Co-Optimus: Ok, now here’s what I really like: the overall gameplay. Where did you come up with the idea to do a zombie puzzle game? What inspired this sort of approach to a genre/theme that has become plagued with so many first-person shooters?
Chris: Thanks for that! I came up with the idea in 2008, actually, so it was a genre that was at least less-saturated back then. I actually thought of this as a promotional item that I would create to get the word out about a novel that I was writing. I never finished that novel (though I have finished two others, both unpublished), but the game wound up captivating me so much that it took on a life of its own.
The biggest inspiration was definitely Lode Runner: The Legend Returns, where the monks are always chasing you. I felt like there was a lot to be desired in the trap variety and level design variety there, though. Part of the problem it has is its side-view layout only lets you make so much use of the available screen space. Having it be top-down solves a lot of that. Also its levels were literally smaller in terms of the number of tiles, so that also stifled the possible creativity. Still -- that was a game that absolutely captured my attention for many years, and which I still have very fond memories of. I wanted to take those general ideas to the next level and infuse some ideas of my own, and the setting of the novel I was writing seemed perfect for that.
Co-Optimus: How about Shattered Haven’s overall story and themes of family? Why this kind of a focus instead of just looking at humanity attempting to survive in a harsh environment?
Chris: This again goes back to the origins of the game as a companion to a novel. The novel is more of a character study on people in really trying circumstances, and in particular on how they try to carve out a good life for themselves in a world that is utterly horrible and twisted. Most stories about zombies focus on the apocalyptic event itself, but I wanted to look further ahead, to after things had stabilized. If we’re not going to die out as a species, that means we’ll be having kids and starting to reform some small societies, and so forth. But still -- zombies everywhere.
Taking all that as a premise, Shattered Haven actually wound up having a pretty divergent story that Erik, Zack, and I fleshed out together. We specifically wanted to avoid over-done tropes, and I wanted to explore something more novel. The giant squid was part of the novel, but Shadow Man was something that came up during our writing/plotting sessions last year. Having both Shadow Man and the giant squid be huge antagonists, along with “zombie mom” being out there with her own motivations, was really interesting to us.
Perhaps regrettably, it starts out more conventionally than it ends. But I’m really proud of how this story evolved, and key ideas for it came from all three of us.
Co-Optimus: I found it interesting the weaknesses you chose for the “Grays” (iron and water), and many of the weapons you use against them are not what you typically think of packing in your “zombie defense kit.” From a gameplay perspective, why make that kind of a shift away from “anything that shoots or has a blade?”
Chris: Interestingly, this was all in the novel as well. From a story sense there, it was mainly because it created more of a situation where characters were dependent on specific objects that were not always at hand. In a normal zombie story, you’re able to dispatch them with anything at hand, as you say; but usually their threat is just one of numbers. For story reasons, I wanted them to be more individually threatening.
The game kind of took that idea and twisted it and expanded on it. It turned out to make for a really cool mix of puzzle elements, but it wasn’t something that originally came from a desire from that sort of gameplay. Just kismet that all the elements that I needed for the gameplay side of this happened to already be present in a novel I was writing!
Co-Optimus: Again, I’ll leave the last question about the game to Andrew. One freedom that independent game developers can enjoy from AAA development is that little nuances and shadows of the developer seep into the game they offer. Essentially, the player gets personal view of not only the developer's ideas and views of the world. What personal thematic overtures do you feel are present in Shattered Haven?
Chris: In my life I’ve been in a number of dangerous situations, including having a knife at my throat at one point, and a couple of incidents involving other people with guns. I spent a year in a school surrounded by quite a few bullies, and it was a very hostile sort of environment. When I played the game Silent Hill 2 as a young college student, it really spoke to me on a very deep level, and quickly became one of my favorite games. Entering that town of Silent Hill brought back all of those feelings, the horror and dread and general powerlessness.
But at the same time, as in life, I pressed on in playing that game because I felt compelled to. Through doing that, I started to have an idea that is best summed up by one phrase: “taking power in a world of horror.” In other words, being so thoroughly bathed in something you find horrific, and standing (reasonably) tall in it anyway. Not being numb to it or desensitized -- fully understanding what you are in the midst of -- but being able to take that next step forward anyhow.
Shattered Haven is a lot tamer than Silent Hill when it comes to the horror elements (although a couple of scenes in there, especially one at a prison late in the game, get even my heart thumping). That said, it’s still my way of exploring those themes of taking power even when things are really horrible. The parents have lost everything, they don’t want to be going on some adventure, and Shadow Man and the Squid are both terrifying and alien. Everywhere they go they are met with malice, with the one exception of Stantonsburg. But -- minor spoiler -- not everything is what it seems even there.
There’s no gore or anything in Shattered Haven, but there weren’t in the events of my life, either. Sometimes it all comes down to the oppressive atmosphere and the feelings that engenders. The thing that I like the most about Shattered Haven is that despite the atmosphere, it doesn’t create a situation that is utterly terrifying like Silent Hill does. Silent Hill was built to break you, whereas Shattered Haven is built to help you feel personally powerful despite how unsettled you are.