When he’s not working on the latest Gears of War at Black Tusk Studios, Canadian developer Stuart Maxwell swaps mushroom clouds and chaos for the serene vistas and bold geometry of Shape of the World.
“Shape of the World is the world that grows around you, says Maxwell. “It starts simple, and as you go on a journey, it begins to grow. You build up this ephemeral world. You see it happening, and that gradually evolves and changes over the course of the game.
“In situations where you start to backtrack, they’ll maybe be recognisable aspects of the world, but there’ll be lots of new growth, lots of new weird things. So I want to play with enjoying the feeling of getting lost. Go on a journey, get lost, enjoy that. Find yourself, enjoy that too. Then go out and get lost again.”
Shape of the World is a walking-sim in a very literal sense, drawing inspiration from the real-life experience of striking out and finding something new, regardless of whether that’s around the corner in your suburban neighbourhood, or over the next hill on a weekend ramble.
“That’s what it’s all about, you go on a walk not to get somewhere, but to be on a walk,” Maxwell says. “That’s something I do a lot in my life, I go a lot of walks, I go on a lot of bike rides.
“I live in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia, we have these old growth forests all around, there’s so many opportunities to get out and just experience the quiet of nature. That’s the feeling I want to bring to video games. I’ve seen it in games like Skyrim, and to a small extent World of Warcraft. If you don’t get too bogged down by the quests, you can just discover places and try and immerse yourself in a world. I don’t think those games are designed to be immersion primary, they’re just giving you a little immersive feeling before the next encounter. This game focusses on that and makes it a bit more surreal.”
Shape of the World takes queues from thatgamecompany and other experimental experiences, settling on a vivid, artistic style that complements the minimalist gameplay mechanics that drive the ever-changing procedural world.
“Within the gaming space, I was obviously inspired by Proteus,” Maxwell says. “That’s when I realised that you could make a walking simulator and it could be really cool, although I’m trying to make my game a lot different to Proteus. It might actually be a little bit closer to Flower or Journey, those games were hugely inspiring. But Journey is a polished project with a bow on top and a huge team, maybe my third game will be as good as Journey,” he jokes.
An avid Quake player in high school, game development was a dream job for Maxwell, but after years of art school, he decided to act on that ambition and make it a reality.
“I was pursuing something in arts, I didn’t know what,” says Maxwell. “Then years later, after I was working as a graphic designer, it suddenly occurred to me that I could go back to school, learn how to do 3-D modelling, then crack into the video game industry.”
He continues: “I took an eight month class, a crash course in how to do this kind of stuff, got a job at Relic, stayed there for years working on Dawn of War 2, Space Marine, Company of Heroes 2. Then I moved on to Black Tusk, working on the Gears of War franchise.”
A 1st party Microsoft studio with over 100 employees, Black Tusk typifies everything about large-scale, big-budget, AAA development. At companies like these, each team member’s small contribution comes together to make the final product, but Maxwell wanted a more holistic project to fully test his capabilities.
“At Black Tusk, I’ve learnt a lot about the Unreal engine and that’s when I realised I should balance out the whole explosions and gore thing with a personal project, that’s about growth, about exploration; as opposite to the AAA genre as possible,” he says.
“It’s just about balance,” Maxwell explains. “I love the AAA stuff, but it can get stale if you don’t have any other creative outlet. It was just a matter of doing something that wasn’t hyper-realistic, something that wasn’t full of video game tropes. Most video games revolve around killing people and points and achievements, it gets very gamey. I wanted to do something that was much more experiential. Giving someone the experience of being somewhere magical in a game.”
This presented a potential problem. Producing two high-quality games at the same time isn’t easy, especially when one of them is a flagship Xbox exclusive with a reputation for console defining quality.
“I thought, ‘I work at Microsoft, it’s going to be weird if I try and pull out this indie game,’” says Maxwell. “‘They’re not going to like it, they’re going to want to take ownership of it,’ or whatever.
“That’s actually not how it happened at all, it turns out Microsoft have a moonlighting policy. Basically, as long as you’re still doing your work, you can work on other stuff. It’s actually been really good, no one’s gotten mad.
“I’m learning how to make my game from work, with all the weird technical stuff we do, and then the other way around, me experimenting on my own game at home makes me more productive. So there’s a symbiosis there that I didn’t really expect.”
Maxwell isn’t working alone, calling on other talented developers to help elevate Shape of the World from a personal passion project to a more professional product.
“I’m the primary developer, I do most of the clicking,” says Maxwell. “The other people on the team are Athomas Goldberg, he’s helping me out with creatures. His speciality is procedural animation, so he knows what he’s doing there. I just got a new guy on the team, his name’s Chad Smith, he’s been helping me with storyboards and ideas. Where the game is right now, kind of a technical demo level. Then the third team member is Brenk Silk, and he’s doing audio and music. Beside me, he’s the one that’s most hands on, implementing stuff in the game, working on the nice minimalist, atmospheric music.”
Shape of the World features an explicit narrative and a story that progresses as the player explores, however it retains a nebulous quality, telling its tale through nuances in the world rather than exposition.
“What you’ll see right away, without understanding the grand purpose of it all, is that there’re little creatures and fish swimming in the water, and they gradually get bigger and evolve and change,” Maxwell explains. “Eventually, they can flourish so much that they start eating each other. It starts off serene and happy, but it starts to get a little scary, there’s storms, and tentacles. That’ll play into the story.
“It’s not a survival game, in fact the player cannot die. It’s about going on a journey, going on a walk, and I’ve never died. There’ll be a sense of danger as you move forward in the campaign, but it’s more a feeling, rather than failing the level and having to start again.
“There’s a few really good survival games, like The Long Dark, which has a stylistic similarity to my game. I don’t want to crack into their space at all. I’m sitting very thoroughly in a different space. I can’t stand survival games anyway, permadeath is the most brutal thing, why would you put that into a game?” he laughs.
There aren’t any other characters to talk to in Shape of the World, but that doesn’t mean that it’s lifeless. The myriad of creatures that inhabit the game’s growing forests are a cornerstone of the experience.
“I call them ‘mimals’,” says Maxwell. “Like minimal animals. It’s basically just a simple enough shape, you put some eyes on it and recognise it as a creature, but then you understand what it is based on how it moves. Right now I’ve got shoals of fish, and floating guys that move through the forest. I’m taking a lot from fish because I really enjoy snorkelling, I’ve done a lot of snorkelling in Hawaii and Asia, that’s one of those experiences where you’re on a hunt to find a cool visual thing. I think that fits really nicely with the game, you’re looking for different kinds of fish, you’re watching as eventually you find a bigger, longer, spikier fish, and get a little shot of dopamine every time you find a new one.”
The exploration and discovery in Shape of the World happens within predesigned zones. It’s inside of these that the procedural mechanics of the game build their unique environments. This helps to keep the experience focussed and cohesive, without creating something that’s wholly linear.
“It started out as an open world, but I’ve changed my design a bit to be more like smaller open worlds,” Maxwell says. “You explore in your own way within a zone. There will be a bottleneck between each zone, and that makes it much easier to build, you can control the player experience a bit, but it’s important to me that I preserve that feeling of, ‘you’re free and you’re exploring’, without just being like, ‘you can go in any direction forever!’ That can actually be frustrating for the player sometimes, if they don’t know if they’re going in the right way, or they’re leaving their objectives behind.
“I’m targeting something like four hours of gameplay,” he adds. “The story should hopefully be interesting enough, yet ambiguous enough that with a replay, you’d get more out of it. It’s a very replayable game. The world will generate in a different way every time you play the level, the landscape is concrete, because that’s designed, I’m designing the space for you, but all the foliage and the creatures are procedural, hopefully it’ll feel very different. In my experiments, sometimes I get lost in an area that I’ve made because I don’t recognise it anymore, and that’s the proof right there. If I can get lost in an area that I’ve built because the procedural forest is that dense, your experience will be a unique experience each time.”
With walking-sims like Shape of the World, there can be greater emphasis on a high concept that pulls the game together than the actual gameplay. It’s always interesting to see which came first in development.
“My approach was game mechanics first, or more experience first,” says Maxwell. “I wanted to get the growing forest, the colour systems, the changes, the sounds. That was the important thing. Then it was a matter of redesigning that with a story element to it. It’s flexible, so we’re able to layer gameplay elements onto it very easily.
“The core loop as it stands, is that you emerge from a corridor, one of those bottlenecks, into your arena and that’s where you see the final landmark, ‘the weenie’ as Walt Disney would’ve called it. You know where you’re going, but you can’t get there, because there’s some sort of a chasm or a lake. So then you start exploring and there’s these pick-ups that you gather. The pick-ups represent growth. When you pick up things, you’re creating a little flourish of growth around you. Eventually when you’ve collected enough pick-ups and you’ve explored the zone, there’s one final string of pick-ups that takes you to a place where an entire ring of monuments are being built. This is your permanent impact on the world.
“You can go up to those monuments and activate them, and eventually you build this path which leads you to the exit. Along that path you’re going to be building more monuments and doing more stuff, ratcheting up the pace before the end of the level. The first half of the game is just this process of gentle exploration which ramps up with bigger and bigger growth until you actually create something substantial.
“On the way back, it’ll be a bit different, but I don’t want to go into that right now, it’s still secret.”
Shape of the World’s art style is bold and psychedelic, mixing vibrant colours and clean shapes to create a game world that’s unmistakably alien, but holds faint traces of familiarity.
“It’s going the opposite route from photorealism,” Maxwell says. “I really enjoy the minimalist look.”
He continues: “The colour palate and weather conditions are changing throughout the game, it’s not something that just happens in an airlock, it happens right in front of you as a result of something you’ve done. As you collect enough pick-ups, you get a shift, and the larger the event in the game, the larger that shift is. The colour changes, the music changes, creatures you’ve never seen fly past, it’s like a change of experience.”
This experience is supplemented by a carefully considered soundtrack.
“The music is huge,” Maxwell says. “I’m trying to find that zone between meditative, almost new-age, yoga style music, and taking that somewhere that’s a lot more interesting and contemporary. It’s got electronic elements, it’s got abstract elements. I want there to be drone, especially during the exploration, but then pull it into nice arpeggios.”
“Lots of elements in the world affect the music,” explains Maxwell. “It’s almost cliché in games now, as you collect things they make a sound like, ‘boop, boop, boop boop, boop boop.’ I think we’re starting to see that too much now, so I don’t think we’re going to go that far. But as you approach a monument, it hums and that’s tuned to the music. That music can build into a full song, or come down to just a drone. I think that contrast is important, to start up the music when you’ve done something good.”
Maxwell isn’t ready to reveal all of Shape of the World’s secrets before its 2016 release, and even then, he’d prefer to let players take what they want from their experience. After all, every player makes their own discoveries and shapes their world in a different way.
“There’s strength in keeping some of the story ambiguous,” Maxwell says. “You will gradually come to have your own understanding of who the player is and what this world is by the end of the story, but it’s never going to be spelt out for you. A lot of those queues I took from Journey, they had a really beautiful way of creating a world that had just enough information and detail to it, that you felt like there was a meaning behind everything, but it was never explicitly explained. You have to interpret it, and I think that gives the player more agency to figure it all out, and leaves them thinking about it for a while.”