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Award-winning game explores puzzling dreams

MIT game wins Kongregate award, to receive 1 million free ad impressions
Screenshot of <i>Symon</i>
Screenshot of <i>Symon</i>
&copy; 2010 MIT and MDA
&copy; 2010 MIT and MDA

Developed by the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, Symon, the Best Browser Game from the 2010 Indie Game Challenge, has been updated with new features and is now free to play at Kongregate. The thought-provoking video game invites players to walk through the dreams of a paralyzed patient.

Symon will receive 1 million free ad impressions, courtesy of Kongregate (part of the GameStop network).

Symon is an unusual game in its theme as well as how it plays. The player is in the head of the eponymous Symon, dealing with his regrets and yearnings. The goal is to help Symon sort out his problems in his dreams. As described by Dr. Clara Fernández-Vara, who led the project, "It's a game about thwarted hopes, but it tries to remain optimistic."

Traditionally, puzzles in point-and-click adventure games never change; once a player has figured them out, the same solutions will always work. Symon is unusual because it can be replayed many times with new puzzles. Each time the game is started, the player experiences a unique fragment of all the possible combinations that the game can generate.

Fernández-Vara explains, "The system that produces the game is based on Symon’s personality. For instance, he'll never give children something that would hurt them. By figuring out the puzzles, the player learns more about the system, which is actually the character's mind. It takes a few playthroughs to figure out the system. There are also some characters and items that only appear on rare occasions."

Under the direction of Fernández-Vara at MIT, a team of nine students from the U.S. and Singapore worked together to develop Symon during the intense eight-week 2010 GAMBIT Summer Program. Their challenge was to design a game that modeled how dreams work, presenting players with puzzles that were "logical, but not quite," in the same way that a dream makes sense while asleep but becomes nonsensical upon awakening.

As the elements of the puzzles could not be entirely random and required consistency for the game to be playable, this posed a significant design and technical hurdle. The Symon team rose to the challenge by developing computer algorithms that could generate puzzles with different solutions.

The design research of Fernández-Vara looks for new mechanics for adventure games. She is currently working on a new game that extends the same design and technological solutions to create even more complex puzzles and locations. At the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, her team has created a set of tools to facilitate the design of procedurally generated narrative puzzles. She hopes that "this work could be the foundation for a new paradigm to design and play adventure games."

The Kongregate Award for Best Browser Game at IGC will allow Symon will reach a much wider audience beyond university researchers and students. For Fernández-Vara, winning the award was a surprise and a testament to the talent of the whole team. "Seeing that our experimentation was significant enough not only for research papers but also for game competitions was very rewarding. Hopefully, Symon will also show that there are many themes one can make games about, starting with what makes us human."

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