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Playing with light and dark in the ambitious debut, Shady Part of Me

"We wanted to create an ambiance for the players. Let them feel how the character feels, but not tell them how to feel." says Sarah Hourcade, producer for Shady Part of Me.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

Independent Games Festival finalist Shady Part of Me, developed by game studio Douze Dixièmes, sees players guiding a little girl and her shadow through a gloomy world, having them work together as the girl reveals her story through the puzzling environments.

Gamasutra sat down with Sarah Hourcade, producer of the Excellence in Design and Visual Art-nominated title to talk about the challenges and benefits of making their own engine for the game, capturing the character's mood through the art style, and the appeal of working with light and shadow.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing Shady Part of Me

Shady Part of Me was co-produced by Focus Home Interactive and Douze Dixiemes, an independent video game studio created by seven associates in 2017. 

My name is Sarah Hourcade and I am one of those founders. I was the lead producer of the game. Shady Part of Me is my first and (for now) only game. We all came from different backgrounds in the studio: construction, research, animation. I used to be a landscape architect in another life [laughs]. 

In Douze Dixièmes, we’ve known each other for more than 10 years and we talked about creating video games countless times together, never really acting on it. We started making little game jams during our free time, but it took about two years for us to go all in. We quit our jobs and put our savings into creating the studio. 

How did you come up with the concept for Shady Part of Me

The ideas about the little girl and her shadow switching from 2D to 3D was the first thing that we thought of about this game. I think it's the only thing that hasn't changed during the four years of development. When we decided to create the studio, we wanted our first game to be a title that could speak to all of us. Unfortunately, seven is a lot of people with very different tastes in video games [laughs]. This concept was the one that united us all. 

What development tools were used to build your game? 

Despite everyone telling us not to, we made our own engine. It was directly engineered for the game and its mechanics allowed us to iterate easily and completely choose everything in the project. It included a full-blown editor, supporting permanent addition in Play Mode, as well as game code and asset hot reload to allow fast iteration; the drawing-like rendering of the game, using continuous and moon-coherent full-screen textures, and a raycast-based physics engine. 

It cost us a lot of time in pre-prod, but I think it’s one of the reasons the post-production went really smoothly. The game is now available on PC, Xbox, PlayStation, and Switch and I think it’s something we’re all very proud of. 

What thoughts went into designing puzzling areas you could solve with shadows and light? 

Light physics is very interesting. We all came from a scientific background and I think that played a huge role in this “light and shadow” choice. We soon discovered that reality was not always intuitive and could make puzzles almost impossible. It made this mechanic rich enough to build a game out of it. 

The main problem was actually that it was too difficult too soon. We had to make a choice, and we decided to have a very slow curve of difficulty in order to ease the player into the game logic. The first playtests that we made showed that it was needed [laughs].

How did you balance puzzling elements with surreal stage design to make the places that felt real (if definitely the stuff of dreams/nightmares)? 

It was a very difficult balance to find, especially since players have to do the game and all its areas twice for each character. The decisions were mostly made out of playtesters' feelings. Where do you get bored? Is the transition here too long? Did you need a pause after too many puzzles in a row? The rhythm of the game was made there. 

What drew you to allow the player to switch between 2D and 3D? How did that make things more complicated for you as a developer, and more exciting/interesting for the player? 

In our early prototypes, we tried multiple ways to link both characters and their gameplay, with some iterations involving moving both of them at the same time. While some of them created interesting results, we opted for the most cohesive approach of the matter while assuring that puzzles remained interesting and fun. Therefore, we opted for what was the most coherent, with the initial will to make both part of our characters independent and complementary. Switching from one character to the next and playing them independently was, in the end, the easiest way, both for us as developers, but also for the player to treat each character as a unique entity. 

Why did you add the ability to turn back me in the game? Why allow players to rewind their mistakes? 

The game is a story being told by the main character. She can lie, and she can make mistakes. We hesitated to add “Oh wait! That’s not what happened” or other variations during the rewind, but finally decided not to. It was something that seemed very real and in direct relation to the idea of telling a story. 

What drew you to this particular visual style to explore your themes and story? How do you feel it strengthened what you wanted players to feel and experience? 

The art director of the game is a huge fan of pencil drawing styles. We found a lot of inspiration in great artists like Marc Antoine Mahieu, Moebius, and Junji Ito. We really wanted to be able to create this "game in the drawing" effect, and we're very happy that you noticed it. It's the result of many back and forths between the rendering developer and the art director. The idea is that the whole game is being drawn by the little girl while she is talking to her psychiatrist. Each time she takes a new sheet, a new part of the world is being drawn (like in the game after each checkpoint). 

What feelings were you hoping to stir up in players as they worked through your story? What did you want to draw from the player as they experienced your game? 

We wanted to create an ambiance for the players. Let them feel how the character feels, but not tell them how to feel. It was a bit tricky sometimes and we know that some players would have preferred a more straightforward story. We finally decided to stay open about what happened to the little girl and focus on her healing process narrative. It was a strong dilemma during the production of the game, and we will have to learn from the players' reactions to the narrative design [laughs].

This game, an IGF 2021 honoree, is featured as part of the Independent Games Festival ceremony.  You can watch the ceremony starting at 4:30PM PT (7:30 ET) Wednesday, July 21 at GDC 2021.

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