You don’t often find a debut game that looks as assured as White Shadows. From first-time developer Monokel, it’s a narrative-led adventure game in the vein of Inside, and not many people would dare to wrestle such a critically acclaimed title with their first attempt. But White Shadows looks magnificent, from its monochrome art style to its moody, oppressive atmosphere. It may well step out of Inside’s shadows and into its own light.
We took the opportunity to chat with Daniel, the Creative Director of Monokel, to talk about the Herculean task of making a first game, and what it’s like to unleash it on an audience.
Could you please introduce yourself and your role on White Shadows?
Sure. I’m Daniel, I’m the creative director on the game, which means I had a hand in the design, the writing, the visuals, the levels, the production setup, and some of the systematic technical things in the game. We’re a small team at Monokel, 7 people right now, so everyone does a lot more than just one thing.
Could you give us a quick synopsis?
White Shadows is basically a modern fable. You play a little girl – a Raven – in a big world. The world really has it in for you and it knows where you are. You have no super powers. You can’t just go and change it or beat it. So you try to explore and you try to escape.
White Shadows has been getting some great reactions whenever it’s been shown, at Steam Next Fest, Summer of Gaming and Gamescom. Have you been enjoying the responses?
Yeah, it’s been great. Humbling, too! It makes you appreciate the awesome power games have to reach people – and also the responsibility of living up to all that anticipation. People have been really complimentary about the visual style and the game’s atmosphere, and there have been guessing games already at what different things could mean, which is particularly cool. We have put years into making this as impactful as possible, so yeah, it’s great to see that there are people looking forward to it.
There are some mature themes here – topics like racism, social mobility, structural inequality. Were these topics that came up organically, or did you set out to tackle them?
Yeah, they were always there. The concept had always been to build this world, and it was always going to show some ugly stuff. However, this has been more than 3 years of development, so of course things change over time. You learn, you see how your ideas look once you put them in the engine, and you adapt and tweak them over time. But in principle, it was always the idea to show things in the game world that you can also see in the real world around us.
Do you feel a burden to tackle them sensitively?
Of course we did our utmost to tackle them sensitively, but I’m not sure that calling it a burden is the best perspective. Of course, it can feel like that, it was a tremendous responsibility for the whole team. But it was our own choice to tackle them. And so we talked to a lot of people from very different backgrounds about what we are representing in the game world. We tried to check our own blind spots as well as we can, tried to figure out what the symbols and messages in our game world mean not just to us, but to other people. We built a world that we wanted to keep open to interpretation, that is purposely vague at times. And since we deal with so many difficult subjects, we felt it was our obligation to make sure and understand what they represented to others. And I don’t just mean that we had a friend or two look at the game; we engaged consultants, had sensitivity readers in, we showed it around to a lot of different people with different sets of expertise, inside and outside the games industry, and there has been intense discussions amongst ourselves, with our publishers and more. It even reached the friends and families of friends who came out of nowhere and helped out.
So it wasn’t easy, and it took a long time, and it can be nerve-racking, too. But mostly, we learned a lot about perspectives we didn’t even know existed. And that’s kind of the reason you get up in the morning, isn’t it? To learn new things. So even though it was really hard, I wouldn’t call it a burden. It’s just such a great privilege to spend your days trying to tackle these topics. To be able to work on something that feels important.
They’re not themes you associate with blockbuster successes. How did you convince your publishers to give White Shadows a punt?
That’s a great question! But first off, if you look at something like Bioshock, that’s not always true. I do think that people are interested in these topics. Bigger games just choose, for many different reasons, to not always engage with these topics. Of course, larger productions are first and foremost expensive, so they tend to make more conservative decisions about narrative direction and what to show in the game. That was definitely part of the pitch – we think there could and should be many more games dealing with these topics. Films do it, books do it, why can’t games? Wasn’t it Ken Levine who said that we’re great at making games about shooting people in the face, but not really great at the other stuff yet? It’s gotten better, and there is really inspiring stuff coming out more and more, but I still think it’s kind of true. I think games should be braver about what subjects they tackle. At least, that was important to us. Thankfully we found publishers who trusted us with what we wanted to do, and who also provided valuable feedback, but it wasn’t an easy thing to sell. DIfficult subjects, a rather short game, and our very first game to boot! I’m not sure how we convinced them, to be honest. They were interested, but it took a long time, and you have to be persistent. We had done our homework, that much I can tell you. But then you also have to be lucky and find people who believe in you. Thankfully, we had that.
How did you hit upon White Shadow’s monochrome style as the best way to tell the story?
That was always there, weirdly enough. It was part of the idea. A black and white visual style, with lots of fog and light effects, lots of details, a little bit childish and cute but also dark and brooding and with high-end rendering – that was always there. There’s obviously a lot of trial and error before you have all the details and you know how to produce it. But the world we had in mind was always about social contrast, so going for a visual style that was similarly about contrast was kind of an easy choice. And since the game world is in many ways a representation of our world, a mixture of realism and stylization was also something that we had settled on early.
There’s almost a stop-motion feel to White Shadows, like these are physical environments that I could touch and play around with. How did you achieve this? Are there physical models of the characters and areas lying around at Monokel?
Not really, although we did consider and try many different techniques and also looked at claymation as stylistic references, especially early on. I can’t tell you all our secrets – but what I can tell you is that we figured out a way of building the world in the way that we thought the people in this world would actually have built it. So for instance if they had limited resources, they would have reused stuff over and over. We tried to mirror that in our approach. Build things, copy and paste them, destroy or cut them up again and arrive at something that shows a history in the way it looks.
What makes a great White Shadows puzzle?
Great question. Puzzles are the hardest things to define in game design, if you ask me. For White Shadows we decided it should play with a sense of familiarity and surprise. Be easy and iconic enough that you think you know what it wants from you – and then put something else in there. Something you can’t quite put your finger on, that might tell you a hidden little story about the world you’re in. In short, a puzzle isn’t just a puzzle so you can stand around and think for a bit – you should be trying things, and this way, the puzzle should continue the game’s story and pull the player in deeper and deeper.
Is there a section of White Shadows that you are most proud of? That you can talk about, anyway.
Hard to say without spoiling too much. In the beginning, when we started out, I had lots of specific sections in mind that seemed really important, but that changes over time. I love the sections that still surprise me in some ways, even after years of working on them. But honestly, and this might sound cheesy, I’m really proudest of the sections where everybody in the team contributed equally. For a lot of the people on the team, this is not only their first game, but their first job. So to see how they grew and what they were able to put together is really the most rewarding thing.
It feels like the soundtrack is almost all diegetic, coming from the world. What made you take this direction?
You already said it – it’s coming from the world. We wanted people to wonder about where things come from, in many ways, and why they are there. So placing sound and music sources in the game world felt like the natural thing to do. We tweaked the concept over time a little bit, but we always stayed with that basic idea – except for a few special places. But I’m not spoiling them.
Watching trailers, you can’t help but compare White Shadows to games like Bioshock, Limbo, Inside and Little Nightmares. It also feels like Tim Burton is an influence. Are there any that were more influential than others?
First off, thanks! It’s great to be compared to these games. They’re among some of the most amazing creations in video game history. And yeah, they were touchstones for us. But honestly, the list of influences for this game is really long, much longer than those games. And there are not just games, in fact there are probably more reference points outside of games. There are Orwell’s books, specifically 1984 and Animal Farm, but also some other, older dystopian novels, Aldous Huxley, Yevgeny Zamyatin. There are science fiction film classics on our moodboards, anywhere from Blade Runner to Metropolis. There’s German expressionism, specifically the studio film sets they used to build for Ufa films in the 20s and 30s. There was also this book, The Devil in the White City, which I believe also played a role in the inception of Columbia in Bioshock Infinite and also gave us some historical and architectural pointers on the dark side of progress. The list goes on and on. And then crucially there are our own lives, and what moves our friends and family, and the barrage of daily news from the past decade or so, and our wish to have as much as possible of our player’s everyday lives represented in this world.
Are you nervous about what players will make of White Shadows?
Yes and no. Yes in the sense that this has been a long, long ride and we really want people to enjoy what we built. We hope the world connects with their own worlds. It’s been a long time, and now, in a second, we’ll see what everybody thinks. That feels pretty surreal. But on the other hand, because it’s been such a long ride, the whole team has given everything they have and then some to make this game the best we could make. It’s our first and we’re really happy about that and really proud of the team and really thankful for the support from our publishers and friends. So, apart from the nervousness, it’s a really big joy to finally see it out in the world.
We’re going to be traumatised by the events of White Shadows, aren’t we? These kinds of stories never end well…
What actually is a White Shadow?
That’s for you to decide…
Thank you to Monokel for the chance to have that interview. White Shadows is out on December 7th on Xbox, Playstation and PC, and we have a review in the can, ready for release imminently.
Are you planning to pick up White Shadows? Let us know in the comments below and on the social.