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Shadow Complex dev talks sequel and working with Star Wars 7 director

Creative director Donald Mustard discusses the legacy of Shadow Complex and the series' future.

When Shadow Complex launched in 2009, it broke Xbox Arcade sales records, selling over 200,000 units in its first week. Its approach toward the classic Metroidvania formula was well-received, even earning an 8.5 in our review. While the game had previously only been available on Xbox 360, it's now coming back into the spotlight on PC and Xbox One (with a PS4 version in May) thanks to Shadow Complex Remastered.

We recently talked with Donald Mustard, the founder and creative director of Shadow Complex developer Chair. Mustard shared his thoughts on a variety of topics, including Shadow Complex's remaster, the possibility for a sequel, and Chair's Spyjinx, an upcoming action strategy-RPG made in collaboration with film director J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot.

What made now the right time to come back to Shadow Complex?

Mustard: Shadow Complex has always been really important to us. We love that game and we love the [Metroidvania] genre, and there's always more that we've been hoping to do with it. But a big step in that effort was finding a way to not have Shadow Complex only be on one system. We needed to find a way to bring it to a wider audience not only so more people can have a chance to play it, but so that history doesn't leave it behind.

Honestly, we've been looking for that opportunity since Shadow Complex came out. Infinity Blade was a huge game that really shifted our focus for several years, but as we finished Infinity Blade III and started working on Spyjinx with J.J. Abrams, it gave us an opportunity to look at the state of things again.

As soon as an opportunity presented itself where we could take the time and update Shadow Complex's code base to bring it forward, we grabbed it. It literally took that long for a window of opportunity to present itself where we could do it.

Shadow Complex was one of the best-selling Xbox 360 downloadable titles in 2009, and -- in some ways -- was responsible for games of its type gaining more traction in mainstream game development. Had you expected the game to have such a strong response?

It's interesting because you never truly know how people are going to respond to it. We had an inkling, and I believed there were people out there that loved Metroid and Castlevania as much as I did. But I knew where everything in Shadow Complex was because we made it. The game -- as fun as it was to me -- didn't have the pure magic of discovery because I placed all the secrets. I had a secret hope that there'd be other developers out there that would play it and love it and they'd do well enough that they'd be like, "We should go make a game in that genre!"

I look now and I have Ori and the Blind Forest, I have Guacamelee!, I have Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet and I've got Axiom Verge. There's a ton of games that have come since Shadow Complex. I'm not saying we're directly responsible for it or even at all, but it was interesting to see the response. Even within weeks after Shadow Complex came out, we started winning all these Editor's Choice Awards and sold tons; we eventually started winning Game of the Year awards. Microsoft would call me every couple of days and tell me another developer came in again and pitched their Metroidvania or their Shadow Complex game. But it's been cool having more games out there like this that I love playing. They're awesome.

Why do you think the Metroidvania formula has aged so well? What about the formula continually makes it so powerful and entertaining to newer generations?

It depends how philosophical you want to get, but I think that most human beings have an innate sense of curiosity. We love to explore the unknown, and we love to progress. We inherently want to progress through life. We're not really built to stagnate. Many games offer a great sense of progression and even exploration to a degree, but there's something unique about the genre that pinpoints that desire in us to see a problem.

To me, if you break down Metroid and Zelda and what makes them so awesome is that you can see a problem. I see a ledge I want to reach, but it's too high for me to get to. But as I learn the rules of the game, I start to understand that eventually I'll be able to get there. That imprints on your memory as you progress. It's a lot like what Jonathan Blow was talking about with The Witness and epiphany. I think Metroid is one of the best games for epiphany moments because of the logic telling you "If you do this and this, you can now do this." And when you go back and do it, and you're successful, you feel so smart and empowered.

The world begins so ominous and difficult, but the more you pull its layers back, the more you feel mastery over it. And by the end, you can destroy everything in your path because you've become the master of that world. You become this super-powered engine of destruction and you fully understand your surroundings, so anything you see, you know exactly what to do. I believe that's the key to the formula.

You once said in a stream that Shadow Complex is the game of your dreams. Do you think a game like this is something you'd revisit? Or is there another game of your dreams you'd be interested in making?

When we were sitting in early preproduction on Shadow Complex, I played a lot of the Metroid games for research purposes. I played through every day -- Super Metroid, Metroid Fusion, Metroid: Zero Mission -- on a loop to the point where I could beat each one 100 percent in less than two hours each. In under six hours, I could get through all three of those games. During that time, I was trying to fuse the Metroidvania genre into my soul and let it wash over me to the point where it was a part of me. But I don't think I knew how to truly make a game in the genre until we were done with Shadow Complex. And when we finished, that's when I felt like I knew how to do this, and because of that, I know how to innovate in it. I hope to someday have another crack at the genre because if there is a Shadow Complex 2, we have such amazing ideas of how we can really push that forward. My real next dream game is another chance, another shot at that genre.

That said, I also have a deep love for Zelda. There's something about Zelda that hasn't really grown outside of Nintendo's version of it. I think that there is a massive opportunity to look at the core of what they do in that series and maybe even push that further in different directions. Someday, I hope to get to make my own Zelda.

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Chair

Is Shadow Complex 2 in active development? If not, what's holding production back?

When we finished Shadow Complex 1, we immediately started working on ideas for Shadow Complex 2. We were actually in preproduction on it for about 8 or 9 months before the opportunity came up to do Infinity Blade, which ended up becoming this huge thing for us. At the time, we thought we were just pausing Shadow Complex 2 for 3 or 4 months. We were like, "We'll do this thing with Apple because it's a really great opportunity, and then we'll go back to Shadow Complex." In those nine months before we began Infinity Blade, the framework of what we put together for Shadow Complex 2 is still some of the work at Chair that I'm most proud of.

We've built the map, and in fact, it has already been laid out in rough geometry. You can play through the whole game and get all the powers. It probably needs about a year to a year and a half of work to put art into it, add AI, and make it all amazing, but the core is great. We certainly hope to return to it, but we're 100% focused on Spyjinx right now.

Speaking of Spyjinx, what has it been like working with J.J. Abrams on the game? What sort of input does he have on your work and your team's creative process?

It has been incredible. J.J. Abrams is the genuine article. He is so smart, so brilliant, so humble, and so cool. Our whole team at Chair loves working with great collaborators that have expertise in areas that we don't. That's why we worked with Peter David -- the comic book legend -- on Shadow Complex. That's why we worked with Brandon Sanderson -- one of the biggest fantasy authors living today -- on Infinity Blade. They brought knowledge to those projects that we didn't have.

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Donald Mustard (left) and J.J. Abrams (right)

We have been collaborating extremely closely. It's not just J.J. either, but all of Bad Robot we've been working with as well. We've got many, many people over there actively involved in the day-to-day production of the game--doing sound, music, design, writing, and coding. It's a very, very integrated, collaborative process.

J.J. is a legitimate gamer. He plays games, he understands games, and that's what's more important. He really understands games and what makes them so uniquely wonderful and different than film, books, or other linear media. What has also been incredible is being able to spend lots of time trying to understand J.J.'s process on any number of things. For instance, his process creating such compelling characters, his approach to mythology, and his approach to storytelling. There's so many things that he's brought that are valuable to the process. It has just been so refreshing to have someone as smart as J.J., who's so interested in actually pushing forward the continued discovery of what games are.

So can we expect any announcements about the game coming any time soon?

Yeah, we're working like crazy. We hope to be able to actually talk about what the game is in the next few months -- and hopefully, even soon after that -- follow with a beta that people can start playing.

A lesser-known fact about Shadow Complex is that it's influenced not only by Metroid but by G.I. Joe as well. What came first in the creative process?

[Laughs] This might be tainted by time. My memory might not be accurate, but I sincerely believe that the two came together at almost the same moment. The team and I were sitting around and we started in this brainstorming process where we asked ourselves: "If we could make anything, what would we make?" The conversation began as a 80s talk where we discussed how much we loved games and toys from that era. And almost in the same breath, we said, "Metroid is so amazing," and then someone else said, "GI Joe was so amazing." We were like, what if... [Makes an epiphany explosion noise.]

And the G.I. Joe concept is great, especially if you think about it from the viewpoint of Cobra. To me, what was so cool about early G.I. Joe was how it was regular military guys against super high-tech bad guys. You had something like a normal looking tank up against a superpowered Hiss tank. To me, that juxtaposition was amazing. For a Metroid-type game where you need to start the game weak and end the game stronger, we thought it would be cool to have low-tech protagonist against high-tech bad guys. And then we thought: "What if the whole game was literally about a low-tech protagonist stealing the bad guys' stuff and using it against them?"