Back during PlayNYC 2018 I got a chance to look at Where Shadows Slumber, a delightful mobile puzzle game based on shadows. When I went to the Halloween Playcrafting Expo I saw the game again, and knew I needed to learn more about it. Thankfully I got a chance to sit down and talk to both artist Frank DiCola and designer Jack Kelly about the game. I also made a bad pun, worked in the PlayStation Vita, and narrowly avoided having the game's ending spoiled for me.
TechRaptor: I'm here with Game Revenant, they have Where Shadows Slumber. Why don't you guys start just telling me about the game, how did it come about?
Jack Kelly: Oh, okay. So a couple, I guess five, years ago I graduated from the Stevens Institute of Technology and Frank was still going to school there, and that's where we met, and when I graduated we both wanted to work on video games, so we started making a game called Skyrunner, an endless runner game. It didn't really go anywhere, but it was a really good way to get our feet wet. After that finished I kind of came up with this idea for Where Shadows Slumber, where you can't see something, when it's in shadows, it changes. I made a quick demo to show Frank what I was talking about and we both liked it and we both started working on it. So that was three and a half years ago, and we're finally here, we released last month-- well, it released on iOS last month and we're releasing on Android next month.
TechRaptor: So the endless runner didn't go anywhere. Was that a pun or...?
Jack and Frank: Ayyyyy!
TechRaptor: That was the worst, I apologize.
Frank DiCola: It's more like we knew we wanted to make games and I think that was a great project to teach ourselves all the stuff that happens you make a game. Like that was the first time we uploaded something to the App Store, and went through that whole arcane process. The first time we dealt with Google Play, the first time we dealt with builds from Unity, or iteration and testing. So it was good in that sense, it really taught us a lot. So there's a lot of times we've been doing things for Where Shadows Slumber and we keep saying "oh, remember when we had to do this for Skyrunner? Yep, that sure hasn't changed. It's just like X code." You know, same as always. So it's good to not have to... like Where Shadows Slumber is our first 'big game', right? But it doesn't mean it should be the first time we do a lot of these things. You got to get your feet wet. So yeah.
TechRaptor: So I guess it's not fun using the App Store?
Frank: It's just so different. Uploading something to Google Play feels like uploading a file to Google Drive. It's like "boom, you're on Google Play, have fun everybody". Uploading through the App Store feels like getting FBI clearance or something. Like if you try to work at a nuclear power plant and they have to interview your friends.
Jack: Do you have any references?
TechRaptor: [Laughter.] Alright. So, Where Shadows Slumber. You made this whole thing with the light. How difficult would you say is developing something like that?
Jack: So the mechanics themselves, the idea of "oh this object is in shadow, I'm going to change it", that code came together pretty quickly because it's basically-- I majored in math. So it's basically just a lot of math to figure out "oh these are the angles the object creates, so anything between these angles are in shadow." I can know that definitively. That came together pretty quickly. The biggest challenge, programmatically, was making it look right. So when you have a light in the real world, it kind of fades as you get further away from the light itself, and that's a normal thing and something that's built into a lot of game engines, Unity included.
We didn't want that, we wanted a very crisp light. We wanted a very crisp edge to the light, and we wanted very crisp shadows, and everything in the shadows had to be entirely black. So we had to do a lot of work to get that up and running and working the way we wanted to. That was, I would say that was the biggest challenge, making it look right.
TechRaptor: So while you guys are making Where Shadows Slumber you're going through all this stuff with the shadows. At any point were there mechanics you could have used but cut from the game?
Jack: Yeah, we went through a lot of iterations on what to do with the mechanic. At first the concept was "any time something is in shadow, it changes." Conceptually that made a lot of sense, but it doesn't lend itself to good game design because it-- of the way, moving around a pillar, for example. The way that the game actually works is that you need to move entirely around the pillar, but in the first iteration you could move behind the pillar and back out and that would cause things to change. It's hard to kind of describe things in text, but it basically lent itself to very interesting mechanics but no good puzzles.So we kind of had to do a few iterations of "what does it mean" to have objects change in shadow in order to get to a point where we could design around that.
After that we designed the first half of the game as basically based on that core premise, then each of the worlds after that, a lot of the levels after that, have other mechanics, and new and interesting ways to use the shadow mechanic. Since then I've had people say "oh, you should do this, you should do that, you should do different ways of applying the shadow mechanic." So it seems like it has enough depth to provide some good mechanics, but I kind of like the balance we struck with it. It's mostly one core mechanic with a few others sprinkled in.
TechRaptor: One thing I noticed, when I was playing the game, the puzzles, the design and all that is pretty cutesy. Then you get to a cutscene and, oh my God, it gets violent and horrible and dark. It all fits with the tone of the game, but it's just very different. Why are the cutscenes designed like that?
Frank: It's a bit of a contrast. Well we knew for sure that the puzzles would never have anything violent in them, because we never wanted the player to be in like a end state, like a reset state. So we were kind of going for a zen thing where there would be no spikes, and there would be no enemies and you never have to reset, you never die.
As far as story is concerned... it's a good question. We also knew that we wanted to tell a story without any words at all, like no dialogue, which means a lot of the story is going to be told through body language and struggle. Two people fighting, or someone chasing someone else. So those things, that sort of fit. We definitely wanted a story that would stick with you, and one good way to do that is to shock you, make you go "oh my God I'm never going to forget that." So, I don't know, it just kind of came together. It seemed to fit with the mechanics of a game that uses dark shadows, exploring the dark side of humanity, you know?
Jack: It's a very dark game.
Jack: Yeah, I think the contrast between the bright colors and the cartoonish vibe and the cute characters, and the brutal cutscenes, that contrast has some value to it. I think, also, at least me, you see a game like this and off the top of your head you think "I know the storyline of that game already, I know what's going to play out." We've seen so many of these kind of cutesy games where they have cute storylines and... I wouldn't say it's old or boring at this point, but it's not new and we wanted to move in a slightly different direction.
Frank: It seems to also be a common thing in reviews, people will be like... I want to ask them what they think. A lot of people have said "yeah I had a feeling I thought I knew what would happen in the last cutscene, and then it went in a different direction." I'm like "wow, I wonder what they thought would happen?", right? I don't want to give anything away, but, I mean these are people reviewing a game on an iPhone, right? So you can't really talk to them. But I'd love to sit down with some of these players and be like "all right, tell me what you thought would happen." Because I guess, evidently, it was a bit of a twist. I don't know, that kind of surprised me, but I was glad to see that because, yeah, you don't want to be too predictable I guess.
TechRaptor: Well I don't know the twist yet, so no spoilers.
Frank: It's not even really a twist.
Jack: It's not a twist.
Frank: Maybe they thought there'd be a twist?
TechRaptor: Alright. Where Shadows Slumber. So the game is out now, what's next? What are you guys doing next?
Frank: More platforms. I forgot if we mentioned this already, but the Android release date is November 20th. So that's right around Thanksgiving. Obviously there's a lot of AAA titles that are releasing then too, but we didn't want to wait too long to get to Android, and we wanted the sort of holiday benefits of Thanksgiving, you know? So we know that people are going to show their friends and family what they're playing on Thanksgiving, so it'll be on Android the day before, or a few days before.
After that, after the Amazon and Android release, then it's kind of a question. A lot of people have mentioned Switch, a lot of people have mentioned Steam. There is some demand, but it's also a lot of work. So that's kind of a conversation we have to have. In fact, we were just talking with Robert, I don't know if this can make it in the article, he was saying he thinks there's some games on Switch that are only in portrait mode? That was not my understanding when I spoke to Nintendo directly, but if they changed their policy then it might be easier to get onto a platform like Switch, and if that's as big as the iPhone market then we definitely want to be there.
TechRaptor: I have to ask for the three PlayStation Vita owners, are there any plans for that?
Frank: That'll release around the time Windows Phone does.
Jack: I think it's a real question of, like, the balance of the cost and affect I guess. If the game does really well and a lot of people want it on Steam, we'll do it on Steam because we know we'll get a lot of sales. If nobody wants it on Steam, we still might do it on Steam if it's easy. If it's difficult, it depends on how well we think it'll do. We don't want to spend another year painstakingly creating the Steam release only to have nobody buy it.
Frank: That'd be pretty bad. Because when you're doing indie development you're tempted to say "oh it doesn't cost anything", but it does cost time, and time is valuable. These are our lives.
TechRaptor: This is time you could be spent making Where Shadows Slumber 2? Or whatever's next.
Frank: Well, yeah. Or other projects, or I could get a job in the industry or something and learn that way. So, yeah. As of right now I don't have any ideas for a sequel. I think maybe Jack might mention something about that, but really nothing is in the works. Really, we're making sure we do right by this game, I don't want to wake up six months from now and say "oh, you know what I should have done when we launched..." So you kind of put yourself in that mindset now, you say "alright, pretend it's six months from now and I'm looking back at this portion of my life, what would I have wish I'd done to promote the game." That's kind of where we are right now. So in a way we're still in development, if you look at it that way. We're in the business development phase.
TechRaptor: Now, where are the shadows slumbering?
Frank: [Laughter.] Well, you got to beat the game! You got to play the whole thing. I think we answer that question.
TechRaptor: Alright. Well I'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk with me, it's super interesting, I really like getting to see the game, thank you for taking the time. Seriously guys, it's really cool, I'm glad I got to see this.
Frank: Thanks for coming over, we appreciate it.
We'd like to once again thank Frank and Jack for taking the time to talk with us.