The Card Connection: Donald Mustard talks back on Shadow Complex

by Mitchell Dyer

Shadow Complex. Man, that was so summer 2009. We’re deep into the holiday releases and 2010 is looking hot. Who has time for this XBLA nonsense? Actually, I kinda do. I keep finding myself going back to Shadow Complex, not necessarily because the story is riveting, but because the world is so cool.

What makes that universe? It all came from the Creative Director of Entertainment’s melon. Donald Mustard’s ambition for a single story told in parallel time lines is certainly unique, and thinning that media out over multiple mediums seems like franchise suicide… but it’s working. Empire, the novel SC is based on, was huge, and a follow hit this week.  I wanted to find out straight from the horse’s mouth where the ideas came from, how they executed on them, and where the franchise is going.

And, yeah, it’s goin’ places.

Where did the idea of creating parallel stories within the same universe, using multiple mediums, come from? Because that isn’t something you see a lot, and it kind of goes against the grain and defies the typical stigma of the movie coming out, and you get a terrible game adaptation.

I think you just hit it, right there. One of the main things we wanted to avoid was what traditionally happens. At Chair we’re very interested in creating stories that we think are good enough, and cool enough to be told across multiple mediums. Honestly, I think LucasArts has come to the conclusion that this is a good way to go. Like the Star Wars franchise. It’s not like literally playing Episode IV as Luke when you’re playing the Star Wars games. It’s more like you’re taking part in the broader Star Wars universe with new, original stories that let you see different characters… it’s more about being a Jedi than being Luke Skywalker. They’ve actually done a good job of taking some steps in that direction.

So when we sat down to create Empire we were more interested in creating a big, cool universe that we thought had a rich enough fiction that lots of stories could be told in. That doesn’t mean that in the future you, say, wouldn’t play as Cole, or play as some of the other characters that you find in the book. Or, conversely, that the characters from the game, or games, wouldn’t show up in the book. It just means that we’re interested in telling this larger macro story and weaving it through different mediums. Which, to me, is just more interesting. I’d rather experience new fiction than regurgitated fiction. That’s just what we prefer, and that’s why we’re doing it.

Why did you decide to go with a novel first, as opposed to a blockbuster film, or even the game to gain public knowledge within that audience?

Foundation was so important to us. The foundation of the fiction, the foundation of the universe. For us it was really critical to establish that, and what better place to establish it than a novel, you know? Where you can really kind of define the parameters of what’s going on with some of the characters and get the idea of what the fiction is, and what the universe is. It really was a great way for us to really refine our thoughts about what Empire was. And then it allowed us to let Card go off and write the book he wanted to write. And while we were back dealing with some of the more macroscopic issues he could focus on creating a product. And we were very happy with the result – the book went on to be an international best seller, and really set the groundwork for what we were trying to do.

From that point, we were able to go out and really develop a game and look for other avenues to extend the franchise. This was all an experiment, right? And it was something we wanted to do that we thought would be a little different. So far it’s worked. I don’t know if it’s the best way to do it but we’ve been pretty good so far, so we’ll see!

How in line was Card’s writing with the game development? There were a couple things I picked up on playing Shadow Complex immediately after finishing the book, there were a lot of little nods to the book. Like the cabin in the middle of the lake… that’s where one of the first big things happens in the game, like, you’re getting chased down by a chopper… that cabin is crucial to the novel as well. You’ll see a lot of little things… Command and Control… VerusTech armor… So how much crossover was there?

It’s probably right in the middle. When we first started we sat down and had some ideas we wanted to explore, like this idea of a near-future civil war, and the way we wanted to organize the structure of the Restoration. What they were doing. Why they were doing it. And when Card became involved he really brought a lot of the motivation behind everything… especially when you see the second novel. It’s blurry as to what’s right, what’s wrong, and it’s really cool stuff.

But early on we were definitely developing assets to the game. We had a lot of visual ideas, like the cabin at the lake, and some of the mech designs, and character designs and base concepts. We even had them up and running in-engine years ago, before we even made Undertow. We were working on that with Card, and once we had the ideas established we stopped working on the game, and let Card go and write the book. While he was doing that we were making Undertow.

Once Undertow was finished… we had the book. As Card was writing the book he’d send it to us a chapter at a time, and we’d review it, go through it, and make sure everything was still matching up to what we were thinking with the game, ‘cause we really wanted to have that strong kind of connection between the two. It really worked out perfect, so we were able to make sure the book had all the hooks and stuff that we needed… so it all made sense and would flow together.

Once the book was done we went into full game development mode on Shadow Complex. We were really able to weave things together, and that allowed us to piggy-back into the sequel, Hidden Empire, which is [available now]. We were then far enough along in the game where we could say “here’s where things are going in the game, and this is how it ties together in the next book.” It really worked out well, and there was a lot of collaboration and talking back and forth.

Is Jason’s story over? You mentioned earlier that there’s going to be a crossover, that maybe we’d see Cole in a game, or different crossovers at different points in time. So –

Did you finish the game?

I did, yes.

So do you think Jason’s story is over?

It was kind of vague.

At this point, Donald dove deep into the fiction of Empire, linking connections between crucial characters in the novel to some of those in the book. We were asked to not spoil the goods, understandably, in both the game and the book. He concluded our eye-opening talk with…

*sigh* I feel sorry for Jason. He’s probably not going into much better of a situation than he was already in. But I’m sure we’ll see more of Jason.

Is there any chance we’ll see Jason in Hidden Empire?

He’s not in Hidden Empire, but he will probably – and this is a probably – show up in the future… He’s planned to be in the third novel.

Empire is set to be a trilogy, right?

Yeah, a trilogy. That being said, and after speaking with Card, he’s just having so much fun with it. It might go beyond the third book. We have some ideas that made it get a little broader. For now it’s going to be three. We have plans for lots of stuff, we would like to do lots of stuff, but a lot if it’s dependent on the marketplace.  If people like this kind of game, and if it gets good reviews, and people buy it, then we’ll have the chance to do more with it.

Do you think you’d stick with the same side-scrolling, 2D exploration genre if you do a follow-up to Shadow Complex, whether it’s Shadow Complex 2 or an entirely different title?

It kinda depends. Again, we’re really interested in making broad stories that would be applicable not only to multiple different mediums but applicable to different genres. I wouldn’t want to limit Empire games to a Metroid-style side-scroller, though I love it. I mean I love that genre, it’s my favorite genre of games. I think there’s opportunities for all sorts of applications of the Empire franchise, so we’ll see.

What other mediums would you like to expand the franchise to? TV series, comic books, iPhone games and applications… any interest in doing that?

Absolutely. One thing that I love, and so far has proven to be really enjoyable, and I think effective for us, is that we’re always interested in finding people that are really, really good at what they do, and giving them the chance to go do something awesome with the universe. And that proved true with Orson Scott Card with the book, it proves true with bringing in Peter David to help us with the story and the script of the game. And I think that, now that we’ve worked with some of these comic people, there’s great potential to expanding the franchise into comics. I mean, in 2007 we licensed the film rights to Warner Brothers. Things are always kind of cooking. We have lots of different ideas for lots of different things that could be done with the franchise.

Is the film adaptation in production? And is it going to be based on the novel, or be its own kind of chunk in the universe?

We’ll see with that stuff. It’s not in development at this time. But the drafts of the script that I’ve read are awesome. They incorporate elements of the book and the game. I imagine it will be a hybrid of all the things if it ever comes to light.

Would you prefer if somebody read the book or played the game first?

(Laughter) Uh, I don’t know! You tell me, now that you’ve experienced ‘em both. I’m too close to it! What do you think?

That’s kind of why I asked. I’m torn! Would a gamer be interested in the book, or would someone who read the novel be into the game? They’re kind of two separate things within the same world.

Our goal was that someone could play the game and have a rich, fulfilling experience. And that someone could read the book and have a rich, fulfilling experience. But they could do both, and have a really unique experience.

For me, the best thing ever would be someone who plays the game and traditionally doesn’t read a lot of books would be like “Oh man I like this universe and I want to know more.” Or, even better, right, would be someone who doesn’t play games would read the book and be like “I want more of this!” and it would bring them into gaming. You never know with that stuff, and we just want to create compelling fiction that works on its own but really is paired together nicely.

One thing I really liked about both of them, and I don’t know if it’s going to click with a lot of people, is that they were very different experiences. Shadow Complex is lighter on the story and heavier on the action, but it still had that narrative there for me after I’d read Empire. Now Empire was different in that there were a lot more politics, and a different kind of action revolving around running and chasing. They were parallel stories, but they were completely different.

Ha, and that’s why I asked you! That’s certainly the kind of stuff that we’re interested in at Chair and Epic, and that I’m interested in as a consumer. ‘Cause that’s what I want. I want a book to be a good book, and do what books do well, which is characters and thinking about deep things, and posing questions that make you think. With a game that’s not… I’d rather let a game do what a game does best, which is put you into the environment and let you be there. And be there. And experience visually what we could only allude to in the book. For us it’s like, let a game be a game and let a book be a book.  But let them both do what they’re really good at doing.

And our thought was that, if we did that correctly, it would give people a really unique experience, and yet still feel fresh and kind of be its own thing.

[Thanks a lot to Donald Mustard for hanging out with me, and huge props to his wonderful wife Laura, who was so great for setting up this chat that I only wish I could have high-fived her through the phone. Shadow Complex is, for a limited time, available for a discounted price of ten dollars. Grab it now, it’s excellent.]