Gun Porn on Ganymede: What I Learned from Shadowgrounds

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Totally Not Gordan Freeman

Shadowgrounds is an old game – ancient by Internet standards – and severely rough around the edges. But this era of my development is in analyzing lots of different games, and this would be the first game of this particular genre that I’ve played with an analytical perspective. It’s a top-down, healthpack-based shooter – an “action” game about running, gunning, and aliens.

It’s easy to learn from where a game went wrong and there’s a lot to gain from studying some of the roughness of Shadowgrounds (don’t let geometry get in the way of smooth flow!), but there’s one stage that the game gets really RIGHT – the rescue mission in New Atlantis. Below, a bit of analysis on why that worked well.

The first thing that was awesome about this level: it was a mix of indoor and outdoor environments, that you could pass between by shooting up windows. This combination developed a nice contrast between the narrow, crowded corridors of the residential complex and the open fields and courtyards in between wings. The fact that the weather was rainy outside contrasted with the silence inside to make in an eerie quiet – very relevant for a place infested by monsters where survivors were hiding out, scared. The windows you could shoot to move between the two created a nice, dynamic angle of attack, so that you could sneak up from outside, or approach via the more direct route. This choice helped achieve a seamless flow – when I faced a beastie I couldn’t gun down right away, I’d be looking for different angles of escape, only to come back and cap it in the bubblegoose. This had a nice give-and-take, a nice event structure in each monster group: (intro) initial approach -> (rising action) monster fights back -> (climax) I look for an escape from the beast! -> (denouement) having escaped, I sneak back up and finish the job.

This is really a great back-and-forth pattern that I wish the game used more: the loop of attack, escape, come back and ambush is satisfying, it makes me feel clever when I pull it off. It’s something I’m looking at as I cast my eye on RPGs, which traditionally have an awful time making their fights dynamic and breathing like that. Heck, this dynamic encourages the stuff I was talking about in my Meat Circus post: a challenge that challenges your exploration ability – your ability to look for an escape route while the alien is clawing your eyes out.

Being able to move between these distinct environments is a good thing to encourage, so I might have to look at RPG combat in zones (and how you get pushed from one to the other). Particularly, the idea of Melee / Close / Ranged might be useful – each one could be a different region of the battlefield entirely, and moving cleverly between them (so as to avoid powerful attacks or to get off powerful attacks of your own) is something that can be encouraged.

That’s a big thing I learned from what Shadowgrounds did right: distinct environments that entwine together make a really dynamic play experience.

That, and make sure your soundtrack is awesome.

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