Tisch alumni create sci-fi game

By Amanda Morris

In a world saturated with entertainment apps vying for our attention, “Sunburn!,” a smartphone game designed by three NYU Tisch alumni, sets itself apart from other games by its unique combination of humor, outer space and action. Diego Garcia, Aaron Freedman and Toni Pizza released the game through their company Secret Crush on Nov. 20, and it is available on iOS 6 or later.

“Sunburn!” features over 50 action-puzzle game levels to play. The user plays as the captain of a spaceship that is destroyed by a comet. Facing certain death, the only option left is to jump into the sun and reunite the player’s crew.

Garcia said the game’s space tragedy narrative was inspired by Ray Bradbury’s short story, “Kaleidoscope.”

“When I read Kaleidoscope in particular, I was really affected by the feeling of vastness and helplessness — the utter terror of something slow and empty like drifting through space,” Garcia said. “We thought it would be really fun to make a game that focuses on a hopeless situation, but humor also comes naturally to us, and it is part of Secret Crush’s mission to make people smile.”

In its playful nature, Secret Crush created a story that brings together traditional sci-fi themes and humorous characteristics.

“Space and science fiction is recapturing the popular imagination right now, especially narratives that highlight isolation and quests for redemption,” Freedman said.

Eric Zimmerman, a Tisch professor at the Game Center, said “Sunburn!” is an interesting conglomeration of seriousness and humor.

“It is simple and elegant to play, and combines an unassuming cuteness with a surprisingly dark story about a group of explorers facing their final moments in space,” Zimmerman said.

By unassuming cuteness, Zimmerman refers to the popular “space-pet” characters, such as a dog affectionately named “Moose Tracks,” as well as the charming discourse that takes place between characters.

Secret Crush co-founder Pizza said the dialogue is her favorite part of the game.

“I love the astronaut chitchat,” Pizza said. “I think the cute little animations coupled with the things they say to each other while they wait to die work really well together.”

At first, the game was developed as a student project, but after eliciting a positive response, the creators decided to apply for a spot in the NYU Game Center Incubator in Summer 2014. From there, the incubator supported the creators’ transition from the academic to commercial environment.

Matt Parker, an assistant arts professor who taught all three of the creators in a Code Lab class, said teamwork contributed to the group’s success.

“These are some of the best MFA students I’ve taught,” Parker said. “What makes them work so well as a team is that not only have complementary skill sets, but they also know how to work together.”

The team already has a few minor updates planned for “Sunburn!” and is toying with the idea of releasing the game on another platform.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 24 print edition. Email Amanda Morris at [email protected]