Tricone Lab: Interview with creator Josh Singer

When it comes to puzzle games, the best way to get ahead is to get inside the head of its creator. With that, we spoke to Josh Singer whose game Tricone Lab is gearing up for a release on Steam Early Access this week.

Feature by Darren Carle | 11 Nov 2015

‘Write what you know’ is a common axiom for authors and scriptwriters but it’s perhaps relatable towards videogames too. Glasgow-based programmer Josh Singer can probably attest to this. His labour of love, Tricone Lab, takes place at a cellular, if somewhat abstract, level as you interact with the base elements of a microscopic organism. Meanwhile Singer earns a more durable crust as a bioinformatics research programmer at Glasgow University's Centre for Virus Research. Surely no coincidence?

“Heh, I only took the job in bioinformatics quite recently,” he begins. “Before that, and for most of the time I worked on Tricone Lab, I worked in the telecoms sector. On the other hand I've always been fascinated by biology, especially evolutionary and molecular biology – so that might have both influenced the game design and also my career change decision.”

This is perhaps good news all round as not only does Singer’s new job title sound infinitely more interesting but with his passion has come a unique little puzzle title, the aforementioned Tricone Lab. However, it’s not without its influences, as Singer agrees when The Skinny is reminded of 1990s molecular oddity E-motion. “Yes!” agrees Singer. “I had E-motion on the Atari ST. I had almost completely forgotten about it but I can see the connection now. Other games that influenced me were World of Goo, Braid, Machinarium and SpaceChem – all puzzle-centric and original games.”

Indeed similarities abound, from the gelatinous graphical style to the level progression tree, though Tricone Lab does plenty to stand out from the crowd. “One aspect which I wanted to build up is the level authoring side of the game,” reveals Singer. “I've built a full graphical editor where you can create levels by simply drawing the cell walls and dropping in the different elements. Ultimately I would like the game to have a sizeable community of players and player-authors who create many more puzzles and share them with each other.”

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This aspect of the game is important to Singer, who has been programming since the age of nine. “I think computational systems provide nearly limitless potential for creative tinkering,” he says. “I thought that Tricone Lab should not just be a game but also a laboratory for exploring puzzle designs. I've carefully chosen the elements so that they all interact with each other, which means that the 100 standard puzzles probably just explore a small region of the possible puzzle space. I'd like others to explore other parts of the space.” 

However, Singer is keen to point out that Tricone Lab is 100% game and not an educational tool though he does concede that “ideally, playing is learning.” Having taken his game out to a number of live events though, it’s become clear to Singer that it certainly has an educational appeal. “I found that it's particularly popular with girls and boys in the 8-13 age bracket,” he claims. “The game teaches you as you go along. However, the puzzles do get very challenging, and require you to carefully deduce the correct solution. So it certainly promotes logical thinking.”

Indeed, Tricone Lab’s initial levels are mere handholding, failsafe exercises to assimilate you into its world. It isn’t long though before the handrails are jimmied and the small steps transform into sheer cliff faces. In fact, by about a fifth of the way in, The Skinny was starting to hit some serious impasses at a difficulty the game itself rated as 2/5. However, as with the best puzzle games, the answers come with a dawning realisation rather than a confused, furrowed brow.

“You must change the cell structure,” says Singer of the game’s boundary breaking premise. “Sometimes you’re breaking open cell walls, at other times creating new divisions within a cell. Each level can only be solved by figuring out the right sequence of interactions. As you progress, different elements are introduced. It will test your lateral thinking abilities to the limit.”

Tricone Lab is released 12 Nov on Steam Early Access