How Old Moon’s Matt White used his graphic design background to create a more painterly style of sci-fi Metroidvania in the upcoming Ghost Song.
On the murky moon of Lorian, presumably millions of miles away from our own, the story of Ghost Song is just beginning as a long-dormant Deadsuit awakens to seek answers. For solo developer Matt White, meanwhile, this journey has been over a decade in the making. With experience in illustration and creating comic book art, it was in 2011 that White felt the pull to develop a game that was “a mix of Terraria and Metroid” – despite having no programming experience. That didn’t stop him, though, as evidenced by Ghost Song’s various early iterations.
“It began as a Flash game,” White reveals. “I stumbled on a game engine called Stencyl, which allowed users to create games by piecing logic together through a visual interface, and through this engine, I made a number of demos and prototypes.” Eventually his aspirations for Ghost Song grew too large, leading it to become a standalone game created in Unity. The move didn’t dissuade White from retaining the game’s absolutely stunning handcrafted aesthetic, fortunately, and there’s a clear line to be traced from its Flash origins to the inky, graphic novelesque vibes it touts today.
Drawing and painting the atmospheric art in Photoshop is arduous, but White believes it’s worthwhile. “It was a long learning process,” he says, “figuring out how to best adapt what I knew about art into a game setting and creating proper game assets.” Animation proved an even trickier subject. “I ended up using a program called Spine to animate characters. It attaches 2D art onto a skeleton and animates it in real time, much the same way 3D characters are created in 3D games. This makes it easy to create and work with characters when compared to traditional animation, but the risk is always present that the character will end up looking overly flat. It’s a careful balancing act, and through this project I’ve learned a lot about what works best.”
As striking as Ghost Song appears on the surface, the aim was always to pay just as much attention to its RPG mechanics and story. True, it uses the bones and structure of Metroidvanias gone by, but White is adamant that narrative is at the heart of the experience. Players step into the shoes of the aforementioned Deadsuit, uncovering Lorian’s many mysteries while acquiring new abilities and battling cosmic terrors. Discovering what lies below means exploring every cavern and tunnel, all in the hope of finding out who you are and what your purpose on this moon even is.
“Along with my writing partner, we’ve taken great care to construct a setting, a rich background lore, and a compelling and resonant plot for the characters in the game,” White says, explaining how Ghost Song handles narrative differently from other genre entries. “We hope players enjoy this aspect of Ghost Song, but being an action and exploration game, it’s always possible to mostly ignore these things.” It’s hoped that giving players enticing reasons to explore will encourage them to engage with snippets of story. “There are enemies, bosses, NPCs, weapons, and items to find… In Dark Souls fashion, we even have some side NPCs that wander the map and whose stories can be interacted with by the player.”
The Deadsuit comes equipped with staple moves like dashing and double-jumping right from the off, with discoverable upgrades instead relating to existing stats and optional weapons that you can alter and improve. Why the change? “I enjoy Metroidvanias, but I found myself growing somewhat tired of some of the same tropes where items or abilities are frequently nothing other than glorified keys,” says White. “I’ve tried to avoid that. Things you find are either optional upgrades that make the play experience feel different, or natural upgrades that not only serve as a key but enhance your general moveset.”
Combat in Ghost Song, meanwhile, can range anywhere from peppering foes with your rapid-fire arm cannon, to using a mighty hammer prone to pulping them in an instant. With around 30 different enemy types (not including bosses), there are plenty of ways to get inventive with the Deadsuit’s abilities, allowing players to find their own playstyle through combat and the weapon upgrades they choose. Plus, the risk of encounters feeling too easy is mitigated by what White deems “mini-bosses”, which are elevated versions of regular enemies that present a tougher challenge.
From creating an original sci-fi world, to implementing meaningful RPG mechanics, and rethinking how a story can be told in a Metroidvania, Matt White has been careful not to miss a note when creating the long-in-development Ghost Song. Seeing it finally released on 3 November this year will no doubt be satisfying, then, even if he can’t see himself tackling such an ambitious project solo again. “I still enjoy the simplicity of working on a game project alone, and how liberating it can feel just doing what you want, but I doubt I’ll make another project on this scale alone again,” he sums up. “Standing here now, at the end of it, I don’t feel too much regret, as I’ve learned so much, and I feel there are better opportunities in the future because of it. I look forward to what’s next.”
That’s No (Ghost) Moon
Any Metroidvania is only as good as the location you’re given to explore, and in Lorian, Matt White has created a moon that is plentiful in myth, atmosphere, and varied locations to uncover. From moody caverns to winding tunnels, there’s plenty to pick your way through.
“Probably the most challenging aspect of creating a science fiction world is creating a rich backstory, systems, and lore that informs all of the micro decisions that exist in the actual game itself,” says White. “Fortunately, I only had to come up with a vague outline, as my writing partner filled in the rest. We have a rather rich and detailed universe and lore, much of it barely being mentioned or not mentioned at all in the game itself.”