Patrick Smith Interview
This interview and article was written under Evan Narcisse in a Games Journalism class
Patrick Smith walks to the 2015 Independent Game Festival award stage with a slight grin, his eyes downcast. He wears the unassuming uniform of most tech developers: the jeans, the button-down shirt, the sports jacket. His jacket, however, bears the fitting twist of a faint plaid print.
When he reaches the stage, he stands before a crowd of game developers and journalists, the title of his game, Metamorphabet, thrumming in primary colors on the massive LED screen screen behind him. “Excellence in Visual Art,” captions the title as he is handed his glass trophy. He addresses the audience: “Well, thank you.”
“I’ve never been to a games convention before,” he says. His voice carries back to my seat, deep in the auditorium. “And the number of amazing, brilliant, and kind people that I’ve met in the past few days, might exceed any other period of my life, tenfold.”
He finishes his acceptance speech by asking the audience to play the other nominated games. He exits the stage with the same grin and downcast eyes.
Hearing him describe the moment several months later, in a Brooklyn coffee shop, Smith is just as humble.
“They give you free alcohol, so I was pretty drunk,” he says over his decaf coffee.
“It was nice that I won the award, but it didn’t feel as important as you might think it would feel,” he explains. “That’s not just me being nice about winning.”
The room is as bright and quiet as the IGF awards were dark and electric, yet Smith remains as soft spoken as when he accepted his award. It isn’t surprising that he downplays winning what is ostensibly one of the highest honors in the indie game scene, Metamorphabet joining the ranks of Kentucky Route Zero, Dear Esther, and Fez.
Metamorphabet doesn’t boast the same poetic stories or memorable worlds as its newfound peers. The game is Smith’s attempt to recreate a childhood staple - the alphabet book - as a game. It is far more than a pretty face, however. As well as winning the IGF for visual art and being nominated for the IGF grand prize, it won an Apple design award in 2015. Underneath the accolades is a simple premise.
Beginning as any children’s alphabet book does: with “A.” Players march through 26 distinct “levels” of letters, as if they were turning a page. Each letter is presented with a satisfying snap and crash of symbols, then a woman’s calming voice announcing: “A,” “B,” or “C,” until you’ve made it through the whole alphabet. But it isn’t Metamorphabet’s similarities to its Sesame Street or picture book cousins that set it apart from a dense world of children’s educational games.
The letters of Metamorphabet come alive at the player’s behest. The letters’ responses to touch range from squeezing at a prod, to changing form at a poke, to spinning around the screen at the wildest of strokes. The “A” grows antlers at first touch, curling into itself with each unpleasant poke. It forms into an arch, and ambles towards the player. The “O” transforms into a curious ostrich, chasing after an orange the player throws around the screen.
Metamorphabet is Smith’s most recent and most produced (taking three years to develop) game, but it is not his only one. It is the culmination of over a decade of developing and quietly influencing game design.
Ken Wong, creator of the critical and popular hit Monument Valley, is one such designer. Wong cites an earlier game of Smith’s, Windosill, as an influence. Like Metamorphabet and Monument Valley, Windosill is a game with a series of simple, puzzle-like interactions.
“Windosill isn’t a ‘game’ in the traditional sense. You don’t ‘win’ it and it doesn’t depend on problem solving skills or hand-to-eye coordination,” Wong said when asked of Smith’s impact on his work. “It was highly influential on the design of our game Monument Valley. Like Windosill, Monument Valley is a series of vignettes, where the focus is on delightful interactions and animations. There is no failure and the journey is the reward.”
Wong isn’t the only developer to take notice of and be inspired by Smith. World of Goo’s developer Kyle Gabler and Hohokum’s Ricky Haggett are among the many indie developers to reach out to Smith over the years.
“I’m always surprised by how many game developers know my work, because I’m not in touch with any people on a personal level,” says Smith. From his first Flash games, like Acrobats or Spider in the early 2000s, the emails started coming in. Initially, it was just web developers.
“There just wasn’t a whole lot out there, it was like if you made something interesting it got passed around. I don’t think I was really aware there was an indie dev scene until like 2008. I think, like, Brandon Boyer tracked me down when he came to New York.”
Those first Flash games were developed with Smith’s budding web development career in mind, not chasing after becoming a game designer. After completing his BFA in painting in the late 1990s, he went into information graphics. Smith learned Adobe Illustrator, at the time a newer software for the St. Louis job he worked at the time. (“You really had to consider the number of points you would put on a line,” he says of the outdated versions of Illustrator.) Later, Smith would tackle Flash as a self-taught animator and programmer. “I started learning Flash because I thought I could get better work. I never really did, but what I found was it’s a really good way to learn to program,” he says.
Smith’s style is evident even in his non-digital work. In his paintings, thick landscapes constructed from alien toys and monstrous limbs clearly translate into the slicker Metamorphabet. His 2007 pencil sketches Citadel and EyeFlowers look like the graphite precursors to Windosill, so easily transferred to interactivity. All of his non-digital work has the same lush quality that invites touch.
Playing Smith’s early games, the ones constrained to desktop, the cursor acts as a metaphor for the finger. On trackpad or mouse, the cursor glides over the screen with a responsiveness that wouldn’t be the standard for games for years to comes. Not one of Smith’s games uses the keyboard — only the mouse (or later, fingers) interact in his games. Where Seasons uses the cursor to lead a unicycling egg-man, Feed the Head’s cursor tugs at a face, and Windosill’s interaction runs from tossing around a toy car to prodding at alien plants. Developed years before smartphones or tablets were readily available, Smith’s mindset about interaction was far ahead of its time.
“When I was making mouse-based things, I was thinking of the mouse as a finger, but now that there’s actual touch screens I think that’s effective,” he says. “I didn’t foresee touch screens or anything.”
But the advent of touch devices may have altered the trajectory of Smith’s work from web development niche to a broader audience. Ken Wong remembers being aware of the Flash version of Windosill’s existence for some time, but never finding it interesting.
“I guess it looked too simple and boring. At some point one of my colleagues suggested I play it on my iPad and it was kind of a revelation to me,” Wong said.
So well suited to touched devices, Smith’s games increased in popularity. As well growing into touch interaction, Smith describes the arc of his games as growing towards the toy-like, although that element of the imaginative play that toys invite clearly runs through all his games. One of the largest gaps in style is between his two most recent games, Windosill and Metamorphabet. Whereas Windosill has the tactile puzzling that would go on to influence Monument Valley, there are no apparent goals in Metamorphabet; instead, the imaginative play occurs only in the player’s mind.
“Adults do pretty much what I expect them to do. Kids don’t,” he says. “Kids never seem to get stuck, but I’ll get emails from adults who are confused on the games. They’ll look at the screen and they want to know what to do before they touch it and kids don’t have that problem. After I made Windosill for the iPad, I was getting a lot of emails from parents that were like, ‘My kid loves this game.’ And I’d see videos of 2-years-old playing through it.”
And there are videos of kids as young as 17 months playing Windosill or Metamorphabet. They’ll swipe cautiously at a letter and start at the way “E” transforms into an elephant, giggling at the parent behind the camera. Smith’s games appeal to that very basic joy of play, the kind where imagination trumps rules or systems. It’s not hard to see why other developers would look to his games as a standard.
Jim Munroe, artist and founder of the videogame culture non-profit Hand Eye Society in Toronto, is a self-described fan of Smith’s work.
“Patrick's games have a kinetic depth to them, in that they react in a more naturalistic way than the button-pushing of a lot of games. Because of this, the less experienced players I've seen interact immediately in a more natural way, manipulating objects very easily.”
His daughter, Sidney, is also a fan of Smith’s games. Although she was 7-years-old, well past the age of letter learning, she delighted in Metamorphabet, Monroe said. Sidney sent Smith his first non-digital fan letter - a folded sheet of printing paper, with the crayon scrawling of a seven-year-old. “Dear Patrick, I love you game,” she writes above her rendition of the Metamorphabet app icon, bright green “A,” yellow antlers and all. “And I love Windosill. B was my favorite letter.”
But at festivals, Smith hasn’t seen many children play Metamorphabet when showing it at games festivals. Instead, he’s one man with a little alphabet game in a sea of equally brilliant game makers. From the sprawling convention halls of E3 or GDC to the more intimate settings of festivals like Indiecade or the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, the attendees are more likely to be adults - developers, marketers, or journalists.
“It was overwhelming,” he says of the experience. “I was more worried about the physical aspect of spending three days running around or maybe the social aspect.”
Smith’s trepidation at presenting Metamorphabet at GDC or E3 is clear in the way he holds himself; he pauses after every question, stares at the ceiling, hands clasped in his lap. It’s difficult to imagine him transitioning from the hipster-y cafés of Brooklyn to peddling an alphabet game amongst developers he’d never met, or at least not in person.
“It was overwhelming,” he repeats, “Just talking to people all day, so I was on a weird high from that. I had a few people play [Metamorphabet] for a bit then turn to me and say, ‘Have you seen Windosill?’ So that’s a weird feeling.”
At the end of the first day of showing Metamorphabet, at GDC, he trekked to the award ceremony. He was hoping to win, as anyone would, but he had been a juror in competitions before. He had submitted to festivals before, lost before, overlooked for nominations at all.
Since then, Smith’s run has finished. After nearly a year of showing Metamorphabet, he’s returned to Brooklyn.
“I’m working on things,” Smith says. He’s hunched over the tiny café table, his mug half full. “I was on a pretty fixed track for a long time, making an alphabet game, you’re going from A-Z. So, I’m kind of happy to not really know what I’m doing right now.”
“I’m just playing around.”