[GameSetWatch correspondent Jason Johnson talks with the heads of Berlin-based indie Spaces of Play about their enchanting iOS puzzler Spirits, their different lifestyles and approaches to level design, and more.]

Spirits is a Lemmings-tinged puzzler with a whimsical, well, spirit. It emphasizes player choice, creativity, and freedom. Other times, it’s a diehard brain-teaser with the elasticity of a crossword puzzle. Its harmonious discord echoes the creative differences of its creators, and their remarkable ability to play off each other to orchestrate a multi-award winning game.

I rang up Mattias Ljungström and Marek Plichta of the Berlin-based indie collective Spaces of Play to talk about how their contrasting styles came together to shape a cohesive vision.

Spirits is filled with little creatures called spirits. When I first saw them, I thought they were jellyfish, or mushrooms. What exactly are spirits?

Mattias Ljungström: If you look closely, the spirits actually spawn from piles of leaves.

Marek Plichta: Each one is the spirit of a fallen leaf.

You say they are spirits. Is that kind of like ghosts?

ML: We don’t have an extensive story. We like to hear other people’s interpretations. But, yes. They are the spirits of dead leaves. They have fallen from a tree. So they are the spirits of a tree. Of nature.

In the prototype, the spirits were originally ants. Later, they were changed into the adorable creatures that appear in the final game. How did their redesign influence the overall direction of the game?

ML: We didn't know what we wanted the game to be when we started. I had a basic concept– to get from point A to point B. I used ants. But Marek doesn’t like ants. He turned them into spirits. They looked like they’d float, so we added wind. The idea for the wind came from the artwork. And wind ended up being a key element in the game.

MP: We designed the game and the art at the same time. We designed everything in a holistic way. If we changed one thing, we changed the other.

ML: Our studies encouraged this approach. I was an assistant professor in Potsdam. I taught game design. The curriculum brought together technology, design, and art.

MP: I was a student there. Mattias was my teacher. He left the university before I graduated.

ML: I went to California for a year. I worked at Smule (who developed the Ocarina app).

MP: When Mattias moved back to Berlin, he asked me to join Spaces of Play.

Berlin sounds like an exciting place to live. What’s a Saturday night like there?

ML: What’s today again? [Laughs.] The problem of freelancing–. Maybe Marek can tell you.

MP: I'm a little more ambitious. Last weekend I went to a quite famous club and stayed till nine in the morning.

So, you two have different lifestyles.

ML: I do go out to the local bar and have a beer or three.

GSW: The levels in Spirits also have different styles. Some are very strict, while others are freeform. Did one of you tend to design the stricter levels, and the other, the open ones?

MP: It's funny you say that because it's so true. Mattias tended to make open levels. I designed rigid levels. But we tried to mix it up so that the player shifts his way of thinking all the time.

You must have designed the Two Cycles level.

MP: Yes!

That one had me stuck for a while.

ML: You shouldn’t feel bad. I spent two hours playing the first version of that level. [Laughs.] And I never could solve it. That level is pretty hard.

all4one.jpg

What’s your favorite level in the game?

MP: I like All for One because it’s actually easy…

ML: That's what he says. [Laughs.]

MP: People seem to get stuck on it. But once they figure it out, they say it’s simple. That they should have known it all along. That makes me happy.

ML: My favorite is the Three Paths level. It’s easy, and it has a lot of different solutions.

When you are designing a puzzle, do you imagine yourself as the player, or the designer?

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MP: I try to think as the player would think. I try to surprise myself.

ML: I have a couple of different approaches. I designed some of the levels geometrically. I envisioned the shape of the path that the player would take and tried to build a level around it. Sometimes I’d just build randomly and keep rebuilding until it worked.

It seems the two of you have different approaches to making games. What did you disagree about while making Spirits?

ML: Everything. [Laughs.]

MP: I disagree! [Laughs.]

ML: We discussed a lot. How open the game should be. How hard it should be.

When was the last time you two argued?

ML: Um, yesterday maybe. [Laughs.]

MP: We weren't arguing. You were ignoring my question. [Laughs.] We discuss a lot. I wouldn't call it arguing.

ML: We try to keep them intelligent. Sometimes I find we debate stuff without even knowing the answer. I think it's like this. No, I think it's like that. Nowadays, we just try it and see.

That sounds very logical. If Spaces of Play were the crew of Star Trek, which one of you would be Spock, and who’d be Kirk?

ML & MP: [Laughs.]

MP: I think I’d be Spock, and Mattias would be Captain Kirk.

ML: I think it’s the other way around.

MP: But I’m better at Drop 7.

ML: [Laughs.] Yes. He is better at Drop 7...