Kim Swift was stunned the first time someone asked for her autograph at a game developers' conference.
"That was one of the most surreal moments of my life," she says. "I was like, 'Really? I'm really not special! I'm just making games that I want to play.' "
But in gaming circles, Swift, 28, is a rising star. Her first job was at Valve Corp., in Bellevue, Wash., where she and her student team were hired to revamp their college senior project into the hugely popular Portal. Now, as a creative director of a 16-member team at Airtight Games, she's readying another puzzle game, Quantum Conundrum, for a first-quarter release.
The premise: Your mom has sent you to your eccentric millionaire uncle, Professor Quadwrangle, for the weekend, but after a lab mishap, he goes missing. Your job is to track him down using your Inter-Dimensional Shift Device. You switch between five different dimensions to solve various challenges and traverse Quadwrangle Manor with the help of D.O.L.L.I., an eager object-replicating robot head. D.O.L.L.I. is less adept at replicating animals, hence the Professor's badly cloned cats Widget 1, 2, and 3, whose weird portraits adorn the walls for no apparent reason.
"Weird for no reason—that pretty much sums up the team as a whole," says Swift, laughing. "We're very silly people, and pretty much anything you see in the game that's like, 'What in the world is going on?' is just us having fun."
"Physics was my favorite subject in college," she says. "I love to take things we overlook or take for granted, like science fiction clichés or how gravity works, and just turn them on their head. I like making players think in a different way. What if portals and dimension shifting were more than just cool transitions between scenes or levels and were the game? That's what's fun about games—you get to live a weird fantasy. My fantasies are just a little odder."
As a Houston high school student, Swift already knew she wanted to create games, so she enrolled at DigiPen Institute of Technology, in Redmond, Wash., a four-year gaming conservatory that teaches art and engineering students how to create games. "I was already a decent artist," she says, "so I majored in real-time interactive simulation, which essentially boils down to a computer science degree with a specialization in computer graphics and physics."
Swift's senior gaming project, Narbacular Drop, which she developed with six classmates, caught the attention of Valve for its unique use of portals. The company hired them after their 2005 graduation to repurpose their core game-play concept using Valve's proprietary software. The result, Portal, became an unexpected hit in 2007.
Two years later, Swift—who had left the Portal 2 team over creative differences and switched to Valve's shooter-game projects Left 4 Dead 1 and 2—caused ripples in the industry when she quit and joined Airtight Games, in Redmond. "I always had this hankering to go back and make more games like Portal, but Valve was more interested in focusing on games for a more hard-core audience. So I got the opportunity to come to Airtight Games as a creative director and lead a team making puzzle games for a broader demographic."
"As creative director," she says, "I touch upon a little bit of everything in the game—art, level design, writing, scripting, some PR, and sometimes making sure the coffee is stocked—but day to day, I make sure the game comes together as a whole and is fun to play. Having a computer science degree has been really helpful in knowing an engine's limitations, how a computer works, and of course, being able to speak to programmers."
This article originally appeared in print as "Game Worthy."