Partners spent five years creating game
After five years of hard work, Twisp artist Masha Falkov and her partner Dustin Soodak will be taking their first videogame to the Seattle Indies Expo — an annual celebration for Pacific Northwest independent games and game developers — on Sunday (Sept. 4).
Falkov and Soodak originally intended to make a small fan game, but quickly found themselves navigating something much bigger. On weekends prior to the pandemic, the couple would spend hours working through game details to the tune of espresso machines and pastry orders at Cinnamon Twisp Bakery. When COVID-19 hit, they began investing even more time into the project.
The game, Unstable Scientific, follows a professor studying high-energy physics. When a rival physicist sabotages his experiment and blows up his lab, he travels to a remote island to continue his research.
“You’re left with nothing except for your friends, and they invite you to go and start a lab on a mysterious island that’s rich in anomalous minerals and strange knowledge,” Falkov said. “But things aren’t all that they seem on this island.”
The game currently has 10 levels, over the course of which players must rescue other researchers whose labs have been destroyed, gather resources like Absurdium (a powerful element found on the island), defeat corrupted artificial intelligence and finish the sabotaged experiment.
Falkov and Soodak commissioned Super Marcato Brothers to compose music for the game, and Herman Chau as a puzzle designer. They also received help on game design from Falkov’s intern from the Independent Learning Center, Celia Brisbois, who came into her studio weekly for over two years.
Falkov and Soodak have worked as a team to bring Unstable Scientific to life. Falkov does illustration and sound design for the game, while Soodak works on the programming end of the project. His physics background and previous experience as a senior engineer at World Precision Instruments, a company that designs medical equipment, have helped him provide insight on how to make elements of the game like the tools Falkov draws for the labs realistic.
Falkov said working on a videogame is a dynamic process that allows her to explore her skills in a different way than with visual art.
“This is a really great multidisciplinary field where I could really sink my teeth into everything,” she said.
Worth the effort
Seattle Indies is a nonprofit organization that helps promote indie videogames and connect independent game developers with resources. Falkov and Soodak initially got involved with the organization as a way of connecting with other independent game developers.
The Seattle Indies Expo application required Falkov and Soodak to provide a working build of Unstable Scientific, a game trailer, an elevator pitch, and screenshots of the game. Falkov said they stayed up for 44 hours straight leading up to the June application deadline. When they learned they’d been accepted, it was hard to believe.
“It was like, ‘no way,’” Falkov said. “It just felt really nice to have somebody see past all the existing imperfections, and see the potential for what our project could be.”
Even if Unstable Scientific hadn’t been chosen for the expo, Soodak said the $6 application fee was well worth the expense. As part of the review process, multiple adjudicators played through the entire game and provided specific feedback on favorite parts and areas for improvement. Falkov said this feedback was invaluable, and that being accepted to the expo provided a helpful indication of other professionals’ interest in the game.
“For us, it was really meaningful because it was an objective way to see if other people really liked our game,” Falkov said. “With a project that you feel really passionate about, sometimes you need to have like a litmus test to see if it’s worth sticking in more of your time and energy.”
Getting Unstable Scientific to the point it’s at now has been a long process — one that Soodak compared to chipping away at flint and steel before finally getting a spark.
The creation of the game has involved innumerable minute details. Each character has dozens of options for hair and arm placements, and the couple has taken time to zero in on even the smallest specifics, like making characters’ heads bob up and down while they walk and having their eyes follow the aim of their weapons.
“Some of those details, if you’re playing you won’t really notice it,” Falkov said. “But all together they make the game feel more alive.”
Looking ahead to the Seattle Indies Expo, Falkov and Soodak are now focused on fixing bugs, adding additional animations and creating a demo of the game.
As they prepare for the event, Falkov said they’re grateful for the people who supported them along the way. Countless friends and community members have helped them refine the game through play testing.
Watching people play Unstable Scientific has given Falkov and Soodak instant feedback on where to fix bugs, and provided valuable insights on where people get frustrated or excited, Falkov said. To her, it’s like a science.
“I have notebooks and notebooks full of test data,” she said, “all provided by our friends, by different people coming in from out of town [who] just want to try out the game, and by other people in the community that have graciously offered up their time.”