Expand: A Chat with Creator Chris Johnson

By Nick Prince – 14th August 2015
Expand: A Chat with Creator Chris Johnson
I recently was lucky enough to have a chat with Chris Johnson, creator of the highly anticipated indie darling Expand, before it releases sometime next month. Chris was kind enough to answer questions about Expand, the industry and beyond. Enjoy!
Expand caught my attention almost immediately, and my curiosity only grew as I learned more. How would you describe Expand to those unaware?
When talking about Expand I like to start by describing the experience of playing the game and then describe what the actual game is since it’s quite different from a lot of other games. Playing Expand feels like you’re meditating and solving a Sudoku puzzle at the same time. In the game itself you move through this every shifting circular labyrinth that is twisting and stretching around you. You steer a small pink square through the world and must avoid being squashed.
As I spent more time with Expand, I was continuously surprised at what it had to offer. Just when I thought I had its limits nailed down I would encounter a new pattern, or visual effect in the labyrinth that would warp my brain once again. Was this part of the design of Expand? To push perceptions about what a simple maze puzzle game could be?
I think the variation in the game came about from our design philosophy. Our intention was to explore the design space that was grounded in a very basic set of rules and then to present the interesting discoveries back to the player. Adding to that, level creation for Expand takes a significant amount of time and so just like writing a letter by hand, you have more time to really think about what you’re creating and why it’s significant to the game.
There is a lot of richness in even the most basic gameplay systems. This is one of the reasons why sequels to games can feel fresh despite the series having many iterations. With Expand I think we’ve done a reasonably good job at squeezing out the interesting ideas inside the game.
The Labyrinth is Constantly Shifting and Evolving in Surprising New Ways, Making it Hard to Predict What's Coming Next

The Labyrinth is Constantly Shifting and Evolving in Surprising New Ways, Making it Hard to Predict What’s Coming Next

Expand and it’s soundtrack elicit a unique feeling. An experience which, for me, carefully treads the line between video games and art. I found similar experiences within Journey and Sound Shapes. Was it experiences like these that influenced and inspired Expand? What is its origin story?
Personally I am very fond of Jonathan Mak’s (Sound Shapes creator) previous game Everyday Shooter. Playing that game is a spiritual experience for me. What I learnt from Everyday Shooter and to some extent the games you mentioned is that you can bring more emotional depth to a game by putting more care and thought into the music. This is why I’ve worked really closely with Chris Larkin who has composed such a fantastic score for the game.
Expand started at a game jam about the end of the world. I was creating a game where players had to jump between planets while they were being sucked into a black hole at the centre of the screen. Towards the end of that game jam I ran into some technical problems so I decided to scrap that idea. That night I went to sleep still thinking about ideas and had the most amazing dream where I pictured Expand much like it is now. The next day and a bit I worked hard to create a basic prototype of the initial game. The prototype was pretty promising and so I continued to build it out further.

With all the buzz around the game, as well as its various awards and praise from shows around the world, does the attention validate what you were trying to achieve with Expand? Did you expect this kind of reception?
It definitely does verify that we’re doing something right which is reassuring. I think it’s dangerous to look for validation in an area where you can’t directly control the response. So we really just try to focus on making the best game we can and compare that to our personal standards. With that said you can’t entirely distance yourself from external validation and for us that validation has helped a lot in raising the bar.
The benefit of not focusing on external validation is that when that validation comes you’re genuinely surprised and happy about. We never expected the response that we’ve gotten from Expand. It’s been amazing.
With the indie gaming scene only growing more rampant as time goes on, do you think independent games that offer up something completely fresh, such as Expand, are going to become more common moving forward? Do you consider it an important step for the medium itself?
Maybe, it really depends on whether developers and the wider games community see merit in games that bring fresh ideas. At the moment game designers are still learning a lot about what games are and so are probably more predisposed to being open to new ideas. If the discipline begins to harden then there might be less interest in this stuff. It’s interesting comparing video games to another medium such as books. Readers are probably much more interested in reading a book with a great story compared to one that experiments with the form.
There are forces acting in both directions. For example, more people from different backgrounds are discovering videos games and are using the medium to express themselves. Yet there is also a rise in games schools which are institutionalizing the discipline of game design. I think it’s always good for people to be experimenting with the medium. These experiments question and force us to re-evaluate the medium and what it means to make games.
See that Red Stuff? Avoid It!

See that Red Stuff? Avoid It!

Speaking of the future, what can you see it holding for you? More mind and perception altering games?
Once Expand is finished I’d like to spend some time making several smaller games. With those games I’d really like to challenge players in different way. Nothing is concrete as of yet. You’ll have to wait and see where things go.
Expand is due for release on Windows, Mac and Linux. Release window is currently September 2015. Find out more about the game and its unique, almost indescribable experience at its website.