A hue test can be a maddening exercise. Arranging colors into a perfect gradient sounds easy enough, until you’re staring at two teals that you swear are exactly the same. The glee of bragging rights goes out the window as you’re faced with the limits of your own perception.
But Specimen–a new, free-to-play iPhone game by Sal Randazzo, Erica Gorochow and Charlie Whitney–makes these color tests fun. Its premise sounds easy enough: Vibrant amebas float around in a black petri dish, a color pops up in the background, and you need to tap the matching ameba. Where things get tricky is that a timer is ticking. And so you don’t just need to match the right colors; you need to do it quickly. Suddenly, that Do I cut the teal wire or the teal wire? moment of angst has an expiration date. You’re forced into a decision and…wrong! Luckily, you can always play again.
As designer Erica Gorochow tells me via email, the game originally started as something akin to a diagnostic test with a timer. She knew that if she put a color in the middle of a screen, framed it in black, and wrapped that in a color, your eyes would begin to play tricks on you. From there, the test began to evolve into a bonafide game. She looked up the etymology of the word “color,” and eventually came across the words “sample” and then “specimen.” Specimen became an inspiring theme. And that theme wasn’t just a unique way to skin or brand the game. It began to actually inform the player experience.
“Inside the petri dish, the animation of the Specimens is slow and plasmic–almost calming by contrast to the clock that forces your finger to tap,“ Gorochow writes. Getting that ameba animation just right took iteration after iteration, but Gorochow believes the payoff was key to the game experience. “I like that the Specimens feel alive but somehow unaware. I think that behavior keeps the game positive and hopefully edges you away from frustration.
Playing Specimen, I know what she means. I feel a tightness in my chest that’s at constant odds with this almost meditative set of animations on screen. The game is telling me, “just relax your mind” and “YOU MUST TAP NOW!” at the same time–and this cognitive dissonance is, yes, fun.
But some of the game’s most clever design goes completely unseen. While Specimen features a standard evolution of levels with more and more difficulty, those levels will never play the same twice. Under the hood, the team has built a system that randomizes the amebas’ hue, saturation, and value within predefined parameters.
“We found there was a human perceptual limit that we had to guard for, but I’d say in later levels we get pretty close to that line,” Gorochow writes. Indeed, I’m pretty good at your standard hue test, but I found myself getting caught around stage 3 of 6, so I can only imagine what the later levels have in store for me.
Specimen is out for iOS now, and it’s free-to-play. (It does feature a system to buy credits, but you don’t seem to need them.)