Man, there was nothing more nerve-wracking than getting stuck in Shadowgate on the NES and seeing those torches fade one after another. It's one of my most vivid gaming memories, though I got stuck mostly due to the quite confusing Swedish translation that we had to endure in the North. Nevertheless, Shadowgate was a fine adventure, and fondly remembered not only for its intriguing story and puzzles, but also its haunting soundtrack.
It's quite interesting to, after 20 years, sit down with the original creators and discuss Shadowgate as it once again returns to shackle our bones. The duo of Dave Marsh and Karl Roelofs have worked together since the release of the first version of the game in 1987, and stuck it through good times and mullets, still going strong to this very day.
On Dave and Karl’s inspiration and story behind becoming videogame designers.
Dave Marsh: Back in 1985, I became friends with a programmer at ICOM Simulations -- a small gaming company that had just put out a remarkable game called Déjà vu: A Nightmare Comes True. He told me about the games they were working on and on how there might be an opportunity to create a new game -- perhaps a fantasy one. So, he lent me one of their Macs and I enlisted Karl to help with the creation of Shadowgate.
Karl Roelofs: I had always wanted to be a writer and the timing couldn’t have been better. I jumped at the chance to write and design a fantasy adventure for their new MacVenture platform. On top of that, they gave us as much freedom with the game as we wanted.
Discussing what it takes to create a good adventure.
Karl: At its core an adventure game needs to tell a compelling story. It needs to draw a player in right away -- making them care about what is happening. Additionally, it needs to have little victories to keep a player interested in progressing through the game. For Shadowgate, we took a page from Déjà vu -- the player was thrown into a situation that they had little background on and told to accomplish a daunting quest. This intrigue provided the motivation needed to keep going."
Dave: Right. I think a good adventure is a bit like a movie -- it feeds the player information as they go, allowing them to discover and unlock the story. The story then evolves as the player enjoys solving immediate puzzles at hand, and discovering new information that helps solve larger and larger puzzles.
The challenges of creating an adventure in videogame form and working with point-and-click gameplay.
Dave: Karl and I weren’t on board when ICOM created the first point-and-click game, but I do know that the process was heavily programmer-driven. They wanted to exploit this new windowed-based OS while, at the same time, creating a game that allowed the most amount of freedom. Doing more than clicking (like being able to drag objects into an inventory, for example) was a big deal at the time. The key was to make it feel as intuitive as possible. Remember, it was a whole new experience to work with a mouse, so the player had to feel comfortable right off the bat.
On the conception of Shadowgate in 1987.
Karl: Making adventure games was a relatively new thing at the time so we just concentrated on the main quest and on various puzzles that we thought would work to complete that quest. We also had concentrated on what the company had accomplished with Déjà vu and the new title Uninvited. More specifically, how did they use the command system to accomplish solving puzzles."
Dave: Also, Karl and I were avid fantasy readers so we pulled inspiration from a lot of the books we had read as well as hundreds of hours of playing Dungeons & Dragons.
The reception to the game and original plans for future Shadowgate titles back then.
Dave: To be honest, we had our heads down doing ports for these games. So I have to say we were a bit oblivious to the reception. Mindscape (our publisher for many of the titles) provided some information and I guess the fact that they kept publishing them on new platforms was a good sign! It was just cool to see the product on the store shelves and people buying them. I remember that we would go into Egghead Software and put Shadowgate across the front rows.
Karl: And we certainly had plans to continue on with the Shadowgate narrative. We put together a full design for Beyond Shadowgate as a MacVenture title, which was to take place some hundreds of years later in the universe, but then sidescrollers came into fashion and ICOM got a big contract with NEC and the company moved away from the adventure space.
On their time with ICOM.
Dave: Awesome time. It was a small company that trusted us to make games and provide a great atmosphere. We were more than happy to work on any type of project really and were always grateful for the opportunity ICOM gave us to get started in our careers. I mean, we would get there at 9am and leave a 10pm... although I think we played Robotron and Joust from 6pm on...
Karl: ICOM was a great time in my life. I got to do things I loved -- create and design games and do artwork while working with my best friend. I count my time at ICOM Simulations as some of the best years of my life.
On loss of control over the brand with Beyond Shadowgate and Shadowgate 64.
Dave: Like I mentioned, ICOM had gotten a large contract with NEC and they weren’t that interested in adventure games. They wanted sidescrollers and top-down action games. So, for the TurboGrafx version of Beyond Shadowgate, ICOM decided to move to a hybrid sidescroller/adventure. The Shadowgate license then went to Infinite Ventures who revived the brand by working out a deal with Kemco -- the developer of the NES port. Kemco pretty much developed all of Shadowgate 64. We are obviously pretty excited that we have reacquired the rights to work on the designs again.
The evolution of adventure videogames and the decline of point-and-click gameplay.
Karl: I think adventure games have definitely evolved with the technology. It started with pencil-and-paper adventures and choose-your-own-adventure books. It then moved to text-based adventures on computers then on to first-person point-and-click and then settled for a long time on the isometric view. Obviously, over the past 10-15 years, the FPS style of game has dominated the market, but I think we are moving towards a resurgence of both first- and third-person adventure games with the proliferation of devices like the phones and tablets.
Founding Zojoi and reviving the Shadowgate brand for the 21st century.
Dave: I had been looking at the game landscape and new devices for some time and noticed that there were some great opportunities for a small company to publish games again. I really wanted to see if there was an appetite for the first-person adventure game or mystery adventures. It took a while but I was able to reacquire the rights to most of the games Karl and I had worked on and found like-minded people that wanted to either port or remake them.
Karl: Right. We started with porting a number of our Sherlock Holmes mysteries before launching into Shadowgate.
On how to retain the classic feel of Shadowgate while still innovating the game for a modern audience.
Dave: So the thing is, while there are some puzzles that don’t hold up, we love the original game. We love the atmospheric environments -- the way that death was just around the corner. We loved the inclusion of the NES type of music and how that built such an edge-of-your seat ambiance.
Karl: But we didn’t want to just create a port. We’ve done it a ton of times. However, we wanted to use the original game and many of its environments and puzzles as a foundation but update and re-imagine it with new puzzles and rooms. We also wanted to incorporate a sleeker UI, tons of animations and music -- including a digitally orchestrated soundtrack and the original NES score.
Talking about the decision to use crowdfunding.
Dave: Well, when it really comes down to it, it’s expensive to make a game, especially across multiple platforms and without any publisher support. Art, audio, design, programming, testing -- it’s daunting. We’ve been knee-deep in pre-production and put a lot of time and money in but at some point you need to look for other alternatives. We didn’t approach this campaign lightly and have been very straightforward with our pledgers about where we are at and the minimum we need to get the game done.
Working with composer Rich Douglas (Orcs and Elves) and artist Chris Cold.
Dave: I found Chris on Deviant Art and immediately loved his style. The rough tones and moody, dark look was exactly what I envisioned for the re-imagining. It brings a real edge. And on top of being wickedly good, he’s the easiest guy to work with. Rich was an amazing find as well! He’s a fan of the game and loves the original NES music and his music brings a wonderful sense of atmosphere while paying homage to the earlier work of Hiroyuki Masuno.
On the potential of bringing Shadowgate to consoles through digital download services.
Dave: Certainly that is an area to explore. We’ve talked about the other consoles as well as the upcoming Ouya but really, we would need to complete the game on the promised platforms first. We can always move it to other platforms if the audience is there and demands it.
On the future of Shadowgate.
Karl: I think the skies the limit for Shadowgate. We have about 25 years’ worth of stories stored in our heads as well as binders of design documents. We would love to bring those tales to both long-time and new Shadowgate fans!
The campaign is nearing its end on November 25, 2012. You can venture over to the campaign page and fetch yourself some nice rewards by contributing.