History Lessons: Shadowgrounds

New readers may wish to read my History Lessons Introduction first. Other History Lessons posts can be found here. And, as always, you can click on images to view larger versions.

Finnish developers Frozenbyte are best known for the Trine series, the first entry of which I wrote about back in 2012. But their first game was the top-down science fiction shooter Shadowgrounds, released in 2005. It’s interesting because it’s a quality yet clearly lower budget title that appeared just before indie games really started to take off. As such it’s somewhere between the games that the major studios make and the games that we now associate with indie developers. Such a game could not have been made in the United States at that time; customers expected big expensive games, and digital distribution — which would soon make it feasible for small development teams to reach a wide audience — was only just getting established.

This was also a period when I was not playing, or paying attention to, as many games I had before or have done since. It wasn’t until the release of the likes of Aquaria (2007), World of Goo (2008), and Braid (2008), which played key roles in the start of the indie boom, that I resumed playing and thinking about games regularly. As such, I missed Shadowgrounds when it was first released, and hadn’t played its contemporaries either. Playing it now, I can’t help but view it in the context of the aforementioned games that came only a few years later. Those who played Shadowgrounds in 2005, however, were more likely comparing it to Doom 3, released the same year.

The latter comparison is a natural one, as both games mix horror elements into their traditional action shooter design, both involve fighting hostile creatures on another planet (Mars in Doom 3, Jupiter’s moon Ganymede in Shadowgrounds), and both put an emphasis on dynamic shadows. Shadowgrounds has that name for a reason. But there are some very obvious differences, most notably the top-down viewpoint in Shadowgrounds, which recalls games like Alien Breed rather than the first-person shooter forebears of Doom 3. In practice, however, this difference is not as large as it first appears. The top-down shooters of Alien Breed’s ilk show everything around the player character, letting players respond to threats from all sides. But Shadowgrounds focuses on what is in front of the protagonist, with the mouse used to turn and aim much as it is in a first-person shooter. Movement is also similar, with the familiar WASD keys used to move forwards, backwards and sideways relative to the direction the protagonist is facing, rather than the free directional movement of games like Alien Breed.

This is strange initially, and I constantly tried to lower the camera with the mouse so I could see farther forwards, like I’d be able to in a first-person game. It took a while to get used to the idea that I couldn’t do this. It’s intentional: by keeping the camera fixed, the designers were able to limit how far the player can see, ensuring that all encounters happen at close range. This does wonders for the atmosphere of the game, which is all about exploring dark and claustrophobic places, never knowing when horrible creatures will attack. When they do, they’re already too close for comfort.

I suspect that the top-down viewpoint also made the dynamic shadows easier to implement. Dynamic shadows were still relatively new in 2005 — I first saw them in Thief: Deadly Shadows which released the year before — so it’s no surprise that developers were excited to include them in their games. While they are graphical effects, they’re not just for show; dynamic shadows respond believably to moving light sources, so objects and rooms can be alternately bathed in light or lost in darkness, and anywhere a shadow falls can conceal a terrifying creature. To implement these effects at that time required creating a custom graphics engine, which (as I’ve discussed before) not only affects a game’s visuals but also how it feels to move through and interact with its environments. Doom 3, in true id Software fashion, used a new state of the art engine called id Tech 4, which would later be licensed to other developers to use in their games. The Shadowgrounds engine, on the other hand, is much simpler and more focused. It does a few things really well, and the game plays to its strengths brilliantly.

With the top-down viewpoint, Shadowgrounds doesn’t need to have beautiful high-resolution textures for its environments and characters — these things will never be seen at very close range. Additionally, since the protagonist will only ever look left and right, and never up or down, it’s easier to make cool-looking shadows. The protagonist’s shoulder-mounted flashlight will always point parallel to the ground, so light can only be cast in certain directions. Also, it’s easy to place pillars, barrels, rocks, trees, or other objects in just the right places to cast creepy shadows as the player sweeps the flashlight over them. Shadowgrounds is full of dark places that seem to actively resist the beam of the flashlight, with shadows forming and pooling again as soon as the beam moves past. And honestly, these shadows would probably be much less impressive in first-person, when they’d mostly be out of view behind objects. From the top-down viewpoint, they look fantastic.

Today, it’s common for small development teams use stylized visuals to make games that look good without requiring huge art budgets. But in 2005, players expected games to have expensive and fancy-looking visuals. Frozenbyte carefully designed their engine and their art so it would look good enough to capture these players’ attention, without breaking the bank.

With the engine in place, Frozenbyte were free to tell a science-fiction action/horror story, taking heavy inspiration from the likes of the Alien films and other, less distinguished science fiction fare. Shadowgrounds evokes a science fiction B-movie in many ways: the acting is bad (although I’m not sure if the original voices were in Finnish, or if the team started with the English voices), the plot is full of cliches, including the oft-repeated theme of the dangers of secret military research and militarized society, and the characters shoot a lot of aliens in tense, scary encounters and flat-out firefights full of explosions. Even the protagonist is a cliche, a mechanic who gets caught up in crazy events and ends up as a gun-toting badass who mows through hordes of alien creatures with a hail of bullets.

Yet I still found a lot to like. The world-building is quietly competent, hinting at frictions between Earth and the colony on terraformed Ganymede, and presenting a believable backdrop for the strong military presence on Ganymede that slowly reveals itself. And the actual events of the story make sense. When a trip to repair a power station goes south, our hero Wesley Tyler needs to rendezvous with the military response team, and from there they work logically to contain the threat, defend critical areas, evacuate civilians, and otherwise try to prevent total chaos. In true action B-movie fashion, Tyler ends up performing the brunt of the heroics rather than the highly trained soldiers, but there’s at least some justification for this, since his skills as a mechanic are needed at key points. He also spends much of the game working with Corporal Jane Arwyn, who is refreshingly capable and, unexpectedly, does not become a romantic interest for our male lead. They just work well together, and that’s it, which was a welcome surprise.

It’s a shame, then, that the end of the game is such a disappointment. I don’t want to spoil what happens, but the ending can be seen coming a mile away (well, technically there is a tiny twist, but it’s insignificant), and the lead up to it is the least interesting part of the game to play, with unimaginative environments that repeat ideas and go on for too long.

Thankfully, this comes at the end of a lengthy and enjoyable game, and as such does not spoil the experience. If Shadowgrounds had been made today, it might have been a much shorter offering, with a greater emphasis on the scary moments and a tight and surprising story. Instead, it hews closer to its big budget shooter cousins, with a basic story that supports a full campaign spread over many missions, and ten upgradeable weapons to find and use against increasingly deadly foes. Not all of these weapons are as useful as others, but the upgrade system is cool, letting players adapt the weapons they like to their particular playing style. Upgrades can do everything from increasing damage to adding alternate fire modes or modifying weapon behavior. There are some weapons that only become useful with the appropriate upgrades, however, which is a little annoying. Mostly, though, the arsenal is fun to use and appropriately rewarding at later stages when the action gets more intense.

One controversial design decision is the system for saving one’s progress. Players cannot manually save during a mission. Instead, they have a limited number of respawns if killed, and if they run out they must restart the mission from the beginning. Effectively this means that progress is automatically saved at checkpoints, but these cannot be used indefinitely. Now, there’s something of an ongoing debate about the merits of checkpoint-style saves versus manual “quicksaves” in games in general, with each side having its fervent supporters. Some like checkpoints because they don’t have to keep saving manually and can focus on the game without breaking their immersion. Others prefer quicksaves because they hate having to repeat long sections if their character falls, and they prefer to have greater control over when and where to restart. I have always been in the latter camp, but believe that games can easily feature both approaches (Half-Life 2 is a great example).

Shadowgrounds is the first game to convince me of the merits of a fully checkpoint-based system. I no longer thought about when and where to save, because I couldn’t save. There was no need to gauge my performance and decide if I should go back and try to do better. All I could do was continue onwards and take things as they came, which fits the feel of the game perfectly. The characters are scrambling to respond to a threat, but that feeling would be lost if I knew I could just go back and try again whenever I pleased. And the limited number of respawns do wonders for creating tension. In practice, there are plenty of respawns, and I rarely needed to use many in a given level (and indeed never used them all up, even when playing on the hardest difficulty setting). But knowing that respawns are limited motivated me to keep my character alive at all costs, which again fits with the theme of fighting for survival against an alien horde. I’ve played other games with checkpoint-style saves but none of them worked so well on me as Shadowgrounds; the game is designed around this system and tweaked to maximize tension without being overly punishing.

Having said that, this save system does have significant downsides. Since saves are impossible during a mission, there’s no way to stop playing mid-mission and pick up where you left off. If you don’t have enough time to play a full mission (which can take about 30 minutes to an hour to complete) then there’s no point in playing at all, because no progress can be made. And actually running out of respawns is (I assume) highly demoralizing, especially since it’s most likely to happen at the very end of a mission when battling a tough boss. These are all things I would normally cite when arguing for manual saves, and players should definitely be aware of them before trying the game. Still, I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed Shadowgrounds without saving all the time.

A sequel, entitled Shadowgrounds: Survivor, released in 2007, right when the first high-profile indie games were appearing. I haven’t played it, but I’d like to, as it wisely avoids the lackluster ending of the first game in favor of revisiting the earlier events from new perspectives. I’m also curious to see whether it stays true to the action shooter formula, or if it shows more similarities to the indie games that followed (including Frozenbyte’s own Trine in 2009). But however it turns out, I’m glad I played the original, because it’s not just an interesting look at the state of game design at a time when I wasn’t playing very many games, it’s also a solid and enjoyable romp in its own right. I will look back fondly on my visit to Ganymede.

Shadowgrounds is available from Steam or the Humble store. It runs without much hassle, although I did decide to set the custom 1440×1080 resolution in the options.txt file, because the widescreen resolutions (e.g. 1920×1080) stretch the HUD. It’s not too noticeable but I prefer the original 4:3 aspect ratio.

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