Hamish Todd

Music of the Spheres: Stained glass, math, patterns, and music combine in a religious experience

Music of the Spheres: Stained glass, math, patterns, and music combine in a religious experience

Hamish Todd is fascinated with math, music, and architecture. That's why he's making a PC game about an elderly man who has died and gone to Heaven, where he attempts to tag angels with projectiles fired from a sling. It all makes perfect sense.

Read between the lines

Todd claims there's no confusion at all. His game, Music of the Spheres was inspired largely by Islamic stained glass patterns and the intricate math needed to produce them. Traditional Islamic art isn't allowed to evoke Allah or his creations, so many designs are abstract repetitions of basic geometrical shapes, their lines and angles giving the barest hint of the mathematical principles that helped create them. Islamic artists practice what is known as a Penrose tiling in much of their art. There are many noteworthy attributes about Penrose tilings, but one of the most vital is that it expands and repeats as the image inflates or deflates, but does not have periodic intervals of the same tiles over and over. It is, in other words, a pattern without end. Patterns play a integral part of Music of the Spheres. Each level's background is reminiscent of stained glass, but the philosophy extends into the game play as well. The game is a 2D puzzle shooter, currently unfinished, inspired by games like Portal and Space Giraffe. In it, you fire up to two spheres from your sling along angled lines of trajectory, trying to tag angels. The angels will try to escape the spheres if they can, so you must corner them first.Todd is a writer and lecturer. You may have seen his story about Half-Life's barnacles we featured in the Cut. So why turn to game creation instead of just writing about it? “I make games to express interesting or beautiful mathematics,” Todd told the Report. “When a person is challenged, they can come to understand a system in great depth. They can understand it much better than if someone was just lecturing them. That's the reason why school isn't just listening to teachers talk; you have to interact with the concepts yourself through exercises, and have your capabilities with those concepts tested.” Todd's favorite puzzle is the final one. “The puzzle expresses something called the 'doppler effect,' which is a very important and quite beautiful scientific concept,” he told me. “I could have written an article about the doppler effect, about how you perceive it when a car speeds past you, and how you can use it to measure the expansion of the universe. But after reading that article, how well would you understand the doppler effect? Could I, the writer, be sure that you understood it? Better that I make a puzzle for you to solve - you'll have to invent the phenomenon yourself, for your own reasons.” It's clear Todd wants to impart knowledge or at least contemplation on the player. The game's puzzle solutions force a thought process that combines anticipating what your opponent will do with mathematical practicality. For example, in one puzzle I had to fire two spheres so that they would exit a tunnel at the same time, yet exit at different angles. One sphere could travel straight, but the other had to go up, hit an angle, and bounce down. This formed a sort of triangle and, despite my best efforts, I couldn't seem to figure out the timing. I ended up counting the seconds it took for the sphere to travel along each line, and used the Pythagorean theorem to deduce the timing I would need to send the second sphere. Or rather, I had my friend, who is far better at math, deduce the timing. I might have been overthinking it, and I'm sure I would have gotten the timing eventually through trial and error. Still, when was the last time you used called upon mathematical knowledge to help you beat a video game level?

Music to my spheres

The main character in Music of the Spheres can fire in eight directions, as dictated by the keys which surround the “S” key. Each time you release a sphere, it plays a metallic-sounding note. The “D” key holds the lowest pitch, and each key on the keyboard, going clockwise, goes up one step. Each time the spheres hit an angle, they produce another ting. The angels come to life and disappear with the “aah” sound of a choir. There is no background music and that's a good thing; the stillness allowed the reflection and contemplation needed for each level, and the freedom to create impromptu “songs” just by hurling spheres was surprisingly addictive, and even emotional.In one level, an angel dropped what appeared to be a massive cross. I timed my shot so that the sphere became caught underneath, bouncing back and forth between the walls on either side of the descending object and the cross' bottom. It created a building emotional crescendo, as I could see the sphere getting closer and closer to the final angel. I was sad for a moment when it came time to start the next level; I wanted to go back and hear that music again. The concept of spheres and circles was another profound influence, as Todd pointed out to me. At the end of the game, a credit sequence displays several artistic renderings of various spiritual concepts - the holiest circle of Heaven, a stained glass window depicting the angels you've been playing with, and more. They all prominently feature circles or spiral designs. They're all meant to depict the concept of infinity. “I am rather fascinated by the link between spirituality and mathematics, and I wanted to sign off with some acknowledgement of that link, given that I'd made a puzzle game set in Heaven,” he said. Todd's favorite game of all time is Braid, and he has sent a copy of Music of the Spheres to Braid's creator, Jonathan Blow. The response, Todd told me, reminded him of why he was developing the game. “When he told me he enjoyed it, it was actually one of the happiest moments of my life,” he said. “Jon Blow is a person who shares my opinions abut what is important, so he's one of the few people on earth whom I'd trust to tell me my game was worth finishing.” The game is slated for an April 2013 release.