“The Beatles’ favorite band is Trent Steen playing The Beatles: Rock Band,” IGN’s Brian Altano once said. While we may never know what England’s Fab Four would’ve made of such a sight, it’s not hard to appreciate the creative passions that have come to define Mr. Steen in the gaming space. This is a man whose resumé can include Candy Butt Poop Game, after all.
A freelance writer and self-made indie game designer, Steen’s name has appeared in some of the most popular corners of the Internet, from Nintendo Enthusiast to Up at Noon with Greg Miller. As of this year, you can add Shapes of Grey to that achievement list too. The brainchild of top-down action-arcade games and what could be a petri dish of laster-spewing bacteria, Shapes of Grey is an indie with more than meets the eye, or so its creator clues me in on.
We recently got a chance to catch up with Steen about his game, its iconic inspirations, and all the monochromatic joys Shapes of Grey has to offer.
Tell us all a little about yourself. When did you first think, “I want to make my own game” and when did you start doing it for real?
My name is Trent Steen, and I’m an independent game developer who just released my first game, Shapes of Gray, for Wii U and PC (and soon PSN!). It’s a top-down action-arcade game about going through a series of ten-second levels as quickly as possible. As someone who’s played games my whole life, the thought of making them was always in the back of my head—but, for most of my childhood, it wasn’t a thought I took seriously. It wasn’t until I played World of Goo, one of the first big indie games that came out back in 2008, that I realized game development was something that I could realistically do on my own with total creative freedom, instead of having to sit in an office and work on someone else’s idea.
How long has Shapes of Grey been in the works?
I started development on the game back in September 2013. I released a very small version of it in February 2014 on itch.io to a pretty positive reception—most folks agreed, though, that it needed a lot more meat to it if it wanted to really stand on its own. When I got accepted in Nintendo’s Wii U development program about a year ago, I decided that the first game I’d put out for the eShop would be a remake of Shapes of Gray, building on what I had already made. Development on that version of the game started in August 2014 and wrapped up in May 2015 when it came out on Wii U!
Why grey? Why not “Shapes of Red” or pink or green, besides the obvious?
When deciding on the art style for the game waaaay back when development first started, I knew I’d have to go with something very simple-looking, since I don’t have any drawing skills whatsoever. As I sat down to draw some arcadey sprites for the enemies, I realized that I also don’t have any color theory skills. The idea to make the entire game grayscale came to me, and when the pun “Shapes of Gray” popped into my head, I knew I had found my art style. As one of the developers behind Octodad once said, puns are the lowest form of humor, but the highest form of game title!
I’ve heard that, “the Wario Ware of Dark Souls” is one way to describe Shapes of Grey. What were some of the inspirations behind it?
Haha, my main go-to marketing-speak descriptions of the game usually reference WarioWare and Hotline Miami, but there are a ton of other games that have influenced Shapes of Gray. The original Legend of Zelda game on NES was a pretty big inspiration on the game’s presentation and gameplay—a lot of the enemy designs in Shapes of Gray are based on enemies from that game—and there are a few little to the game as well. By extension, Binding of Isaac’s mood seems to have found its way into Shapes of Gray as well, since that game borrows so much from the dungeons of NES Zelda. Shapes of Gray’s scope and arcade nature was influenced by Super Crate Box and Super Hexagon, the slightly-randomized systemic interactions were my take on Spelunky, the element of learning could be compared to Dark Souls, people have said the game reminds them of Asteroids because of to its black-and-white aesthetic… there are a million different things I borrowed from to make Shapes of Gray. I hope the game can stand on its own among them!
You describe Shapes of Grey as consisting of hundreds of “seconds-long levels.” What’s the longest players can expect from an average level in Shapes of Grey?
Each level has a ten-second long timer—if the timer runs outs before you defeat all the enemies in a level, that’s Game Over! Players go through strings of over a dozen of these levels between checkpoints. An advanced player will be able to clear most of the levels in three or four seconds, but for a beginner, the time limit is adds just the perfect amount of stress to get them to play quickly, despite the time limit being something that they won’t often need to realistically worry about.
I imagine it must be a very different experience as a game designer between making a level and playing it. What kind of feedback went into the game’s level of challenge?
One of the main things that was hard to get right at first was how the game controlled. Once basic things like the length of the sword, the speed of the slash, and the player character’s maximum velocity, the rest of the game’s difficulty curve was mainly a matter of observing people play the game and making sure that the levels were paced in an exciting way so that they’d always have something new to look forward to without being overwhelmed by challenge.
One of the game’s audible highlights is its “Indie-punktronic” soundtrack by Andrew Nee. How did the two of you get into contact with each other’s work?
Andrew runs an awesome Nintendo forum called Negative World which I’ve been actively posting on for years. I knew that he made music too, and I liked what I heard from him, so I shot him a message to see if he’d be willing to work on the main theme for the game, and he did! His music is a HUGE part of the game’s atmosphere, so I’m lucky to have gotten him on board. He’s making a game of his own, now, so most of my requests to him for MORE SONGS are politely declined. Game development is time consuming!
From what I understand, you’re also quite the writer as it’s related to your blogging. I especially enjoyed your analysis of Metal Gear’s design. Have you ever considered making a leap into game writing in some capacity as well?
Somewhat! I do think I could do it, and it would be a really fun way to get into the industry. I’m not much of a news-writer, though, and I’m not sure how many websites are willing to hire a guy just based on features. Reviewing games seems waaay too stressful for me to get into, haha. I’d love to use my writing ability within a game of my own, but at the same time, my personal design philosophy is that games tend to benefit from having as few written words as possible, since they usually just get in the way of play. Taking on this design paradox seems like a fun challenge that, if I could solve, might be a cool idea for a potential next game.
Lastly, could you give us any hints about this “deep hidden meaning” behind Shapes of Grey?
Games have the power to make us feel strong emotions purely through play. No backstory or characterization is necessary to make someone feel the triumph of beating a hard boss, or the surprise of discovering a new way to take out an enemy, or the tranquility of reaching a safe area. So if you stripped away everything that so many games fall back on to differentiate themselves from each other—better graphics, a change of setting, a new plot—and focused only on gameplay, what would you have left? A bunch of gray shapes fighting each other. Could players still get emotionally invested in a game like that? I like to think they could.
Shapes of Grey is available on Wii U, itch.io, PSN, and Steam Greenlight for digital download. For more on all things indie, check out our epic chat with Yacht Club Games about Shovel Knight and stick around for more on your favorite games, movies, shows, and animé here at BagoGames.