February 23, 2017
SCA Alumni Stories: Sam Rosenthal
By Sabrina Malekzadah
How did your education at USC prepare you for a career in your discipline?
The Interactive Media and Games Division (IMGD) at SCA focused on what Tracy Fullerton called the “playcentric” design process. We came up with ideas, prototyped them, tested with players, and threw out what didn’t work while refining what did. The technology we use to make games changes all the time, but this rapid iteration process is always at the heart of how great games are made. School provided a safe place to try out rough ideas before throwing most of them away. It’s easy to fall into the trap of polishing something to completion before creating a solid foundation, especially when on a tight deadline. The IMGD was also unique in that it was housed within SCA. My film classes pulled back the curtain on visual storytelling, and encouraged me to consider which film principles apply to interactive stories. Film and games are very different, but both film and game makers can benefit from understanding color theory, choreography, storyboarding, and how camera affects an audience’s psyche. In my final year at USC, I led a small team in the Advanced Games Project class. I learned so much about team dynamics and management, and after a number of ups and downs, we finished a project with a lot of potential. Several of us continued working on it after graduation, and eventually the project became Where Cards Fall. A few of my teammates from that very class still work with me today.
In your opinion, what are some of the most exciting, recent developments in the gaming world? I’m really excited about the new publishing models opening up throughout the industry. It’s easy to name film production companies that focus on art house and independent films, but there was never really an equivalent in the games industry. Annapurna recently started an interactive division to support [independent] projects. Small companies are partnering with other small companies. My company, The Game Band, exists because the creators of Alto’s Adventure took and interest in Where Cards Fall and decided to partner with us.
How did you originally get into interactive media? I’ve played games since I was a little kid! Someone gave my parents a NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) as a wedding gift, and I definitely enjoyed it more than they did. I spent hours playing classics like Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, and Metal Gear. When I reached high school, I started to become bored of the interactive power fantasies that dominated store shelves. Fortunately, independent game makers found new outlets online and through digital storefronts around the same time. I played a Flash game called flOw that turned out to be a USC student named Jenova Chen’s thesis project. I was captivated by it, and after researching the program where it was born, I knew I had to apply.
When working on a game, what role do you typically take on? Design, although I’m also directing and producing Where Cards Fall. Designers rarely do just one thing. I did level design at Disney’s Where’s My Water?, which focused on grooming dimensional space into enjoyable physics puzzles. After graduation, I worked at Toys for Bob on the Skylanders franchise, where I expressed the characters’ personalities through their movement and interactions. After that, I worked with Giant Sparrow on What Remains of Edith Finch, which was more of a programming-oriented design job, but since it was a small team I had my hands in various parts of the project. Steve Jobs once said, “Design is how it works.” That’s so true for game design. Whether you’re laying out an environment, tuning a character’s jump height, or determining a win-condition, your work as a game designer is mostly invisible. But, it’s also what gives a game its identity.
What is your favorite thing about gaming and interactive media? Games have a unique ability to elicit empathy. When you play a game, you’re not just watching characters on a screen; you’re walking in their shoes. There’s so much untapped potential for using games to explore different lifestyles and identities. Gone Home helped me understand what it’s like to discover a sibling’s struggle with sexuality. Journey’s perfectly chosen set of interactions encouraged me to seek companionship. Papers, Please challenged my moral convictions by casting me as an immigration officer with a family to support. I play games to become someone I am not, and to be somewhere I am not. When I was a teenager trapped in rigid routines, I played games to create a sense of power and control. As an adult, I no longer want to play solider. I want to play new roles to broaden my perspective.
Given all the high-tech applications, how do you define gaming and interactive media as an art form? One of my favorite aspects of this medium is that it’s impossible to broadly define. Every time someone tried to create an all-encompassing definition, a game comes out a year later that completely invalidates it. We’re still discovering what games can be. There are games we play waiting in line, games we play on TV, games we strap on headsets to explore, and games we fill arenas to see. Within a single category, the spectrum of experiences is still incredibly wide-ranging. I can use a mouse and keyboard to contemplate in Dear Esther, or to compete in League of Legends. I do think we can find some connective tissue, though. All games are participatory. Your interactions affect an experience someone else crafted. The dialogue between player and designer is unique to games, and fundamental to what they are.
Tell us about your new game, Where Cards Fall. What inspired you to create this game? How long has it been in the works?
Where Cards Fall is a coming of age story where you build a house of cards to form and shape the world around you. The houses help you move through imaginative puzzles and bring vivid memories of adolescence to life. My game ideas usually begin as themes. The first spark for this one came while listening to Radiohead’s House of Cards, which sounds like a gentle plea to knock down a structure in favor of something new. I thought a house of cards was a beautiful way to express fragility, and its tactile nature seemed perfect for a game mechanic. True to the playcentric approach, I tried lots of different mechanics to express the theme throughout my time in college. I made paper prototypes during my freshman year, but discarded that design. During my Intermediate Game Design Class, I created a digital prototype with a friend of mine, but that design had lots of issues as well. It wasn’t until I reached the Advanced Games class that the design started to crystallize. The mechanics developed at USC are still in the game today, but in the student version they were sparsely used as storytelling devices. I discovered far more possibilities afterwards, and reexamined my student work with a new lens.
What advice would you give to current students studying interactive media and games? Be curious about everything, and find inspiration in your own experiences. We all get into games because we love games, but if games are your only interest, then your work is bound to be derivative. Zelda was inspired by Miyamoto’s childhood excursions in the woods. Pokemon was inspired by Satoshi Tajiri’s love for bug catching. Flower was inspired by Jenova Chen’s move from Shanghai to California. There is a split in all forms of entertainment between craft and art. Most games that are well regarded are great craft, but are not art. If you are primarily interested in making the best version of an existing genre, by all means, focus on understanding its intricacies. If however, you are interested in pushing boundaries, expressing a specific idea, or taking us someplace new, then look beyond games. There is so much to see, and so much to learn.