Shaan Mathur wants people to watch a mother and daughter succumb to illness and fear as they are trapped in a maze inhabited by monsters and nightmarish illusions. And he wants them to enjoy every minute of it, too.
Rising second-year computer science student Mathur created “Mom,” a horror video game that follows the story of a mother and daughter who seek refuge from the apocalypse in a labyrinth. Once the mother falls ill and begins attacking her daughter, players navigate the maze as the daughter attempts to escape to safety. Mathur said he and his team hope to finish and sell the PC game by the beginning of fall quarter.
Mathur came up with the idea for a horror video game in high school after watching horror games like Slender Man on YouTube, he said. However, the limited programming knowledge he gained in his AP Computer Science class was not sufficient to create an actual game, so he temporarily put his idea on hold. Over the next four years, Mathur enlisted the help of high school friends and classmates to help him achieve his goal.
Mathur sought the advice of his friend, UC Santa Cruz computer science student Rahil Bhatnagar. Bhatnagar said he was intrigued by the prospect of a game where the main character was being tormented by someone she loved. He said the tortured love formed the basis of the relationship between the mother and daughter characters. It also influenced the game’s setting.
Bhatnagar programmed the setting for the game: the maze from which the player must escape. The maze contains illusions and challenges designed to make the player feel claustrophobic, Bhatnagar said, with no one knowing what the actual map looks like. He said he liked the idea of a horror game where the setting played a larger thematic role.
“The maze needs to feel like its own entity,” Bhatnagar said. “The maze is a physical representation of (the daughter’s) relationship with her mother, (which is) lost and kind of confusing.”
With his concept developed, Mathur needed help engineering the game. While both Mathur and Bhatnagar had programming experience, the two of them alone were not enough to complete the game as they envisioned it. Once he got to UCLA, Mathur said he shared his idea with his roommates and classmates who could help program the game.
His team of programmers began the engineering of “Mom” at LA Hacks, the annual student-led hackathon held in Pauley Pavilion where teams work on technology-related projects. There, Mathur introduced his idea for the game to spectators and members of the technology industry.
Mathur said he planned on going to LA Hacks ever since his UCLA acceptance, but was amazed at the level of talent and what he and his team were able to accomplish.
“You take a couple programming classes and you think you understand this stuff, but you go to LA Hacks and go, ‘Wow I don’t understand this stuff at all,’” Mathur said. “I feel like I have a lot to learn, but it was an exhilarating experience.”
The programmers continued to develop the game after LA Hacks, and Mathur later enlisted the help of several more programmers and rising second-year applied mathematics student Kevin Hoang to help craft the look of the game.
Hoang said he learned about an opportunity to draw for “Mom” from a post Mathur placed on the UCLA Class of 2019 Facebook page advertising for an artist. Hoang, an aspiring video game artist, said having complete control over design of the game’s monster appealed to him.
“The freedom to create is what makes working on the game worthwhile,” Hoang said.
Alex Grass, a high school friend of Mathur, joined the team shortly after LA Hacks and is in charge of the business operations of “Mom.” He said even though the team is established, it’s difficult to oversee the process of development for the game when everyone is operating on different hours. Grass said some students are spending the summer at home in India while others are on the West Coast.
“We have guys in India who are working while we are sleeping here in California,” Grass said. “It’s hard to actually get everyone together and discuss our progress.”
Now, the team that began with four students at LA Hacks three months ago has ten members programming, designing and advertising.
Mathur said he hopes to create an interesting story, one where players resonate with the game’s themes of love and survival.
“I want people to be scared, but I want them to enjoy it,” Mathur said. “I want to give people exhilaration.”