiration behind the alien landscape that stretches before us. "When a baby is born, they don't know what the world is supposed to look like. It's a strange thing. They're just grabbing stuff. Is this edible? What does this do? Is this dangerous? Helpful? Harmful? And we wanted to bring that infant-eyes aspect to this game." I can see that sense of wonder manifest in Source, as the bioluminescent firefly ventures across this dreamlike environment. However, that feeling of awe extends beyond the confines of the game. McRae and his wife, Anna Gambal-McRae, have jumped from the predictability of AAA development into the rocky waters of the indie scene, and they're learning how to stay afloat in this unexplored world.

"[Source] is all about this exchange of energy," McRae explains. The energy pulses off you, creating a blue aura around the firefly you use to explore this strange land. Lightning bolts shoot from your body. You move boxes with these bursts, corral glowing keys, power dormant cocoons, and fry pesky enemy threats. Seeing the dazzling lights sparkle in the gloomy morass of the unknown is a beautiful sight, so much so that I was mesmerized as McRae soared over geometric outcroppings, darting above the docile, insect-like fauna.

"You're always losing energy as you fly around. You lose energy as you shoot, as you jump, as you speedburst. Just like any living creature in real life, right? We all need food, oxygen, all this kind of stuff to survive," McRae says. There's only one piece of information onscreen, a lone bar that keeps track of how much energy your firefly still has. The rest is filled with the alien splendor of this world. "In most games, you're the big guy with the big gun just mowing down lots of guys, and the way to balance that and make it difficult is to just have more waves of creatures coming in and shooting," he notes. "[But in Source], you're battling against survival." It's a marked shift from what's expected. There are puzzles to solve and enemies to kill, but every act you take weakens your firefly. You're just treading water--searching for more power--doing whatever you can before your energy runs dry.

McRae and his wife have jumped from the predictability of AAA development into the rocky waters of the indie scene, and they're learning how to stay afloat in this unexplored world.

The goal of McRae and Gambal-McRae is to "make things look familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time." I can see this intent in how strange Source looks, how it aligns common shapes in uncommon patterns to skew your sense of normalcy. And that unfamiliarity has pushed Source into a realm in which going the independent route was the only chance of seeing this through to completion. "It's kind of off the beaten path, and it's something that a publisher would have no business doing," McRae says. "This isn't either a sexy girl or a big guy with a gun. You actually have to think about it a little bit." But even if a big publisher had shown interest, McRae would have had reservations working with the company. "I'm a little wary of publishers. I've worked with a publisher before and had a terrible go of it."

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McRae wasn't always in this position. Source is a "dream project" for McRae and Gambal-McRae, a drastic change from where they once were. "I used to work at Blizzard. I was the lead environment artist for StarCraft: Ghost," he says. "She's an environment artist as well. She worked at The Collective on Silent Hill: Homecoming, GI Joe, and Front Mission." So they've gone through the grind of developing highly scrutinized games with big budgets, and they appreciate the intimate control they have over Source. "Now we don't have to have a meeting to talk about whether we're going to do something. We just go and put it in because we're a small team and we can do it."

Being on your own is liberating, but it's also scary when you don't have a lifeboat to save you from treacherous waters. "I'm extremely terrified," McRae responds when asked what it felt like to show an unfinished version of his game. "But we just showed this at PAX; we got a lot of great reception from that. We submitted to Steam Greenlight five days ago, and then yesterday just got green-lit. We have a 62 percent yes vote." So things are going smoothly in one regard. People who have seen the game are excited by the prospect of exploring this fantastical world. That doesn't mean it has been easy to put Source together, though. People need money to make games, and all the positive reception in the world doesn't matter if there's no funding. "We're doing a Kickstarter that's failing miserably at the moment. If it happens, great. If not, it's not going to stop us. We're going to keep going."

Life gets in the way of development. "We're only four months in. We're a two-person team--a husband-and-wife team--and we're doing this nights and weekends. We're self-funding this stuff right now." When they're not working on Source, they're doing contract work developing software for clients. They worked with the Oculus Rift, for instance, when the virtual reality headset was still in its infancy, designing a demonstration in which you explore a house called Tuscany World. So they do have steady work, though every project that pours money into the household demands time and energy that could have been spent working on Source. It's a tough balancing act--getting funding while trying to realize your dream--and one that is only becoming more complicated now that they have a child to care for.

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"Now my wife can't work on the game as much, only when he's sleeping, so it's been a little tough," McRae explains. "It might be nice if we could get some kind of funding so we could hire a babysitter." It's the reality of being independent. Now that McRae and Gambal-McRae can finally create their dream project, can implement whatever they want without meetings or approval from higher-ups, they have run into a wall that holds so many people back. Reality can get in the way of realizing one's vision, and they're pushing through together to figure out a way to care for their child, create software for clients, and bring Source to life. It's not an easy situation for anyone.

But McRae is not deterred. "I think video games are the ultimate art form. You have the visuals; you have audio. You're playing with time, you're playing with animation, and you're playing with interactivity. There's no other art form that encompasses all of those aspects all together. And the sky's the limit with what it is you want to do, show, and express." So they're going to keep working. "It's a personal game, very artistic game. We're both artists, we want to express, and that's what this game's about."

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Avatar image for Rakou

Thought this article was about Valve's Source engine and wouldve said something about Team Fortress 2's comedy-like effects.

Avatar image for Navardo95

The last few games to truly have made me awe like a child were Last Of Us and Castlevania Lords Of Shadow 1 :)

Avatar image for tightwad34

I got the awe feeling with the Souls series, but by all means keep them coming if you can.

Avatar image for Tiwill44

They're already doing this, it's called A Hat in Time.

Avatar image for King9999

The awe never left...

Avatar image for justinka777

I feel like I played something that had a similar vibe like this a long time ago on an old mac, except it was this little walking creature and you interacted with the environment to show it safe places it could walk. and hopefully it didn't decide to walk off a ledge for no good reason and die.

Avatar image for hitomo

<< LINK REMOVED >> Lemmings ?

Avatar image for codename_halo

Thanks but I think I'll pass on this one. As much as I tried I couldn't feel the "Awe" in there, the way I did with say 'Child of Light', now that game is Awe inspiring.

Avatar image for hitomo

ita a n old and common theory that the experience we have when playing a game in general is those of a fresh born child, that gets to know the world around it by playing with it, by trial and error ...

this is the fundamental Motivation we have to play games, especialy video games

that said, what I just saw in the Video is nothing new or unique, the cube design is just familiar, Overall it appears like REZ or its Sequel and seems to be inspired by a lot of godd old 16bit titles


Avatar image for Jarten

Looks interesting, I think I'll keep an eye out for this one.

Avatar image for deactivated-58270bc086e0d

Hmm since when have children stopped having a sense of awe? Maybe the rest of us don't have a childlike sense of awe anymore because we are no longer children!

The older you are the less stuff surprises you. You learn to just accept stuff as it comes. Especially with so many movies and games giving sometimes very strange and very awesome experiences in crystal clear clarity.

Avatar image for spartanx169x

One reason why the "awe" is harder to come by is because games get hyped to hell and back like they are the best thing since sliced bread. Titanfall has gotten hyped so much I decided to not buy the game yet because they built up my expectations so high I know its no way the game could meet my expectations. I think this happens to so many people that they now either have completely unrealistic expectations and they get disappointed or they fully expect to get disappointed so any little thing they don't like becomes a reason to dislike a game. This would be a good topic for Dannys show The Point.

Avatar image for Rikardo91

Whoa, nice trailer. This game looks interesting.

Waiting for more gameplay footage.

The art design looks real good tbh.

Avatar image for Pyrosa

Best of luck to these folks... (and funding!)

Avatar image for Hurvl

Source looks as good as anything from the Source engine.

Avatar image for ecurl143

I'm thinking hook and Oculus Rift or Morpheus device to this game and I'll never want to come out.

Avatar image for Hurvl

<< LINK REMOVED >> hook and Oculus Rift/Morpheus? Where does the hook come into the picture, lol?

Avatar image for vladric

Just make Half Life 3 and I will awe like a child.

Avatar image for Navardo95

<< LINK REMOVED >> What a jerk...they are not connected to valve in the absolute slightest...except maybe they share the same name as the engine valve uses for their video games but thats about it..

Really tired of all the HL3 comments....its not gonna come until 2070..

Avatar image for Jarten

<< LINK REMOVED >>The game is not being made by Valve. It sounds like it's from an independent company who is just using the name "Source" for the game title. No intended association to Half Life. Just saying.

Avatar image for randomkidlol

Haven't really had awe moments since hl2 and the first couple xpacks of WoW.

Wait: Metroid Prime gave me some of those moments

Avatar image for Wild360

The "awe" is there, but too many in the gaming community are cynical asshats. One little imperfection and a community will crap on a game. It's sickening.

Avatar image for xXl_z3r0_lXx

<< LINK REMOVED >> I get what you're saying, and fully agree with it, but when was the last time you remember that you started up a game and got that same feeling as when you first put in your Zelda Ocarina of Time cartridge and experienced that amazing new world for the first time?

Avatar image for Wild360

<< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >> Fallout 3 springs to mind. Arkham City, AC4, Mass Effect and some others I'm criminally leaving out. Point is, I think gamers would enjoy games more if they'd get out of their own way. There are elements in many recent games that on par with the best of years past.

Avatar image for Megavideogamer

The Sense of Awe just goes by the Wayside as we age. End of story. Trying to recapture the childlike sense of world about the world or games. This cannot be done. Once you start learning about the world the Awe and wonder is done.

But I hope that they succeed in creating a new IP and the game does well. They are just fed up with the videogame industry and hope that they can go indie and enjoy making games again

Avatar image for Johny_47

I love that first paragraph, makes you think a lot and a real kick in the head for some, life should be like that all through not just infancy.

It's like, a child couldn't give two f**ks about mediocre things like adults do, it's why it's so much more fun being a kid. Adulthood... responsibility and aiming for things that we don't personally want, just something else to try and fill that black hole. What a load of f**kin' bollocks.

Avatar image for deactivated-5893d17ed65b4

Looks like a cool experience. You all should support their Kickstarter. I beleive a $10-15 commitment gets you a digital copy of the game, and you only get charged if they meet their goal.

Avatar image for Hurvl

<< LINK REMOVED >> The people wanting this to happen better hurry up, the kickstarter only has 4 days to go and just 28 % funding.

Avatar image for LiquidGold

Tron Butterfly

Avatar image for Aelfredus

I thought this was about the Source engine :(

Avatar image for Bumblebee1138

What a strange game....

Avatar image for spartanx169x

I distinctly remember that "Awe" feeling when I was playing Halo CE the first time thru specifically when I hit the button for the force field bridge to work underground. Have not had that sensation with hardly any games since then.