The Science of EMC

The Science of EMC
Aaron Lee

By Aaron Lee

March 1st 2011 at 3:00PM

We speak to the creator of a beautiful game inspired by the laws of physics

The laws of science are typically reproduced as a means of making games seem more ‘realistic’.

EMC was inspired by science itself. This experimental mobile game was created by Swiss developer Christian Etter and artist Mario von Rickenbach.

It’s a game of focus and function, where the players must avoid contact with magnetised triangles that are drawn to the small circular nucleus. And as an interactive expression of atomic theory it’s something quite special.

Etter tells Develop what led him to create EMC, talks about its minimalist art direction and discusses other experimental projects that he feels are worthwhile.

Where did the EMC project originate from?
Initially it started with an obsession for everything having slightly to do with gravity. Working as interaction designer, I started to use gravity and physical behaviours to visualise abstract process. It’s great for universal communication since everybody is familiar with its effects regardless of the cultural context.

So I started to read up about gravity, learned about the interconnection of time and space, the many mysteries of gravity. Naturally this progressed into acquiring knowledge about behaviour of matter on an atomic scale, which is different, but also linked to gravity. It is a rich and inspiring topic. Therefore I wanted to create EMC as an attempt to give some love to a seemingly stiff subject, which is in fact beautifully complex and simple at the same time.

How did you recruit your co-developer and artist, Mario von Rickenbach?
It took actually one year to find the right person to develop EMC. After a failed attempt a friend recommended Mario von Rickenbach, who previously completed his studies in Game Design at the University of Arts in Zurich. I figured Mario is not only from the same city, he’s also extremely talented. I especially like his lovely Mirage prototype. It’s great to work with him.

Rickenbach’s artwork appears to be very abstract. What informed his artistic direction?
For EMC we wanted to focus entirely on the gameplay without any compromises. Like in science, we wanted to eliminate out all unnecessary factors and create a system, which couldn’t be reduced any further. As Einstein once said: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Each visual element has a clear function and can’t be removed without destroying the entire game system.

The abstract forms and colours are chosen by their purpose and behaviour (good, evil, information). The high level of abstraction doesn’t allow any emotional associations which gives EMC a rather cold, but focused art direction, while most other games try to emotionalise their gameplay with visual effects and characters.

On your website, you say the gameplay came about by accident. At what point did you realise the prototype was ripe to be formed into a game?
At one point while testing the game people would start to keep playing and ignoring the fact that I would stand next to them waiting for them to hand back the phone. At this point we knew that the gameplay can’t be that bad.

The algorithms the game uses are based on scientific fact. Can you briefly explain how these rules create different visual outcomes in the simulation?
EMC ties different nuclear science elements and models together which actually don’t belong together. It’s not accurate science. At start it simulates the electromagnetic force bounding the electrons to its nucleus. In the game the player can boost the electrons into a higher energy level by penetrating the swirling electrons with a photon and boost it into a new quantum state. This makes the electrons increasingly faster and therefore makes it more difficult for the player to avoid electrons to fall into the nucleus, which would involve a violation of quantisation.

What was it about the iPhone that made it a good platform for this project?
Our aim was to reach people who don’t necessarily care about science. A casual game for the iPhone, the middle-class symbol of our days, seemed to be the best platform to bring this content to our target group. Other than that I was also curious to learn about the iPhone’s hardware capabilities.

Are you familiar with demoscene titles Linger in Shadows and .detuned for PS3? If so, what is your opinion of them?
Both are stunning! I believe strongly that whenever somebody is creating for passion, and not for markets, the outcome will be fresh and intriguing. Funnily enough, by ignoring the market a lot of these projects do really well since they are different to the existing mass. And if not it doesn’t matter, because the authors do it entirely for their own satisfaction and pleasure.

Would you consider EMC part of the demoscene in Switzerland?
To be honest I’m not even sure if Switzerland has a game scene, with seven million people it’s just a very small country. Even though it’s quite tech savvy you can probably count all good game developers on one hand.

Have you considered a free play mode, or something similar to the menu screen, that would allow players to view random patterns produced by the algorithms?
At the moment we are working on a new game title, a social experiment exploring the possibilities and limitations of human collaboration. We’re very excited about it and therefore pushed back further development of EMC until our new title has been realised.

You’ve managed to create an eye-catching game born from the scientific rules of an atom. Have you considered what effects you could create with other scientific rules?
In the end, scientific rules are the attempt of humanity to describe the behaviours of nature in words and numbers. Nature and science are an increasingly big influence in my work. At the moment I’m working on a complex geometrical lamp design, which is based on an algorithm-controlled pattern, similar as Stephan Wolfram’s Rule 110 and the world of fractals, a truly infinite source of inspiration.