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Blackbox: Rebooting an inventive puzzle game for visionOS

By Jubair Hossin Babu, 01/30/2024

Colorful bubbles, some containing abstract shapes, float in a living room setting in Blackbox.

If you’ve ever played Blackbox, you know that Ryan McLeod builds games a little differently.

In the inventive iOS puzzler from McLeod’s studio, Shapes & Stories, players solve challenges not by tapping or swiping but by rotating the device, plugging in the USB cable, singing a little tune — pretty much everything except touching the screen.

“The idea was to get people in touch with the world outside their device,” says McLeod, while ambling along the canals of his Amsterdam home base.

I’m trying to figure out what makes Blackbox tick on iOS, and how to bring that to visionOS. That requires some creative following of my own rules — and breaking some of them.

Ryan McLeod

In fact, McLeod freed his puzzles from the confines of a device screen well before Apple Vision Pro was even announced — which made bringing the game to this new platform a fascinating challenge. On iOS and iPadOS, Blackbox plays off the familiarity of our devices. But how do you transpose that experience to a device people haven’t tried yet? And how do you break boundaries on a canvas that doesn’t have any? “I do love a good constraint,” says McLeod, “but it has been fun to explore the lifting of that restraint. I’m trying to figure out what makes Blackbox tick on iOS, and how to bring that to visionOS. That requires some creative following of my own rules — and breaking some of them.”

After a brief onboarding, the game becomes an all-new visionOS experience that takes advantage of the spatial canvas right from the first level selection. “I wanted something a little floaty and magical, but still grounded in reality,” he says. “I landed on the idea of bubbles. They’re like soap bubbles: They’re natural, they have this hyper-realistic gloss, and they move in a way you’re familiar with. The shader cleverly pulls the reflection of your world into them in this really believable, intriguing way.”

And the puzzles within those bubbles? “Unlike Blackbox on iOS, you’re not going to play this when you’re walking home from school or waiting in line,” McLeod says. “It had to be designed differently. No matter how exciting the background is, or how pretty the sound effects are, it’s not fun to just stare at something, even if it’s bobbing around really nicely.”

Ryan McLeod’s notebook shows pen sketches of what will become Blackbox on Apple Vision Pro.

Now, McLeod cautions that Blackbox is still very much a work in progress, and we’re certainly not here to offer any spoilers. But if you want to go in totally cold, it might be best to skip this next part.

In Blackbox, players interact with the space — and their own senses — to explore and solve challenges. One puzzle involves moving your body in a certain manner; another involves sound, silence, and a blob of molten gold floating like an alien in front of you. A second puzzle involves Morse code. And solving a third puzzle causes part of the scene to collapse into a portal. “Spatial Audio makes the whole thing kind of alarming but mesmerizing,” he says.

There's an advantage to not knowing expected or common patterns.

Ryan McLeod

It's safe to say Blackbox will continue evolving, especially since McLeod is essentially building this plane as he’s flying it — something he views as a positive. “There’s an advantage to not knowing expected or common patterns,” he says. “There’s just so much possibility.”

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