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Becoming Monsters: Thunder Lotus Games on the Morality of Sundered

Sundered

Nintendo’s recent announcements of Metroid Prime 4 and Metroid: Samus Returns heralds the long-awaited return of the classic Metroidvania formula to AAA development, but the format has been well served by the indie sector for quite some time. Sundered, the latest project from Thunder Lotus Games (Jotun), is among the newest titles to draw from the established rules of the genre. However, the team is aware that old structures need to be supported by new ideas if they are to be successful. As such, Sundered marries semi-open-world exploration to rogue-like procedural generation systems and a hand-drawn, Lovecraft-inspired aesthetic. To find out how the game brings together these disparate elements, OnlySP recently spoke to Rodrigue Duperron, Marketing and Communications Manager for Thunder Lotus Games.

As DJ expressed in last week’s preview of Sundered, the game draws from Lovecraft’s fiction for more than just the look, encompassing the author’s recurring themes of cosmic horror and human madness within both narrative and gameplay. According to Duperron, this convergence between story theme and gameplay genre is an intentional design choice as “there’s an easy fit between the twisting, labyrinthian format of a standard Metroidvania level design, and the madness that has overtaken the world in which we set our tale.”

That world is a desolate place, ruined by the outcome of a war that, centuries earlier, tore the fabric of reality and turned the soldiers into nightmarish beasts. Players step into this world by way of Eshe, the skilled engineer of a nomadic tribe, who embarks on a quest to save a lost friend, only to “find herself trapped in a strange sandstorm that lures her into a mysterious pit.” That cavern happens to be home to the Shining Trapezohedron, a powerful stone that was at the centre of the world-ending conflict, and Eshe must overcome the eldritch evil that infests the space if she hopes to escape.

However, as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in his 1886 text, Beyond Good and Evil, “he who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster,” and Eshe will wrestle with this concept throughout Sundered.  Although the character automatically gains access to additional abilities during her adventure, killing the game’s bosses will reward her with Elder Shards, which allow her to “corrupt” these abilities into more powerful forms. This mechanic informs the game’s tagline of “Resist or Embrace,” and the choice to take either path will ultimately affect both gameplay and narrative, while challenging the player with moral quandaries:

“Do you value your status as one of the last pure ambassadors of humanity? Does that concept still have the same value when the world has fallen so low? And what if your quest is evidently much more difficult if you choose to remain pure? And what if the advantages to corrupting (gameplay wise, for example) are made temptingly clear? Will you succumb to the hubris of those who destroyed the world, in essence casting your vote against humanity’s future in dark times?”

Sundered_Screenshot_2

Regardless of whether the player chooses to resist or embrace the dark powers, death is a certainty. More importantly, Duperron refers to failure as a “learning experience,” allowing the recognition of “the inherent weaknesses” of a given play style and thus an understanding of “which aspects of your character… should be upgraded in priority after you die.” Players will also be given the burden of choice through “gameplay-affecting perks that… generally feature a boost as well as a trade-off.” These various avenues for character development will stem in-built limitations at the beginning of the adventure, “in typical Metroidvania fashion.”

The level design reflects this development choice, with the levels purposefully designed to take advantage of “greater speed and eight-direction mobility” that is acquired throughout the journey. Furthermore, the expanded moveset allows players the opportunity to “trek back through the game to access areas that had been inaccessible without abilities acquired later,” in keeping with Metroidvania traditions.

Curiously, however, Sundered will allow players to “move between levels, acquire all abilities, and get fairly near to the end of the game without even taking on a single boss.” Despite this apparent open-endedness, Duperron concedes that the game is not entirely a boss-free adventure: “You cannot reach the ending without defeating first the main boss of each level, which unlocks the way to the end boss of the game.”

With bosses that upgrade abilities, a twisting approach to level design that allows a huge degree of replayability, and a keen awareness of its literary sources, Sundered is shaping up as one of the best and most intriguing Metroidvanias of recent times. The game has been in active development since January 2016, and is scheduled for release later this month (though Duperron was reluctant to spoil the exact date). Given that the game only recently entered beta, doubts naturally arise about the team’s ability to deliver on schedule, but Duperron was upbeat, saying that “beta phase improvements are already being implemented” and “barring some catastrophic, act-of-God-style calamity, [Sundered is] out in July as scheduled.”

With one project wrapping up, Thunder Lotus is necessarily looking to the future, although with downloadable content already promised, the team will not be moving on to an entirely new project until at least the beginning of 2018. Despite being wrapped up for the immediately foreseeable future, Duperron confirms that “other, top secret projects [are] on the back-burner, but with only a dozen employees on the team, it’s one at a time for the time being.”

 OnlySP will have a few more tidbits about Sundered over the coming days as well as much more from the world of single-player gaming, so be sure to bookmark the site and follow us on FacebookTwitter, and Tumblr.

Additional reporting by Stefan Moree.

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