As a former newspaper designer, I thought this game would be easy. After all, I used my eyes professionally for years to judge colour, and I already have 20-20 vision. Why shouldn’t I be able to do an easy matching game?
Then, I stared at the circle on the screen and realised all of the purple blobs looked the same to me. Every time I chose the wrong one, I lost a life.
Suddenly, I couldn’t make it past Level 2 of a game that’s supposed to be as simple as matching colours.
Everyone sees colour differently, which is why hue tests can already be incredibly frustrating exercises. But in a game form, with a clock ticking down, it’s both maddening and addicting.
It’s a simple game that requires you to tap the wriggling blob on your screen, a “specimen” in a petri-like dish, that matches the outside colour.
You only have a few seconds for each decision, though, as the timer counts down around you. Only in later levels do you get special power ups that let you pause to try to figure out if what you think is teal is actually teal and not turquoise.
It’s not a game that I will naturally get better at either — it’s my eyes that are failing me. In each round, I’m looking at colours that still look the same shade of green to me, when it’s really four different hues.
I made it through the first round with no problems, but then I faltered. It took me an entire commute home, followed by a 15 minute walk home and then 30 minutes on the couch in utter concentration before I made it past the second level.
Cracking the colour code
Finally, I called up Erica Gorochow, one of the game designers, to explain my despair over not being able to tell colours apart.
“We’ve actually found that it’s as much about focus and staying calm under pressure as it is about perception,” Gorochow said. “Focus is a huge part of the game.”
This isn’t a diagnostic test where you read the first level of an eye chart and then are cleared as having perfect colour vision. Gorochow, an animator and member of the museum-led incubator New Inc., paired up with Sal Randazzo initially just to build a game. The two later looped in illustrator and programmer Charlie Whitney to complete the trio.
The group never consulted a doctor to build it, instead focusing on building an addictive game.
“When we started the game, we thought that we could make a diagnostic that was fun. It was hard to make a diagnostic that people will want to replay,” Gorochow said. “We really found that making a diagnostic is mutually exclusive.”
I’m bad at colour, but want to be good at Specimen
Because I was doing so terribly, I decided to take one of the hue tests online to see if my eyes were really just this bad, or if I was struggling with the normal gameplay.
A lower score, closer to a perfect zero, is better. I scored a 70 out of 100.
I could interpret these (also non-scientific) results as evidence that I’ll never make it to the next level of Specimen. But because it’s a game, there’s still some bit of luck involved and a strategy of saving up power ups, Gorochow said.
Each level is programmed so that it starts with the outside colour, say a vibrant pink, then its randomised within a range how much the hue or saturation of each blob changes. That’s why some specimens turn up purple and clearly don’t match, while others may be a frustrating shade or two off.
“It also allows us to randomize. As you play you might detect patterns, but you’ll never play the exact same progression twice,” Gorochow said. “It may create an element of luck.”
Luck is maybe what I need to overcome my low colour discrimination. Even if I’m bad at colour, I want to be good enough to beat Specimen.