‘The Design of Soft Body’ is a series by Game Center MFA graduate Zeke Virant that explores the development of Soft Body. Soft Body began as Zeke’s year-long thesis project and continued development in the Game Center Incubator. After the incubator, the game was backed by Indie Fund, and Zeke is currently working towards a Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, and Steam release next summer. In this first post of the series, Zeke takes us through the details of several key design decisions that brought Soft Body to where it is today. 

Hello! My name is Zeke Virant, and I am an alumnus of the NYU Game Center MFA program. “Soft Body” was my MFA thesis, and I am currently working on bringing it to the Playstation 4 and Steam next summer.

Soft Body is an action-puzzle game set in a meditative, musical world. Inspired by the simplicity and joy of twin-stick shooters and other arcade games, players use both analog sticks to control two characters at the same time. This challenging mechanic provides the unique experience of learning how to split one’s mind like simultaneously singing and playing an instrument.

The early development process for Soft Body was one of exploration and discovery. I started development with no specific idea for a game and allowed myself the opportunity to find something appealing in an otherwise aimless prototype. Since the game’s structure is undetermined, I am often surprised by my own particular tastes and practices. At the risk of sounding a bit haughty, I believe that this particular creative format is useful for gaining knowledge of one’s own capabilities, feelings, and motivations. I enjoy learning something new about myself in some form or another.

A centerpiece of this exploratory process is the designation of pivotal, unchanging elements to design around. For example, I used music to help guide the game’s overall feel and tone. The sparse qualities of Soft Body’s soundtrack lead me to design levels with larger open spaces and slower enemies. I wanted to feel a certain emptiness–something similar to the unexpected tranquility of driving a car on a smooth, empty road. I was looking for something that would resonate with me on a personal and physical level, something that would connect with specific memories of moving through physical spaces: that kind of lucid and reflective dream-like feeling that comes from driving across the country or riding in an airplane. For me, the feeling of controlling the characters is the most important aspect of the game.

The game’s feel revolves around the analog sticks on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 4 controller. I love the smooth motion of moving the stick in a fast or slow circle, the way the stick snaps back to the center of the controller, the gentle resistance of pushing the stick in any direction. There is a fluidity and ease in the action of the analog sticks that I find lacking in most button-based control schemes.

My desire to make the game’s movement feel great has driven the game’s development and informs almost every aspect of the design. From the shape of the bullet patterns, to the sound of painting a wall, Soft Body‘s mechanics encourage movement and give personality to the game’s tense and joyful fiction. I want people to take tons of small risks and push their luck by skirting fields of projectiles, and I want them to find fun and choices in their characters’ flowing animation and to push themselves to master controlling two characters at the same time.

Objectives and Mechanics

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Control two things at the same time

In Soft Body, players are able to control two characters at the same time, one with each analog-stick. For most people, the split consciousness requirement of this mechanic is a new sensation accompanied by a mixture of focused effort and baffling inability. I like to compare it to learning how to sing and play guitar at the same time. Though difficult and odd, this control scheme provides a straight-forward framework for adjusting the game’s difficulty: gradually increasing the need for separation also increases the difficulty.

Separating the two bodies is simple. By pushing the right analog-stick from it’s center resting position, the Ghost Body detaches from the Soft Body and becomes independent. If the right analog-stick returns to it’s resting point for a fraction of a second, the Ghost Body will automatically return to the Soft Body and reattach.

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Paints walls by moving the character close to it. Simply paint all the walls to progress through the level.

Notice that you do not need to be right next to the wall. In general, Soft Body’s mechanics tend to err on the side of simplicity and generosity rather than exactness. Players love to speed through painting, but a small painting range means that players occasionally miss a wall or two and have to revisit an area. I have found that giving the player a larger painting range strips away some of this fussiness and allows people (especially younger or inexperienced gamers) to enjoy speeding around levels.

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To push the ball on the rail, players need to attain the Ghost Body. With rails, I can map out a path for the player to follow without constraining or limiting player movement. Similar to painting, I designed the rails to be simple. Get close to the ball and the ball goes forward. Take note that the red body is able to split off from the yellow body and push the ball.

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Multi-layered levels

A lot of levels in Soft Body consist of multiple layers of geometry. When players finish painting a layer of geometry, that layer will then disappear and a new one will appear. Sometimes, new enemies and turrets will spawn as well.

This level design is the result of many months of iterating and adding to the game’s core mechanics and rules; months of adding objectives, deciding on the abilities of the Soft Body and Ghost Body, color coding objects so that goals were discernable, and tweaking the game’s tutorials and enemies. But even with set rules and tighter mechanics, I felt that there was something missing with the game’s level designs. In short, I felt that there wasn’t much design in the game’s level designs. The early versions of the game would spawn every object at the beginning of a level. This means that longer levels would have hundreds of walls and a lot of enemies. Larger levels were easy to get lost in, and smaller levels were cluttered and restricting player movement. Also, there was a distinct lack of short-term rewards for completing large portions of the stage.

With a layered approach to level design, I am able to solve so many game design problems. It feels like an enormous victory: 1) levels can be longer without being cluttered or too big 2) it gives longer levels clear objectives and small victories 3) it is easier to carefully tune the difficulty throughout a level 4) levels are capable of more expressive, personal touches like surprises (e.g., trapping the player in a small walled-in space).

The original prototype Soft Body was developed with a laissez-faire attitude toward creative vision. Instead of working towards a complex, specific vision for a game (which, in my experience is always compromised and reconfigured), I made a simple prototype and allowed my less conscious tastes a chance to help develop the game for me. By disregarding the end-goal, I was able to shift my attention to what I believe are the more essential parts of a good (action) game, the moment-to-moment interactions or the game’s “feel.” As the game’s structure became more concrete, I was able to shift toward a more analytical approach in my level designs and tutorials.

Throughout development, the game’s music and sound design has been a source for inspiration and guided me through the murkiness of the game’s undetermined aspects. In my next post, I will dive deep into Soft Body’s sound design and how it is helping me to structure the game’s small and large-scale designs.

Soft Body is slated to be released on the Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, and Steam next summer. For more information, you can follow me on Twitter @godzekesatan and check out the game’s website, www.softbodygame.com