Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet

A game by FuelCell Games for PC and Xbox 360, originally released in 2011.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a game that is inspired by Michel Gagné’s series of short interstitial segments called Insanely Twisted Shadow Puppets. This series of shorts, which range anywhere from 3-30 seconds, was originally created in 2005 for Nickelodeon’s “Halloween Shriekin Weekend”. These segments are done entirely in Flash, but they are far more fluid than what you might be used to seeing in that format, which is often known for high-quality, but rigid, 2D animation.

These smoothly animated sequences contain lots of tentacles, extending mechanical claws, alien creatures, and giant monsters with big sharp teeth, and they are punctuated by a stark high-contrast art style and a dark sense of humor. This heavily-shadowed world has been translated into a 2D action-adventure title on XBLA and PC.

Michel Gagné is an artist who has worked in art, animation, and FX capacities throughout an extensive career which spans more than 20 films. He has worked for Don Bluth Studios and Warner Bros Feature Animation, and even created a short film on his own called Prelude to Eden, which he worked on over a span of five years, beginning in 1991. Additionally, he has created his own series of graphic novels – which also share this “shadow puppet” art style – and he has collaborated on a number of other creative projects.

Joe Olson, CEO of FuelCell Games, was impressed with Gagné’s powerful art style, and met up with him at an FX workshop in Seattle. Olson proposed a project that would see Gagné bringing his brand of art and humor over into the video game realm, despite the fact that he had no real experience in game development.

The result of that collaboration is Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, a game that emphasizes its pure black enemies and obstacles, intermixed with bright colors, fluid high-definition graphics and animation, and what we’re going to call “a 1950’s-esque paranoia film setting”.

The player controls a disc-shaped flying saucer, which is heavily reminiscent of 1950’s black and white invasion films, complete with a domed top, a series of little windows, a multi-jointed extending claw, and a laser-blasting arm.

While the game might at first appear to be a scrolling shmup, it is in fact, an action game with adventure elements, such as carrying objects to a specific area, and manipulating things in the environment to solve puzzles. The game offers dual-analogue control, allowing the ship to move in one direction while shooting in another.

The ship is piloted by an alien scientist. The story begins on the alien’s home world, which is somewhat odd in appearance, but retains a more serene and peaceful feel, with a softer tone. From his observatory, the alien scientist witnesses a star mysteriously disappear from the sky. Soon thereafter, the home world planet becomes infested by shadow creatures, and you have to fight them off. Soon you are transported to the Shadow Planet itself, which is much darker and more nightmarish.

At the beginning of the game, the UFO is equipped with a laser and a retractable claw which lets you pick up objects. As you progress through numerous hostile alien environments, you will acquire upgrades and attachments, which will introduce new gameplay mechanics. Among these upgrades is a gravity beam that allows you to manipulate certain objects in the environment (marked in purple) in order to open doors and solve puzzles. Another upgrade is an arm with a saw blade on the end which allows you to cut a path through loose rubble.

The shadow creatures in the game come in many varieties, and appear to represent plant, animal, and mechanical forms. Not all of the creatures are immediately hostile, however; some will carry out various tasks on their own and will only attack you if you incite them to action. And of course, there are some huge boss monsters as well, many with more than their fair share of tentacles, eyeballs, and teeth.

While the game does allow the player the freedom to backtrack into previous areas, the game is largely level-based. When you enter a new themed environment, you'll need to make it through to the end and kill a boss in order to gain a new upgrade. This upgrade will generally allow you to progress further into the game and/or backtrack to a previous area to search for weapon and shield upgrades, hunt for alien artifacts, or find pickups that unlock concept art.

There's a great deal of variety between the themed environments, and you'll be moving through open air spaces, tight caves, and underwater areas, and some of these transitions occur within the levels themselves, such as dropping down below the surface of the water while exploring a cave.

Due to the animation style, the game has a very crisp look regardless of how close or far the camera zooms, and the game’s technology was built around preserving this high-quality presentation. For example, the player is often tasked with shooting switches that are not accessible via flight. In these situations, the player must fire a rocket into a tube, at which point the action will slow down somewhat and the camera will zoom in very close while the player attempts to navigate the tight quarters with the ever-moving projectile. This all happens in-engine in realtime.

The game’s score is done in what Gagné refers to as “epic symphonic metal”, or heavy metal combined with orchestral instruments. He cites “Blood Hunger Doctrine” from Dimmu Borgir (a Norwegian black metal band) as a example, which he used in one of the game’s trailers. He has also been working with the Nuclear Blast label (who represents Dimmu Borgir, among other metal groups).

Lantern Run
In addition to the main campaign, there's a mode called Lantern Run, which allows up to 4 players to work their way through a tight corridor while attempting to outrun a tentacled monster. Again, this is reminiscent of 1950’s and 60’s style films where someone is attempting to escape a hideous monster or some faceless unstoppable enemy. One player grapples onto the lantern and tugs it along, while other players can shoot down enemies. Players can also grab shield and weapon powerups to help themselves survive for just a while longer. The game ends when all players are killed or when the lantern is extinguished.

Shadow Hunters
After the game's release, a second multiplayer mode was added via DLC, called Shadow Hunters. This mode picks up where the main campaign left off (the opening cinema is an extended version of the main game's ending cinema), and features gameplay across several asteroids that have become infected with the shadow virus. Once again, up to 4 players can team up via local or online multiplayer as they attempt guide a bomb deep into the core of each asteroid and detonate it.

Moving the bomb is accomplished by tugging it along in a similar manner to the lantern in Lantern Run, with other players offering cover fire. The bomb counts down as it is hit by enemies or bounced against solid surfaces, but players can find recharge stations that push back the timer. Levels change with each playthrough, allowing for 10-15 minute multiplayer romps through each of the levels and their bosses.

We team up with Fanboy Confidential once again to spend some time with Joe Olson and Michel Gagné of FuelCell Games. In this interview, we discuss the creation of a game based on Gagné's unique silhouette art style, as well as Gagné's comic book and fine art influences. We also discuss the game's design philosophy, the ingredients for creating a good game, and how the game's story was presented without the use of language. Joe and Michel also reveal how the development process crossed over between development and artwork, with gameplay influencing the art and artwork suggesting new gameplay concepts.

While Gagné helms the artistic vision for the game, and creates gameplay concepts and animations, it is FuelCell Games that must make his vision a reality.

FuelCell Games is a small startup, but they are staffed with veterans of the video game and animation industries. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet was their first game to market.

The core game engine was based on Torque Game Builder, with various tweaks and improvements, and an emphasis on a crisp high-definition presentation that preserves the stark art style.

FuelCell cites classic games as influences on their design team, such as Mega Man and R-Type.


Unknown said...

That game looks sick! Michel Gagné has an awesome imagination.

AJ Johnson said...

Agreed. His silhouette stuff is very interesting, and the HD format should make for a visually stunning game. said...

I love the style of this game - and the fact that there is little photoshop and lots of real handwork involved. Looking forward to getting my hands on the game. :)

AJ Johnson said...

There's definitely nothing else that looks quite like this game. They're doing a ton of work on the engine to make sure it runs smoothly and that it looks crisp regardless of the zoom level.

Gagné is even drawing everything with 30 frames of animation instead of the usual 24 (for other video formats) to create more fluidity in the movement. It's shaping up quite nicely. said...

Yeah i have read how impressed he was with the smoothness of the animation when played at 30fps. I´m really curious of how the game plays - i even consider reviewing them since they are arcade indies.