Spectrum Break

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Jason Hein for PC and Mac, originally released in 2018.
Spectrum Break is a physics-based platformer filled with floating neon blocks and backed by a synth-heavy soundtrack. The blocks come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are not affected by the pull of gravity, unlike the player character – a little red dude on a surf board – who is constantly pulled downward. The player surfs and jumps his way through dozens of levels attempting to move every block in the environment without getting stuck or falling off the bottom of the screen.

Now, when we sit around the fire pit roasting various animal parts while discussing game design (hey, it happens more than you might think), there’s one statement we like to shout up to the night sky, which is “physics makes nothing better.” Now, obviously this is hyperbole, because we need physics to… you know, exist and stuff. And in terms of game design, most games require physics of some kind.

Really, the statement is meant to get a developer thinking about whether they should specifically script out object interactions or rely on math to take care of it. Scripting may take longer but leads to a more predictable experience, whereas pure physics can lead to a sloppier experience but may offer a gameplay benefit, or just extra funzies for the player. For example, the Pixeljunk Shooter series relies heavily on physics – particularly fluid dynamics – as a primary gameplay mechanic.

With that in mind, consider the gameplay of Spectrum Break, which has a series of floating boxes that remain stationary until acted upon by the player, or touched by another box, for which the player was the first mover. Every box in the environment needs to be touched by the player or another box in order to end the level. The game is based entirely upon a pure physics design, requiring the player to consider mass and velocity to complete gameplay goals and set up chain reactions that are necessary to complete some levels.

On the other hand, once a bunch of boxes get moving and interacting with each other, results become less predictable, and since the player needs to use these boxes as platforms, he can find himself in situations where he is not able to accomplish his goal because a box is spinning, falling, or moving in such a way that he cannot reach it or use it as a springboard to another platform. As such, the player may be madly pressing forward while the environment around him becomes an unplayable cacophony of colliding shapes. Physics is the difference between what the player wants to do and what is actually happening onscreen… which can lead to some fun situations, or to frustrating ones.

In smaller levels toward the beginning of the game, it’s fairly easy to predict what will happen as the player moves through the environment, and the biggest hazard is simply getting from one block to the next before they fall down too low. Each time a block is touched, it transforms from an outline to a solid, accompanied by a sound effect and a spray of particles. Smashing multiple blocks together leads to a satisfying splash of sound and color… except when some distant block doesn’t get touched because of the unpredictability of the physics, and you have to make a mad dash to reach it, or hit the quick restart to try again and hope the blocks fall more favorably on your next attempt.

Sometimes completing a level is easy, sometimes it requires deft strategy, and sometimes it happens entirely by accident due to so many things being in motion at once. As long as every block is touched before you fall to your death, the level is won and you can move to the next, so it’s worth holding on as long as you can if there's a block that may be touched even if you are too far away to act on it.

The player has a small moveset, which allows him to surf to the left or right, wall jump, dash forward, or come to a stop… which is an important feature in a game where your position on a block determines its spin. The dash move is helpful when attempting to move up a diagonal slope – which happens a lot – allowing you to surf across a long block and get big air on the far side. The player can also thrust into the side of a block without falling, and this can be used to rotate blocks into more favorable positions. The starting block is always immovable, and there are sometimes other immovable blocks in the environment as well.

Most blocks are rectangular, although there are a few that come in H-shapes, L-shapes, plus-shapes, octagons or other forms. An object’s mass is immediately apparent by its size, so players can make better determinations about how blocks will react when touched. You can use a small block as a platform as long as you jump away quickly, but it will go spiraling off in the opposite direction, whereas a big fat octagon will sink very slowly, giving you time to plan out your next jump or just ride it down.

After the opening levels, the player encounters blocks that have arrows in them, and activating one of these blocks causes it to move quickly in the direction of the arrow. Players can use these blocks as moving platforms, bearing in mind that their weight will change the trajectory of the platform and cause it to spin if they aren’t centered on the block. These blocks can lead to some more exciting chain reactions as players trigger them and use themselves or surrounding blocks to shoot them off in various directions to slam into other blocks.

Blocks with multiple arrows indicate those that will launch very quickly in a given direction, flinging themselves – and the player if he’s standing on them – and causing a massive amount of change in the environment. Often, these blocks are used to trigger other blocks that sit very high in the environment and are otherwise out of reach with your standard movement abilities. Also, each level has a hidden red block placed outside the beaten path, as an incentive for advanced players to return to previously completed levels, and arrow blocks are often used to trigger these.

Later levels add additional complexities with blocks that are strung together, and blocks with circles inside them that increase in size shortly after being activated, pushing other blocks away and potentially acting as a springboard for the player. Many levels allow the player to employ a number of strategies – or occasional dumb luck – to successfully complete them, but some are built around specific physics puzzles, such as requiring the player to run across the top of the level, jump around inside a complex shape as it falls, or use narrow boxes as plungers.

At any point, the player can press a button to zoom out the camera to quickly see which blocks remain to be activated, and the camera dynamically adjusts to highlight areas with inactive blocks. Also, if the player gets stuck, there is a quick restart button that places him back at the start of the level. Most levels can be completed in under a minute, and while there is a countdown timer, the player is free to complete the level once it runs out. A level select screen indicates which levels were completed within the time limit and in which levels the player found the hidden red box.

Spectrum Break was developed by Jason Hein, based in Ottawa, Canada. Jason studied game design in college and began developing on his own in 2015, with his first project being Game Eye 2D, a game camera tool used for tracking 2D environments. This tool was used in the creation of Spectrum Break. Music for the game was composed by Chris Curtis, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.