'Shadows of them', a psychological horror story set in the London Metro, nominated as a finalist for the Develop Indie Showcase 2022.

Released for free on Itch.io in April 2022. Downloadable for Windows

---> play here <---

This was the first game which I worked on at the National Film and Television School. We worked in a team of eight, dividing roles between each of us. We were all heavily involved in the concept phase to iron out the game’s themes, story and how these connected with the game’s puzzles.

We settled upon the theme of grief, with the player inhabiting the role of a mother who’s children, and abusive husband have been killed in a drink driving accident. The game forces the player to loop around the same platform and train; completing puzzles in the slightly changing environment each time. Each of the loops closely tracks the five stages of grief:

  1. Denial - the character begins in a state of not being able to accept the fact that her children and husband are dead. To cope with this she avoids anything that might remind her of her former life. She is in denial about the actual state of reality and shields herself from the parts of her reality which bring her pain - the memories of her family.
  2. Anger - the character is forced to remember her family and this brings her to anger and she fails to deal with the memories and is helpless to do anything
  3. Bargaining - the character attempts to address her pain by thinking through what she might have done differently, what if she did “that”? Would things be different?
  4. Depression - after succumbing to the fact that she is truly helpless, there is nothing that can be done, she descends into fully embracing the pain and depression consumes her in her inability to do anything about the saddened reality that she now exists in
  5. Acceptance - after she has experienced the acceptance of depression she begins to accept the entire reality that she is now in - one in which she has suffered great losses but still has happy memories to hold onto which she chooses to cherish and take with her into the future rather than trying to block everything out. At this point of resolution - the game ends.

I’m particularly proud of how we iteratively designed and improved the puzzles based on player feedback, really fine-tuning the player experience. The core to improving most of these puzzles was dialling in what emotion we wanted the player to feel in each of them, and through the use of well positioned lighting and audio cues.

Story beat, puzzle, emotion, esclation and loop matrix for ‘Shadows of them’

Within the project I took on the following roles: Writer, Game Designer, 3D Artist, 2D Artist / Graphic Designer and Video Editor.

Extract from the script for ‘Shadows of them’

After the game was released, we were approached by Wireframe magazine in a request to be interviewed about how the game was inspired by Konami’s ‘P.T.’ I think the article does a great job at explaining our thought process so I include it here in full.  

Full transcipt of interview with Wireframe for their article about the cultural significance of Konami’s ‘ P.T.’ in issue #67

What was it about psychological horror that made you and the team want to tackle the genre with Shadows of them?

[Holly Hudson] We knew we were going to create a walking sim, and the genre of psychological horror seemed to tie hand in hand with the way in which we wanted to delve into the protagonist’s states of grief within the environment. After the game’s release, we received feedback from some players who asked whether Shadows of them can be classed under the ‘psychological horror’ genre because of the lack of jump scares and typical ‘scary’ conventions found within other horror games. It was great to have these conversations and reflect upon what makes a game a psychological horror. I think Shadows of them really leans into the psychological aspects of the mental and emotional states of our protagonist and as a result, leaves players feeling unsettled and disturbed. Where the game swerves away from the genre is the uncharacteristic feeling of relief at the end of the game; that sense of catharsis as you board the train for the final time and the credits roll.

Would it be fair to say that you hoped to capitalise on the missed opportunity left by P.T.?

[Harvey Hayman] It’s fair to say that P.T. was our key inspiration. I’m pretty sure the early pitch line was “P.T, but on a tube train”. Thomas even drew out a map of every single corridor loop in P.T. to really inspect how it works under the hood. He was trying to work out how it builds and maintains tension but also how each of the puzzle elements are designed. Our main takeaway from this was that P.T. is great from a horror environment perspective but its puzzle design is obtuse - Kojima wanted players to take their time to try and solve it. In designing Shadows of them we wanted the puzzles to be both integral to the storytelling but fairly simple in their design and solution.

[Thomas Porta] While P.T was masterful in creating a coherent and chilling atmosphere, I believe it lacked lasting narrative elements. It absolutely nails fear and immersion but fails to hit other, emotional beats. When I finished P.T, I was not sad nor was I happy. It did not make me feel anything except, “Wow, that is a well-made game”. In contrast, in Shadows of them we set out to focus on the player’s emotional experience.

Can you remember the first time you played P.T and if so, what was your first reaction to it?

[Thomas Porta] My first playthrough of P.T. was one of the most immersive experiences I’ve had playing games. I remember being terrified of the right angle in the corridor… always leaning round to peek at what awaited me.

There’s the feeling of constant dread created by the ghost, breathing behind you, watching menacingly from above the dangling lamp. You never feel safe, you never feel at ease. You want to stop, but you keep on going, petrified whenever anything happens! Saying that, there’s also this escalating sense of confusion. The obscure, occult puzzles do not always lend themselves to the atmosphere, creating frustration or uncertainty.

What other games served as your chief inspirations?

[Harvey Hayman] I’ll always be inspired by the level design of Half Life 2, which gave birth to the first popular walking sims Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable (which both started their life as Source engine mods). Then of course the wonderful, Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch. The best walking sims all excel in subtly directing the attention of the player to the next story beats. They feel like a direct response to the adventure game genre which often sacrifices the flow of story to force the player to attempt to use every object in their inventory with every interactable item in the game space. This is where P.T. falls down for me.

From a horror game perspective we were certainly inspired by the likes of Visage and Resident Evil VII: Biohazard. RE7 transcended its roots and reinvented itself by taking the best bits from not just previous titles in the series but walking sims, P.T, and modern first person shooters.

From a story perspective, we wanted to subvert the horror genre. So often in a horror story you either follow a victim of violence, or a perpetrator of violence. The video game trope here is a story about a guilty man being punished, e.g. Silent Hill and P.T. We wanted to make a game that doesn’t rely on the protagonist being the perpetrator or victim of violence but the horror is built from their own internal grief.

Was it tough to make the structure of a time loop constantly interesting over 15 mins or so?

[Holly Hudson] We spent a couple weeks at the beginning of the project planning out each aspect of the loops, rewriting the script and redrawing the floorplans to try to find a balance between the seemingly endless loop and revealing the internal challenges that the protagonist was facing. We used repetition as a narrative device to tap into the deteriorating mental state of this grieving mother whilst also taking the player on this emotional journey.

[Harvey Hayman] Early playtesting was essential to help us firm up the length of each loop and the scale/difficulty of the puzzles. If players ever got stuck they’d immediately become frustrated, taking them out of the story. We completely redesigned some of the loops and puzzles based on player feedback, always being driven by the desire to make the experience understandable to the player.

Where did the idea of an announcer who slowly speaks more and more irregularly first come from?

[Harvey Hayman] We very quickly settled on this idea that the narrator could be a voice which you would expect to hear on the London Underground, the train announcer. We liked the idea that we could pull the carpet out from under the player in subverting what they’d expect a train announcer to say. When I wrote the first draft of the script, we had a trickster god narrator who belittles the protagonist but ultimately assists them in overcoming their grief. We threw this out because it lost sight of the main story and it was just a bit goofy. The second and third drafts had the narrator explicitly as the mother, voicing her thoughts and fears. We ended up dropping this because it felt like it was really spelling things out, too on the nose. 

[Holly Hudson] We landed on what sounds like a standard underground station announcer, fully immersing the player in the environment. This really emphasises the irregularity of the strange announcements during the later loops, making you question what is even real anymore. Nearly all of the lines are inspired by real announcements you’d expect to hear on the London Underground.

We were fortunate enough to work with Janine Cooper-Marshall, the voice of Great Western Railway, to record lines for the train announcer in the game. This took the reality of the underground station to the next level.

What do you think makes domestic, everyday settings such as the London Underground, kitchens, and bedrooms so scary, and what techniques did you use to heighten this tension?

[Holly Hudson] I think having such a familiarity with the surroundings was key in creating an immense sense of vulnerability. Not to mention the claustrophobia of being trapped in repeating underground tunnels. The underground station was a stage for each new revelation, and by throwing these mundane settings together we managed to create something nightmarish. This went hand-in-hand with the lighting which our lighting artist, Thomas Porta, used as a tool to guide the player through the environment and silently communicate the abnormal blend between the rooms of the house and the underground station.

Just how important is sound design in maintaining the scares in psychological horror games such as Shadows of them?

[Thomas Porta] Good sound design is paramount in creating effective psychological horror. Without it, the player is not grounded in the world, they are not fully immersed. In Shadows of them, the sound’s purpose is twofold.

First, it helps the player believe that they are in this station, that they are moving, that something real is happening to them. In Shadows of them, several elements take that role. The lights buzz, the protagonist's heels click clack, the train’s engine hums and the doors swoosh as they open. Removing any of these sounds would lessen the immersiveness.

Second, sound can guide the player. A thumping electrical switch guides the player to where the action is, and the action is where the scares are. The player instinctively knows this, they are aware that the game is inviting them through sound. It creates expectations where half the fun is deciding whether you satisfy those expectations, but you cannot create those expectations without sound in the environment.   

Why is having a family tragedy at the heart of this story so key to the Shadows of them experience, and were you ever worried about keeping things too vague?

[Harvey Hayman] Everyone can relate to the fear associated with the loss of family so we knew this could be an effective story device. It was always critical to us that we knew the story of our protagonist, so it was clear to us how to devise the script, level design and puzzles around that. That’s at the core of all storytelling, right? I know the entire story, you don’t know anything. How am I going to reveal things to you in a way which is suspenseful and entertaining?

With a first person game, the player doesn’t immediately know who they are unless they bought Duke Nukem - there’s a picture of the Duke chewing on a cigar; or Half Life - there’s Gordon Freeman clasping a crowbar. You have to employ some device to ensure the player knows who they are, or be content with them having to infer it. First person narration, cutscenes or on-screen text easily spells it out, but what happens if you don’t do that?

We had some quite interesting playtesting where players went in blind, we didn’t tell them anything up front about the game, or who you play as. Very much on gender lines, female players understood they were playing as the mother, but male players assumed they were her husband. There’s something very powerful about first person games that truly allows the player to fill the boots of the protagonist.

Now we think about how players come to play Shadows of them, if they’re downloading it from Itch.io, the first thing on the site there is: “Shadows of them is a first-person psychological horror game where the player must navigate a series of challenges, guiding a mother through her grief after the loss of her family”. If they’re playing it at an expo, we’ll make sure there’s a brief blurb on the table with the same text.

What do you think makes this new brand of “defenceless” horror, where you can’t really fight back, so popular with audiences today?

[Holly Hudson] Taking away the player’s agency to fight leaves you completely vulnerable, with no option but to endure the horrors before you. This presents a great opportunity for storytelling, as game developers know we have the player’s full attention, and you can lead them on every intricate twist and turn of the journey as it unfolds in front of them. The adrenaline from this type of game is addictive. Despite walking the same path in P.T. through that hallway and around the corner over and over again, it was this lack of power that kept players wanting more.

Is Shadows of them a complete and finished product in your eyes, or is it just a taster of something more ambitious you hope to create?

[Harvey Hayman] Shadows of them is a complete and finished product! So while we’re not going to make a bigger version of the game, I think it’s a good indication of the standard of the quality that all the members of the team are capable of producing.

[Thomas Porta] We discussed this amongst the team and we don’t think a longer version would really work in its current form. A long, looping game would likely become exhausting and claustrophobic. After a while the looping mechanic would become uninteresting, as the same environment becomes non-threatening and no longer novel.

Novelty, that threat of uncertainty, of being unaware of what’s next, these things are necessary for psychological horror. But more importantly, what would a player do in a longer version of the game? Not sure if we have the answer to this one… yet.

Would you like to see what Konami had cooking up with Silent Hills, or do you feel the legacy of P.T. (and the games inspired by it) benefit by the demo’s reputation and its untapped potential?

[Thomas Porta] In my view, the success of P.T. was born out of its in-game atmosphere. Any group of developers that are capable of creating such a strong feeling of presence - using its visuals, sound design and level design - is a group of developers whose games I want to play. Konami’s Silent Hills would’ve been all those things and perhaps more. But alas, we’ll never know. On whether the legend surrounding P.T. would exist if Silent Hills hadn’t been cancelled, the chances are that it would not? But that has no effect on its legacy or what this teaser achieved.

[Harvey Hayman] Shadows of them likely wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for P.T., so thanks Kojima and crew!
Selection of 2D assets I designed for ‘Shadows of them’