The Turing Test Interview
Interview with Howard Philpott from Bulkhead Interactive, Creative Producer and Level Designer for 'The Turing Test'
A staple I do in all interviews in order to start things off is to ask that you elaborate a bit about your game (s) that people might not know?
Howard: The Turing test is a first person puzzler on Xbox One, PC and Steam, going over what it means to be human. It’s about your morality as a player and we try to play on that. You take on the role of Ava Turing, her goal is to go to Europa’s surface as you’re orbiting Jupiter and find out what’s happening on the planet’s base. Once you get into the base you discover things are not what it was supposed to be. You find that there are puzzles setup to lock you out as it’s a Turing test and you need to solve this puzzles to discover what’s happened.
After creating Pneuma: Breath of Life what did the team learn in regards to the design of puzzles and atmosphere when working on The Turing Test?
Howard: The biggest thing we learned from Pneuma is how important player feedback is. With Pneuma we only had six months to develop the game. I was working part time nine to five for free at the studio and then seven to two at the bar just to pay my rent. To be honest the amount of time we got with testing with people was minimal. We knew from Pneuma we needed to get people playing and testing with the game so we wanted to get as much as we could with the Turing Test.
We didn’t have that polish time last time and we got so much feedback we could develop a smooth gameplay curve to learn mechanics throughout the story without feeling them stupid. Which is important in a puzzle game as we didn’t want people feeling like that. We really focused on that gameplay curve and it ended up paying off as people said it was great like the Talos Principle or Portal and people seem to be getting it.
What were some of the key goal when working on The Turing Test?
Howard: With our first game Pneuma we had a very shiny game. It was the first unreal engine game on Xbox One and second Playstaton 4 I believe. We knew we wanted to make things pretty, beautiful again and get people thinking this was a good looking game. But we also wanted to hit the nail on the head with gameplay, we wanted to teach the player without a tutorial. Players from any background should pick up the controller and learn through experimentation.
The first puzzle in The Turing Test is just a box and a socket, most people just pick up the box and put it in the socket. Most just have that link that the box will power doors. As you manipulate and build on the mechanics we wanted to nail it as with the first game people would learn and be like check out these mechanics. Though they wouldn’t know what it was so we wanted to nail that this time with how they learn how to play.
I quite enjoyed seeing the narration and story elements being layered into the gameplay. How did the team go about deciding where story portions should take place during the puzzles?
Howard: It kinda came naturally. We originally had 100 puzzles and we cut it down to 80. We went through every puzzle with a rating system to test based on difficulty or how fun it was. We ended up cutting out 20 puzzles as they just weren’t up to the standard of the others. Once we had the 80 puzzles knew how to tell our story. It just kind’ve made sense that every ten puzzles you’d get an area of relaxation to find out the story. It fit in well as you read and discover, we knew that we wanted that at the start and by the end we knew when we wanted the twists to come. It made sense to have it come in as somewhat of a reward.
What was the process behind the creation of the puzzles in the game and what strides were taken to provide a challenge while not making anything too complex?
Howard: It was pretty difficult, it was where a lot of player testing came into play as we found out with all the feedback. Going back to that system I mentioned we were able to come up with the best puzzles and discover that some people would just get stuck on certain ones. That’s fine as we could tell puzzle games weren’t their thing and that was ok. Whereas others really loved puzzlers and they get into, they’d play the demo the whole way through and give us feedback.
It was perfect as that was the target market and it was really cool to get the feedback from those people. We had a guy discover with a puzzle early on with a box that you can take while holding power and replace it with the power. It was interesting to see people to play it as you knew if they’d completed it or not by this one puzzle. They’d get desperate throwing the box or jumping on it saying please!
There are secret puzzles in the game which each seem to hang onto a certain philosophical statement, what was the process in creating these and how was the decision made in how much they would tie into the story?
Howard: Our lead designer is heavily in to philosophy and religion among other things. He’s also our lead designer on our puzzles for Pneuma and The Turing Test. It made sense to merge his knowledge of all his levels into the design. Before building the game I didn’t know much about The Turing test and learned about it during production. Playing the game teaches you if you‘ve never heard of the Turing Test or the Chinese Room along with these others similar concepts.
It teaches you the basics and it builds upon those ideas for those that know about those things. Which I feel our lead designer really nailed when it comes to the delivery of the story. As he also wrote the story and he did really well on that. I know he did aim with the optional puzzles to go more in-depot with the philosophy. One of my personal favorites was the room where you get to type the responses to the computer. It’s cool to reward those that do the optional puzzles as you can sink deeper into the story.
In regards to the characters, what were the goals when making the personalities of the main character engineer Ava and her companion AI Tom?
Howard: They were interesting characters. Ava tells the story simplistically to people and obviously Tom responds. Tom asks questions throughout the game such as the player would ask. I often asked myself these questions while reading the script as they’ve actually put in for Ava to ask Tom. Tom is obviously the AI of the game, he’s supposed to feel, not like an oppressor though always present. Watching what you’re doing and supposed to feel if he’s always on the right or wrong side. You’re never sure if he’s sentient and it was very cool for us to play on that. We strongly implied that he’s sentient, but he’s not and he’s an AI trying to get out of his bounds. There was this really interesting dialogue where he’s trying to prove he’s conscious and I liked the delivery of those lines.
Both Pneuma: Breath of Life and The Turing Test seem to carry heavy philosophical statements in their nature, how does that influence the creation of the titles and where did the decision to build a game around these concepts come from?
Howard: Because we’re an independent studio we don’t have any limit on the messages we can portray. Which is very cool and something you wouldn’t get ten years ago. You have these strong philosophical messages you can display and try to make people question their own morals or what they’d do in those situations. It’s great as an independent studio we can say that without anyone telling us no.
Being part of the Square Enix Collective, how did that influence the creation of The Turing Test and how was it to be part of that program?
Howard: It was really great actually. With Pneuma we didn’t perform that well on PC in terms of sales and we did great on consoles. It enabled us as Steam is very saturated with games and it’s important to get the attention of gamers. What’s cool about the Collective is we completely got to keep independence and we just said this is the content we’re producing and they help us with marketing on PC. It’s been a great relationship as they push the game to people like you with so many influences on Youtube and stuff like that. It’s been great and fair to say we’re happy we went them. It’s really paid off for us in getting the game out to those interested in it. We don’t know if we would have reached as many influences without them. It’s great to see so many people enjoying the game right now.
Lastly I would like to leave a spot for you to say something or go over anything I might have missed during the interview?
Howard: First of all if you haven’t tried The Turing Test go out and try it. It’s a game for the thinking person, I like to think people that come away question what they’d do in that situation or if they did the right thing afterwards. I think it’s a game that is something different from normal gaming experience. I play a lot of shooters and we’re making Battalion 1944 which is our next game and is a World War II shooter. I play shooters and FIfa with friends, when it comes to The Turing Test it’s nice to get a break in terms of gameplay and story. If you want to try it out, go for it and that’s the message I’d like to give people.
Our The Turing Test Review
Bulkhead Interactive Site
The Turing Test Xbox Store Page
The Turing Test Steam Page (We're mentioned!)