Shadows: The Darkness
Developer: Justin Ross / Ethereal Entertainment Platforms: PC


Justin Ross’s game Shadows: The Darkness. A short but very interesting puzzle adventure game about a boy named Timothy trying to escape his unfortunate fate.

Last month, I was able to play an indie game called Shadows: The Darkness, made exclusively by Justin Ross when he was in high school some years ago. The game opened with a simple graphical design – 2-D sprites with an isometric view, no sound, and all of the dialogue was text which popped up on the screen. This game may be overlooked by some because, unlike most games, it does not contain the many bells and whistles that tend to attract the larger audiences. The push towards better sound and better graphics is not in any way a bad thing. But, sometimes seeing a game that in no way relies on the flash of powerful graphics or hard hitting sound, that mainly just wants to tell a story that the creator loved and hoped others would love as well is a powerful statement. Shadows: The Darkness is created by a single game designer who is passionate about the medium and has a story to tell. Limited by time, cost, and manpower, Justin Ross was still able to take an idea and turn it into an enjoyable game.

Shadows’ biggest achievement comes from its world; there are obvious hooks at something larger working in the background. First what is Shadows: The Darkness about? A young boy named Timothy Randall who unfortunately has a very ill sister and even worse has just died himself. So, in this afterlife, Timothy sets out to try to bring himself back from the dead. In the process, he meets a not so grim “Death” and a featherless chicken, or a Dreadfowl, named “Eidelon” who has a particular knack for wit. The underworld has souls going about their business, while Timothy attempts to figure a way out of his particular dilemma. Usually, this consists of him having to reluctantly cross paths with danger and the possibility of a painful second demise. I enjoyed Death and Eidelon the most, and Ross mentioned that they were two of his favorite characters to write. This is noticeable because their diagloue shows a particular amount of humor and sarcasm that comes from that satisfaction of creating the characters. Shadows has an odd intertwining premise with death and the afterlife, this inspiration came from “[his] life, dealing with severe depression.” A game created uses the designer’s ideas, emotions, and inspirations to become something different, something the designer calls their own. Putting personal experiences like depression and other issues into a game is a powerful incentive for gamers to play, it allows them a small glimpse into someone else’s life and mind. Shadows is a great example of this.

Just because he is Death does not mean he has to live in someplace dark and gloomy.

Shadows: The Darkness was created in a day for a contest by Justin Ross a few years ago, and recently I was able to interview him about this game and possible future projects. “Not many people around my town know how to make games” Justin said. He ended up taking on the whole project himself and “participated in everything… Sprite work, programming, etc.” Ross used the BYOND/Dream Maker engine, which was “not exactly the most versatile, or best engine”, but “it served its purpose.” From my playtime with Shadows, much of its gameplay matches a standard puzzle game, but its design is reminiscent of old-school Japanese RPGs – small sprites and a top-down/ isometric view – and it ties in some nice adventure elements, as well. Justin stated that the majority of the puzzles came from “a spur of the moment kind of deal,” and what he could “easily accomplish in one day of development.” A particular favorite of mine was a lava puzzle encountered about half-way through the game; it uses the limited tech quite well to create noticeable differences in the environment that the player must use to continue. Shadows proves that the technology you have, has nothing to do with making a fun game. Using a simple engine and a day’s work, Justin Ross was able to design an interesting game that made me feel like I was accomplishing a goal as I progressed.

All game designers are gamers at their core; they have a history with the industry and it shows in the games they create. When developing Shadows Ross took inspiration from games like Portal because he “wanted to make puzzle that could be frustrating yet fun at the same time.” But Justin’s history with the gaming community is not just modern puzzle games, he started playing when he was four years old. “We had an Atari 2600,” Justin said, “damn did I enjoy it.” Glimpsing the world of games before modern technology and high end graphics gives games like Shadows an extra bit of charm that may resonate well with gamers looking for something different or nostalgic. A favorite genre will tend to become apparent when designers begin to build their own games, I expected Ross’s to be puzzle or adventure, but actually it is horror. “I pretty much take inspiration from the games that have scared me the most,” Justin said as he listed off games like Amnesia, Dead Space, and the Silent Hill and Resident Evil series. This also is seen in the games he is playing today, which includes the popular Cry of Fear mod, and slightly less from Dark Souls, which can be frighteningly frustrating, I suppose. “I pretty much enjoy anything, as long as it’s fun,” Ross stated, which is an important aspect to remember enjoyment must be at the core of every game.

Finally, we ended the questions on where his future lies in the gaming industry and any projects that may be in the works. Currently, Justin Ross is working for Ethereal Entertainment, a design team he founded. His team has expanded to 18 people with “some experience in the industry” which includes mods and “some culminated talent that have worked on AAA titles like Bodycount, and Dirt 2.” Ethereal Entertainment is hard at work on their first game/mod to be released to the public. Slender: Source, a “4 player co-op mod on the Source Engine” will be free to anyone who “own [the] Source SDK Base 2007”: Half-Life 2, Counter-Strike Source, Day of Defeat Source, etc. Ross compared the game to Amnesia stating that there will be “no combat” and the game will be focused on “be[ing] mean to the players.” From the beginning, players will be separated from one another, since as he puts it “isolation will make the game that [much] more scary.” The point of the game will be to just survive from the towering monster in a suit that is known as the Slenderman. He went into further detail about why he chose the Slenderman as the primary enemy. “I’ve loved the creature for a while now,” Justin said; he finds the fact that the Slenderman is almost human but not quite to be the scariest part of the monster. “The fact he’s so close to humanity, yet so different is scary,” said Ross. He is taking some inspiration from videos like Marble Hornets, a YouTube series about an unfortunate group’s run-in with the Slenderman, and this may help construct some of the lore of the game. The game only recently went into development, but Ross is excited and said that his “dev team works fast, and efficient. I love them all.” You can see two pictures of their progress in Slender: Source here and here.

Slender Source; Ethereal Entertainment’s first game about the much feared Slenderman.

Ethereal Entertainment and Justin Ross show a lot of promise. Moving into the mod market can be very demanding and difficult; they are going to be judged not on an advertisement campaign or publisher support, but instead their own ability to make a fun game. Considering how many Source mods are out there, getting noticed may be difficult, especially when creating a game in the horror genre. But, Ross has passion for gaming, and it shows even in something as simple as Shadows: The Darkness, which in every instance has the charm and feel of a great game. I look forward to seeing more out of Ethereal and look forward to seeing Slender: Source for download in March of 2013. More Slender: Source screenshots can be found here and here.

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