Ian Dallas - The Unfinished Swan
Media Storm

Ian Dallas

is a Los Angeles game designer and grad student at USC. The Unfinished Swan is the only game he has officially announced. He has worked as a designer on games such as The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom and Sam & Max Season Two. You can keep up with him at www.iandallas.com

Interview by | photos courtesy of Ian Dallas published | april ‘09
Unfinished Swan menu Unfinished Swan city Unfinished Swan doorUnfinished Swan hallwayUnfinished Swan bench

Play Q&A With Ian Dallas

The Arc: Where do you hail from?

Ian Dallas: I grew up in Olympia, Washington.

The Arc: As a child - what was your favorite thing to?

Ian Dallas: In third grade I got the Nintendo Entertainment System and fell in love with Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda.

The Arc: What sort of things do you remember doing as a kid?

Ian Dallas: Aside from playing games, I remember spending most of my time building junk out of, among other things, wood, rope, trees, gasoline and fireworks. That reached its peak the summer before high school when I was working on some sort of tree fortress and managed to fall 25 feet to the ground. I was lucky to break only one arm. After that, I spent less time outside and more time reading.

The Arc: What are you currently studying at USC?

Ian Dallas: I’m an MFA student in the Interactive Media Department. My research tends to focus on games and other virtual environments. This week, for example, I built a procedural city generator that creates a random network of freeways, streets, and buildings that kind of looks like a city, if you squint.

I’ve basically used my time in graduate school to pursue my own research, and teach myself all the things I wanted to learn about video game development. I called this my "Katamari completeness principle," meaning that by the time I left school I wanted to be able to make every part of the game Katamari Damacy, a delightfully absurd game from Japan about a little boy who rolls thing up into a giant ball. I don’t expect to actually make games entirely myself but I wanted to understand the basics of how all the various parts worked so I could make more judicious use of their strengths and design around their shortcomings.

The Arc: How long have you been working on and designing games?

Ian Dallas: I started working on games three years ago. Before that I was a comedy writer, first at the Onion and then in TV. I’d always planned on moving to video games eventually but as a writer it was hard to find anything interesting to do in games – writers are generally brought in at the very end of a game’s development and asked to make things sound better, or just come up with a hundred different ways for an Orc to say "yes" when the player clicks on them.

Eventually I decided that the only way I was going to be able to having any meaningful impact on games was if I learned how to make them from scratch. So I decided to take a few years off and teach myself how to do that, which is how I wound up in graduate school.

The Arc: What are some of your favorite game projects that you have worked on in the past?

Ian Dallas: Last year I was a level designer on a USC student game called The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, which was an Edward Gorey-esque game about time travel.

The Arc: What was the inspiration behind The Unfinished Swan?

Ian Dallas: It started out as a very simple prototype to see what it would feel like to be in a totally white space whose outlines could only discerned by splattering paint. It was part of an ongoing research project I was involved in exploring alternate ways to move about in virtual spaces. Every week I’d bring in a new prototype, so it was all very fast and loose.

The Arc: Could you describe some of what you do in your process as you work on The Unfinished Swan?

Ian Dallas: The most helpful thing I did was take 4 months off to let things percolate. I developed the initial gameplay mechanic of throwing paint, which I felt pretty happy with, but I had no idea where to take that idea after the first five minutes. It felt kind of gimmicky. I knew I wanted to create moments that evoked a sense of awe and wonder but I didn't have any sense of what the overall framing device for the game was going to be.

Then one day I was in a store reading a children's book and suddenly everything clicked. The feeling I got from picking up and reading a slender children's book was the same feeling I wanted players to have in approaching and playing the game. Having a concrete reference, something I could actually hold in my hands, really helped clarify which of the infinite directions I wanted to go off in.

My day-to-day process is to build ideas out as quickly as possible so I can start messing around with them. I learn a lot from being able to interact with things in real time, I come up with all sorts of stuff I never would have thought of if I was just trying to visualize the experience in my head.

The Arc: Aside from making it a visually stunning game, what other things will you be incorporating to engage the player’s senses?

Ian Dallas: My overall goal is to create a game that offers strange new experiences players have never had before. The game design is focused on creating moments that evoke a sense of awe and wonder. I think the most crucial aspect of that is a sense of surprise. So with regards to the formal elements (visual aesthetics, sound design, etc) that suggests an experience with a huge variety of styles and an environment where players are never sure about what’s around the corner.

The Arc: At the Tokyo Game Show you talked about how it is hard to "test for wonder" as you develop the game. Have you found any new ways to gauge and use it to steer your development?

Ian Dallas: Not yet. I think wonder is a very delicate thing, so it’s almost impossible to test things out on regular players until the game’s pretty well along. So for now I’m relying more on my own gut and on feedback from other game developers, who are used to playing games in a rough state and imagining what it’ll feel like when completed. And I’m still doing playtests with regular players, because there are plenty of other things to be learned from watching them play the game.

The Arc: Will there be more about the story revealed to the player as they move along in the game?

Ian Dallas: I'm trying to keep the narrative as simple and straightforward as possible. Here’s the current idea: The player is a young boy chasing after a swan. In the opening, the swan leaps out of an unfinished painting and waddles off into an entirely white world.

The emphasis is less on the overall story and more on throwing players into bizarre situations they've never seen before. It's a bit like Alice in Wonderland, where the story provides thematic continuity to an otherwise somewhat random series of adventures.

The Arc: What lies ahead for The Unfinished Swan?

Ian Dallas: I'm talking to several publishers about a commercial version of The Unfinished Swan but I'm not ready to announce anything just yet.

The Arc: Who are some of your biggest influences and inspirations?

Ian Dallas: Books and movies are the primary influences I’m aware of. For authors, that’s mostly Borges, Kafka and Gogol. For movies I’d like to think there are traces of The Dark Crystal, Time Bandits, Tampopo, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and Ugetsu in everything I do.

In terms of personal heroes, Jim Henson is the person I most aspire to. Right up until the pneumonia.

The Arc: How do creativity and imagination impact your life on a daily basis?

Ian Dallas: I look at making games as a tool for me to learn new things. At the start of the process, it’s a great excuse to do all sorts of research into subjects that may or may not make it into games at some point. Lately, for example, I’ve been reading about ants, ornithology, fables, animation history, and fluid dynamics. Turning those ideas into a game is an opportunity to really explore those topics and see what I can do with them.

I don’t think it’s an accident that all my games happen to be about exploration.

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