Shadow Complex Keeps it Simple
A game should strive to do one thing, and to do it really well.
When it first released in 2009, Shadow Complex completely passed me by. I had heard that it was good, but there was a lot that I didn't know about it.
I didn't know that it was one of the best-reviewed games of 2009, or that its sales numbers broke records for the time. I didn't know about the controversy over the developer's collaboration with famed homophobe/author Orson Scott Card, or that its success heralded a market shift towards digital distribution.
I did know, however, that Shadow Complex is celebrated as one of the best "Metroidvania"-style games ever made.
Fast forward seven years to the release of Shadow Complex: Remastered for PS4 (and another six months for me to remember that I had already downloaded it) and I finally got my chance to experience the game for myself.
I went in with with no expectations, and every intention of playing for a few minutes before moving on to something else. This is not what happened. Instead, I played through to the end in a few short sessions, and came tantalizingly close to clearing the whole map (I would have if I hadn't accidentally triggered the end-game boss fight).
For a title that came out nearly a decade ago, Shadow Complex as a game has aged well. The lighting and visual style look are up to par with any AAA shooter of the time, the narrative beats are sharp and well-acted, and the gameplay delivers that coveted mix of discovery, exploration, and action that makes "Metroidvania" games so beloved.
As with any good "Metroidvania" title, I felt a joy in exploration, a growing feeling of empowerment, and the comfort of knowing I was in good hands. But in addition to all of that, my most vivid emotion while playing Shadow Complex was simply that of relief. It was a breath of fresh air to play a game that wasn't trying to do too much!
You see, we live in a world of games-as-service, micro-transactions, and loot boxes, loot boxes, LOOT BOXES! As alternative business models, diverse audience tastes, and changing technology collide, it feels like every new, big-budget game is trying to do everything at once.
In my experience, this rarely works well, and often ends in disaster. If there's one thing I've learned as a game designer, it's that a game should strive to do one thing, and to do it really well.
For the developers of Shadow Complex, the goal was to take the classic 2D action/exploration gameplay of the "Metroidvania" genre, and to update it with the latest innovations in graphics, narrative, and gameplay design.
"... our goal was to create a game that felt both nostalgic and new at that time, it had hints of what you remember being awesome playing before, but it still offered you something fresh and unique that you hadn't experienced before."
-- Donald Mustard (Creative Director, ChAIR Entertainment)
For any game to be great, it needs a focused vision, a dedicated team, and enough time for iteration and polish. This is only possible when the developers know what type of game they're trying to make, and aren't trying to do everything at once.
This is what I love about Shadow Complex. Just by playing it, I can tell that the developers knew exactly what they were going for, and that they didn't try to do too much. The final result remains a must-play for fans of "Metroidvania"-style games, or for anyone who remembers what its like to keep it simple.
Of course, that doesn't mean that designing a "Metroidvania" game is at all a simple task. With a reputation for sprawling, interconnected maps, non-linear progression, and multiple endings, Metroidvanias are in many ways defined by their complexity.
I should also mention that they way it treats female characters, and the overall politics surrounding the storyline of Shadow Complex haven't aged nearly as well as the game as a whole... more on that in a different post.
First, a bit about the genre...
What Does "Metroidvania" Mean Anyway?
"... I think that most human beings have an innate sense of curiosity. We love to explore the unknown, and we love to progress. We inherently want to progress through life. We're not really built to stagnate. Many games offer a great sense of progression and even exploration to a degree, but there's something unique about the genre that pinpoints that desire in us to see a problem."
-- Donald Mustard
Full Map from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (*Spoilers*)
"Metroidvania" is a portmanteau (um, combination of words) that references the Metroid and Castlevania series of 2D action/exploration games. While neither series were the first to use the "Metroidvania" style of design (that prize goes to David Crane's Pitfall), both series feature titles so classic and influential that players ended up naming a genre after them.
The origins of the term are somewhat murky, but some believe it was first coined by game journalists Scott Sharkey and Jeremy Parish (the latter of which manages the site Metroidvania.com) when the two worked together at 1UP.com.
There are many elements to consider in determining what makes a "Metroidvania" game (I'll go ahead and stop putting quotes around it now). Most entries in the genre feature some combination of 2D action, RPG elements, or pixel art, but the defining characteristics of the Metroidvania genre can be boiled down to just two things: player-directed exploration, and a progressive feeling of mastery.
All Metroidvania games share at least one common feature: an interconnected game world that the player explores in a non-linear fashion. Players are free to roam as they wish, but cannot access the entire map from the beginning. Some areas of the game are locked off until the player acquires a "key" item or ability (hard locks), or guarded by a difficult boss enemy (soft locks). The player's progress through the game involves navigating through multiple branching paths, backtracking to previous areas, and discovering secret chambers.
Metroidvanias often also offer multiple end-game scenarios, bonus challenges, and optional elements that players can discover as they explore. This furthers the feeling of agency on behalf of players - every run-through is a little different.
Perhaps the most defining moment in a Metroidvania experience is the "epiphany." This is the moment the player acquires a new item or ability that will allow access to areas of the game that were previously out of reach. Donald Mustard, Creative Director at ChAIR Entertainment and one of the lead designers behind Shadow Complex, put it this way:
"I see a ledge I want to reach, but it's too high for me to get to. But as I learn the rules of the game, I start to understand that eventually I'll be able to get there. That imprints on your memory as you progress... And when you go back and do it, and you're successful, you feel so smart and empowered."
The magic of the experience of space in a Metroidvania is in the combination of player-driven navigation and choreographed design. Gates, bosses, story beats and other aspects of progression are carefully crafted by designers, but the order and timing by which the player encounters them varies from player to player. When a player reaches a key moment of progression, it feels organic and spontaneous.
In a Metroidvania game, players feel ownership of their experience despite the scripted nature of the design.
Mastery and Empowerment
Progression in a Metroidvania is about more than just leveling up. While the player character gains power through upgrades, abilities, weapons and items, the players themselves experience and knowledge of the game world. The way the world fits together, how enemies behave, and general knowledge of how to survive are all learned through trial, error, and experimentation. By the end, players have experienced a complete arc from weak to strong to complete mastery. Again, here's Donald Mustard:
"The world begins so ominous and difficult, but the more you pull its layers back, the more you feel mastery over it. And by the end, you can destroy everything in your path because you've become the master of that world. You become this super-powered engine of destruction and you fully understand your surroundings, so anything you see, you know exactly what to do. I believe that's the key to the formula."
Narrative, Flexibility, and Accessibility
There are other aspects of the Metroidvania genre worth noting. Narrative beats work especially well in this formula. This is because they are triggered by the player - often as the result of an "epiphany" moment that opened access to a new area. In addition, the integrated worlds of Metroidvania games are well-suited for narrative world-building with their hidden secrets and lore. A good Metroidvania feels like a real place, not just a series of levels.
Most Metroidvania games feature 2D action/platforming gameplay, and many consider those characteristics to be key to the genre, but that isn't necessarily the case. Dark Souls, Batman: Arkham Knight, and The Legend of Zelda all feature the same integrated worlds and progression towards mastery with entirely different cameras and perspectives. Metroidvanias don't need to hinge on action gameplay either, Tokidoki Story is a Metroidvania game centering on puzzles with no action in sight.
Finally, one aspect of Metroidvanias that can shouldn't be overlooked is their ease of entry. Most Metroidvanias feature gameplay that is easy to learn, but hard to master. Players can reach the end without having to discover the most well-hidden secrets or overcome the most difficult challenges. However, true believers can not only aim for 100% completion, but go even further by timing their playthroughs or by adding handicaps. The breadth of possibility gives the Metroidvania genre flexibility and appeals to a wide range of players.
This is what I think makes the Metroidvania genre interesting, and - much like the endless corridors of Castlevania - there are many more secrets to uncover in learning what gives the Metroidvania genre such lasting appeal.
With such complex level design and so many possibilities to consider, designing and developing a Metroidvania is no easy task. This is what makes Shadow Complex such an accomplishment, but it could only have been possible with a clear vision, good planning, and a lot of work. In other words, they kept it simple!
Shadow Complex's Focused Development
-- Donald Mustard
Shadow Complex: Full Map
In the game industry, it's all too rare to have a game development cycle where the team has a clear idea of what the project is, and what it's striving to be. This is the "vision" of the game, and it's one of the key elements of strong design. Vision in a game is not about a single developer dictating all the aspects of a game, or a rigid set of rules that hamper creativity. Instead, game vision is about setting goals, and making sure all design and development decisions are in service of achieving those goals.
Many games stumble even at this point - much to the detriment of the development process. If a game's own creators can't answer the question of "What is this game?" in one or two sentences, then you can bet that the project is in serious trouble!
In the case of Shadow Complex, ChAIR Entertainment's Creative Director, Donald Mustard, established the vision for the game early on - to make a "modern" version of a 2D action/exploration game in the style of Super Metroid.
-- Donald Mustard
Being moderately obsessed with Super Metroid and other Metroidvania games, this was not a big leap for Donald Mustard himself. However, it's never enough just to have a vision, the real trick is in the execution. The process that he and ChAIR Entertainment employed to bring the vision of Shadow Complex to life involved a combination of research, prototyping, feature development, and polish that any developer could learn from.
RESEARCH - Foundation and Goals
-- Donald Mustard
A team that shares a common vision has a huge advantage in game development. Games are at their best when all the elements: visuals, audio, mechanics, narrative, etc.; work together in harmony, but this is only possible if every team member has a clear concept of the game's creative direction.
For Shadow Complex, the project began with research. Every team member was required to play a number of Metroidvania titles multiple times in order to learn and absorb the genre. This ensured a shared knowledge base that everyone on the team could draw from when making creative decisions, and asking that all-important question, "Is this right for the game?"
Donald himself claims to have replayed Super Metroid, Metroid Fusion, Metroid: Zero Mission so many times during this period that by the end he could clear all three games in under six hours! To him, it was all about becoming an expert in the genre.
Many studios would consider an extended period of just... playing games, to be a waste of time and money. For the developers of Shadow Complex, this research was crucial to getting every team member on the same creative page. Compare this to the time some teams spend developing a project only to realize late in development that their core loop is wrong, or to the crunch of trying to reconfigure everything at the last minute. With those "worst-case scenarios" in mind, an extended period of pre-preproduction research can be well worth the cost.
PROTOTYPING - Experience and Progression
-- Donald Mustard
After the research period, the team spent months building paper prototypes. This allowed them to "play through" the entire game and get a sense of the non-linear progression that is so important to the Metroidvania genre. This is the stage where the team established jump heights, key item locations, and narrative beats. By playing through the paper prototypes multiple times, the team was able to identify problem areas, iterate on pacing, and direct the overall game experience in a fast and inexpensive way.
"That was the best thing we ever did, because it allowed us to find so many errors in our design so quickly. Because in just a week or two, I could play through the entire game from start to finish. I can be like, "Yup, that was fun there. That sucks." It really was amazing. I've never done that before in a game."
-- Donald Mustard
Much like the research period, many studios would view the use of paper prototypes as a waste of time, but this process undoubtedly saved the developers of Shadow Complex a great deal of pain and effort. The elaborate design of a Metroidvania map doesn't allow for easy iteration once art and functionality are put in place. Making the whole game on paper allowed the team at ChAIR to efficiently revise the map numerous times and ensure that they were nailing the core progression.
When the team at ChAIR had a paper map they were happy with, the next step was to roughly model it in Unreal using BSP (Binary Space Partitioning) brushes - a tool that allows designers to carve out space and create levels quickly. With the world gray-boxed (just volumes, not art) and a little cylinder for the player character, the team repeated the process of multiple playthroughs all over again.
This process of paper prototyping and gray-boxing allowed the team at ChAIR to confirm that the map layout and planned progression of Shadow Complex was in line with their initial vision.
FEATURE DEVELOPMENT - Modernizing the Design
-- Donald Mustard
According to the developers, the most challenging aspect of Shadow Complex's development was refining the controls and mechanics. The transition from 2D pixels and directional buttons to 3D polygons and analog sticks required fresh solutions to old design problems, but was also an opportunity to expand the appeal of this "hardcore" genre. The team at ChAIR referenced popular games of the time, streamlined the inventory, and innovated new features to give Shadow Complex a modern sensibility.
For the combat mechanics of Shadow Complex, ChAIR took inspiration from popular shooters of the time such as Halo and Gears of War. The player could crouch behind cover, throw grenades, and aim with the analog stick much like on the 2D plane of the game world. Like many shooters of its day (and on into the present), an auto-aim feature made enemies easier to hit, and allowed the player to target enemies that existed off of the 3D plane. When right next to an enemy, the player could even execute a melee kill via cut-scene animations that could have been taken straight from an Uncharted game.
With familiar shooter features in place, the progression of weapons and items was streamlined for a modern audience. Rather than managing a growing inventory of weapons and armor, the player gained armor pieces and new primary weapons at key points of the game. The armor pieces showed a visual evolution of the character into the ultimate soldier, and each new primary weapon felt a little different. Equipping automatically, these items marked the player's progression toward empowerment and mastery over the game world.
The use of key items was streamlined as well. Instead of single-use items, the player collected secondary weapons and gadgets to open access to new areas of the game world. Every new item added a new option to the combat or traversal gameplay. This made the "epiphany" moment all the more effective, as the player could experiment with new ways to navigate the world or dispatch enemies on the way to the new area.
One of the most effective design solutions the developers came up with was the flashlight. In addition to lighting darkened areas, players could see use the flashlight's beam to see which weapon was needed to break through certain obstacles. A red beam required missiles, yellow the primary weapon, blue the charge boots, etc. This made it simple for players to determine whether they had the required key item, or if they needed to keep playing and return later.
The development team at ChAIR made a number of other innovations to update the Metroidvania gameplay of Shadow Complex. This ranged from animation blending to dynamic lighting to adjusting the depth of field to focus only on the action on the 2D plane. Each aspect of the game, from visuals to audio to controls, were updated to contemporary standards on a new platform. This process would have been much more difficult without the common vision established in the research and prototyping phase.
POLISH - The Little Things
-- Donald Mustard
Often, in games, building the actual game is only the beginning. It's usually only through multiple rounds of iteration and polish that a game can take on the level of quality that stands the test of time. For Shadow Complex, the months of preparation they had put into research and prototyping had solved fundamental problems early. This freed up the team to focus on the little things.
When testers got lost in the map, ChAIR added a blue navigation line to signal the direction of the progression, but not give too much away. For advanced players wanting an extra challenge, they included additional challenge maps and hidden trophies only available in specific playthroughs. This level of detail is only possible in a smooth development process with a clear vision, achievable scope, and effective planning.
Keeping It Simple
When I was at VFS, the instructors would constantly repeat one phrase: keep it simple! They even made it into an acronym, KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Like many young developers, I figured my unique genius was enough to deftly execute even the most complex design concept. I was wrong. I've had the chance to contribute to a number of projects in the subsequent years, but you'd be surprised how many managers and executives do not seem to follow that all-important KISS formula.
And this is what makes Shadow Complex a game worth studying. The developers wanted to do one thing - make a modern Metroidvania game - and one thing only. They did it through research, prototyping, innovation, and iteration. There were no shortcuts here, just a clear vision a concise feature-set, and time needed to get it done. When a team knows what it wants, it can accomplish anything with the right preparation and planning. This process might sound simplistic, but it's kind of the best way to make games.
Check out my next post where I discuss the politics surrounding the narrative and mythology of Shadow Complex. That aspect of this game is anything but simple...
Shadow Complex [Wikipedia]
Shadow Complex [GameRankings]
Making Shadow Complex: Donald Mustard Speaks [Gamasutra]