Physics engines may form the backbone of many video games, but very rarely does physics take center stage in a game's plot. In my experience, most educational games that aim to teach physics lack the immersion and fun factor to retain a player's attention for extended periods of time.
Particulars is not one of those games. It's simple, fun, and addicting. Along the way, you'll even learn quite a bit of particle physics. Best yet, there's a free demo available now. The independent game studio behind Particulars, SeeThrough Studios, plans to release a finished version of Particulars in early 2014, and you can catch a glimpse of its gameplay in the video below.
Particulars throws you into the subatomic world, granting you control of a lonely down quark. Soon, however, you'll encounter a number of subatomic friends and enemies: anti-down quarks, up quarks, and eventually larger particles like neutrons.
All of the particles mimic the behavior of their real-life counterparts: anti-down quarks will destroy you if you collide with them; up quarks will latch onto you; and other down quarks will repel you. The game's increasingly difficult levels challenge you to create collisions, avoid destruction, and orchestrate the movement of the particles around you in a variety of ways. Every level's different, and new levels introduce new particles, adding complexity and challenge.
Although the game has educational elements, it introduces them seamlessly without detracting from the fun of subatomic explosions. Whenever a new element enters the mix, you'll get a quick snapshot of its properties such as its charge.
But this information isn't merely educational; it's also critical to survive the increasingly dangerous and complex levels. For instance, coupling with an up quark will give you a positive charge, allowing you to repel negatively charged particles. Some levels will require you to protect other particles from their antimatter counterparts while others encourage you to create as many explosions as possible. The electromagnetic force plays a central role in the game, and the charge of the game's particles appear as an encompassing red or blue aura as seen in the screengrab below.
If you ever forget how certain particles interact, you can enter the game's "Examination Mode." In this mode, you can hover over any particle on the screen to see its relevant properties — critical information when your antimatter counterpart can destroy you at any moment.
Between the levels of subatomic mayhem, another, related plot develops. This story follows a young physics researcher named Alison, and you'll learn more about her through cut-scenes, quotes, and anecdotes from various points in her life. Although the game remains unfinished, the beginnings of Alison's story showed a great deal of promise and gave the game a human touch lacking in the subatomic world.
Interview with SeeThrough Studios
Last week, I had a chance to ask the game's lead developer, Paul Sztajer, a few questions about the game. My questions touched on Paul's physics background, the inspiration for the game, and the intersection of video games and science. Here's an abridged version of my interview:
Physics Central: What inspired you and your team to create Particulars? Did it start with the idea of creating a particle physics video game, or did you simply find particle physics to be a good fit for the mechanics/game play you already had in mind?
Particulars is actually the first game that I ever made. The first ever version was a really simple flash game that I made in a week, back in 2009. Over the years, the game has changed considerably to become what it is, but the core concepts can still be found it that early version.
The game concept comes from my love of High Energy Physics (which I studied as a part of my Physics major, and was my favourite senior subject), and the thought that many of the laws governing that world could be shown in a simple simulation that would probably create really interesting emergent behaviour.
Physics Central: How have you made sure the science remains accurate throughout the game? Do you have anyone consulting to ensure accuracy?
Accuracy is difficult for a game like Particulars. We've always taken the approach that the game has to be fun and interesting to the non-scientist, and that some level of accuracy can be sacrificed towards that goal (the simple fact that the particles are circles that can collide with each other is all sorts of wrong, and yet it's vital for the game to work at all). I've never felt that the game was a good replacement for a textbook or wikipedia, and so have focused on creating enough interest in our players that they'll consult these other sources.
There is, however, a point at which accuracy has to take precedence. I've generally relied on my own knowledge and research to create a balance, and have generally preferenced the accuracy of high-level concepts over lower-level details.
A feature that we're currently working on is an in-game encyclopedia that's directly linked from the 'examination mode' - essentially, you can click on a particle or feature to get more information about it. Ideally, this will then link players to further resources should they want to learn more.
We'll definitely be bringing in some consultants to ensure that this is accurate (and are currently talking to some Physics Education researchers at Sydney University about the possibility of this), especially since this system has the unenviable task of explaining where the simulation itself is innacurate. This is actually an area where we'd love to get a lot more input, as I'm fairly keen to get it right.
Physics Central: I thought the examination mode was a really cool way to see the science behind all of the interactions going on at full speed. Was this always intended to be part of the game, or did something during development prompt you to include it?
The 'examination mode' itself is the result of many iterations of the game. At some point, we realised that we wouldn't be able to keep telling players what things were (because it'd get frustrating), and that they might need a reference. This brought about the creation of the tooltips that pop up when you mouse-over an object.
The slow-down and the labelling of this as 'examination mode' came as a way to make this process smoother and easier.
Fairly early on, I had the idea of pushing this further to allow players to click on the tooltips to find out more about the physics. The idea of being able to explore the scene further really interested me, but we simply weren't sure whether there was time to implement it. As the game has progressed, I've come to the conclusion that adding this is an important step to making the game complete.
Physics Central: In the levels I played through, I encountered down quarks, up quarks, their antimatter counterparts and even neutrons. How many different types of particles do you hope to include in the first version of Particulars? Based on the response to the game, do you plan to branch deeper into particle physics or other topics within physics?
By the end of the first version, we'll be adding electrons and microscopic black holes (as a way to examine the gravitational force). I'd got some plans to add the other two forces (Weak and Strong) to the game, and we've made some prototypes to figure out how that'd work.
If the first game does well, we'll be creating more content to explore these forces and the particles that come with them (eventually, I'd love to have levels that incorporate all 4 fundamental forces and all of the fundamental particles).
Physics Central: Do you think video games are a particularly effective medium for explaining physics? If so, what do video games allow you to do that other media (e.g. video, articles, podcasts) don't?
I think videogames are great at teaching players interacting systems. There's an inherent understanding in players that if they better understand the system behind a game, that they'll do better. At the same time, I think games are best at teaching a subconscious, or innate, understanding of these systems, rather than one that leads to actually being able to solve equations. As such, I think that games are primed to form a part of a Physics (and Scientific) education, and can be particularly good at teaching fundamentals and educating the general public.
Physics Central: As the story of Alison develops, how do you plan to further explore the scientific process and life of science graduate student?
The narrative tells the very personal story of this character, Alison. We never specify whether she's a student or a graduate, and we don't really get into the minutiae of life as a scientist or student. Instead the story centres more around what science means to our protagonist.
Alison experiences a tragedy at a young age, and where others may turn to religion to cope with such an event, she instead turns to science in her search for answers. Her obsessive examination of the fundamental building blocks of existence is her way of trying to make sense of what happened, but it also becomes a genuine passion which drives her onto greater things.
-(This final question was answered by SeeThrough Studios' Creative Director and Writer, Saul Whitton)
The team has received a grant from the New South Wales government in Australia to develop the game, and they hope to release a final version in early 2014. In the meantime, you can try out the demo or pitch in $5 for alpha access to the game. You can also find the game on Steam.