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Hands-on preview with the creator of Portal’s next game, Quantum Conundrum

You might not immediately recognize the name Kim Swift but you’re almost certainly familiar with Portal, the game that her student project Narbacular Drop was the basis for. Her next project, for Airtight Games, is called Quantum Conundrum, and it’s like Portal in the sense that both are puzzle games that unfold from a first-person perspective.

The similarities end there, however. Where Portal was all bleak, lonely surroundings and malevolent humor, Quantum Conundrum is light-hearted, colorful, and occasionally downright cute. The hook is different too. In Portal, you create holes in space-time to bridge two different locations and, frequently, play with basic physics like gravity. Quantum Conundrum is more about bending the physical rules of the universe in various ways. You’re not bridging point A to point B; instead, you’re figuring out how to move from one to the other when different kinds of obstacles pop up.

The story follows a young boy who goes to visit his uncle, Professor Fitz Quadrangle, at his elaborate mansion. Fitz is a mad scientist and inventor, and his humongous home is as much a testing facility as it is a living space. The story proper kicks off when an explosion occurs, causing the professor to disappear. My own hands-on GDC demo covered the game leading up to that point, equal parts tutorial and story introduction. When Quantum Conundrum comes to Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and Windows PCs this summer, it’s this section that players will get to sample in demo form.

A special glove known as the Interdimensional Shift Device, or I.D.S., is central to tackling the puzzles in Quantum Conundrum. The four shoulder buttons on a typical console gamepad allow players to switch between four different dimensions, provided of course that the right batteries are located first. Each new room in the mansion serves up a different puzzle, and the process of finding these batteries resets in each one (at least, that’s how it worked during the demo).

Most objects you see that aren’t nailed down can be physically picked up with the press of a face button. This can be anything from books and lamps to (under certain circumstances) safes and tables. Also, batteries. The first step in each new room typically involves finding the nearest battery and pressing another face button to throw it into a special machine that works in tandem with your I.D.S., unlocking it’s dimensional shift capabilities.

Jumping into a new dimension lays a color filter across the screen and changes up the physical properties of the world around you. The first one you encounter is the Fluffy Dimension. Here, everything around you is much lighter than it would be in the real world. Heavy safes — which all look mysteriously like Companion Cubes — can be lifted and even thrown while the Fluffy dimension is active.

One simple early puzzle puts a wall of glass between the player and the exit door. There’s a safe in the middle of the room, but it can only be lifted when the Fluffy dimension is active. Simply picking up the safe and throwing its Fluffy form at the glass won’t do much; its light weight simply isn’t enough to break through. The trick, then, is to throw the safe and then quickly switch back to the normal dimension while it’s in mid-air. This gives the object enough heft to punch through the glass and clear the way to the next trial.

Then there’s the Heavy dimension. This one, as you might expect, increases the weight of the objects around you. Basic objects like books, lamps, and chairs become unmovable while you’re in this dimension. You can, however, drop a book onto a pressure sensitive pad and then go into the Heavy dimension, which gives the item enough weight to trigger the pad.

There’s another aspect of the Heavy dimension that’s important for solving puzzles: the more tightly packed collections of atoms making up each object also has the effect of making things more durable. For example, a typical laser fence-style laser will easy cut through and destroy a safe in the normal dimension, but that same safe will remain intact, blocking the beam entirely, in the Heavy dimension. One early puzzle involves using a combination of Fluffy and Heavy, plus a few safes, to get past a laser fence.

Another, more complicated puzzle, starts out with you pressing a button which drops four stacks of four-high safes onto the ground across the room. These four columns are jumping distance from one another, and they sit alongside a raised platform that you can reach through normal means. The idea is to cut down each stack in descending order; you need one stack of four, one stack of three, one stack of two and one lone safe all by itself, essentially creating a set of stairs.

Pressing that safe-spawning button has an additional effect as well. A red laser slices across each column, moving left to right and then reversing direction and dropping down one level on the other side. The trick here is to keep jumping back and forth between the Heavy dimension — which renders the safes invulnerable to the laser — and the normal dimension. It’s tricky to get the pattern down, but you eventually end up using that laser to cut out a set of “stairs” for you to use.

The final dimension that I got to sample was the Slow dimension. You can probably figure out how this one works. You don’t get full control of it during the earliest section of the game; instead, you’re jumping on floating, fast-moving pieces of furniture and riding them along until the Slow dimension activates. It’s something that occurs at regular intervals, and usually just in time for you to jump to the next thing in the puzzle sequence.

The solid and easy-to-grasp set of concepts on offer in this first section of Quantum Conundrum is further bolstered by its whimsical sense of humor and the detailed world. The puzzle rooms aren’t just built to support the gameplay; they live within the world, which in this case is Professor Quadrangle’s home. There are signs of a human presence — an admittedly eccentric human presence — such as paintings of failed experiments

There’s no price yet, and no release date, but Ms. Swift certainly has a solid new hook in place for her next first-person puzzler. Quantum Conundrum is nothing like Portal, yet it manages to capture that same sense of cleverness behind the design. Look for it in your digital storefront of choice this summer.