Game 101: Shard, an action-adventure sojourn through the land of the Snow Queen


This is Game 101: between now and May, PCGamesN will be engaging in a kind of vicarious immersion therapy – looking through the eyes of five teams of Staffordshire university students as they make, break, fix and, finally, finish their first game. Or rather, games – five of ‘em, each based on a story from Grimms’ 19th century German fairy tales. Today, we’re looking at ambitious ‘cleanpunk’ action-adventure game, Shard.

Since Dishonored, I’ve been lobbying anybody who’ll listen to make Blink, its short-range teleport spell, an industry standard. To have it rank alongside the crouch button, double-jump and that grunt a gruff videogame man makes after a fall. To no avail, I thought. But when Shard project lead Adam O’Neill rattles off the feature list for his action-adventure take on The Snow Queen, my ears prick up. “Blink will be used to teleport around, for dodging and making sure that bad things don’t happen,” he explains. “All I know is that I’m so glad I’m not the one in charge of trying to make that. Vector maths is not nice.”

The Snow Queen story – one of Hans Christian Anderson’s lengthiest and most adapted – is the C.S. Lewis-esque sojourn of a young girl, Gerda, who treks barefooted through every season to win back her best friend, Kai. It’s a coming of age story that nevertheless celebrates the triumph of childhood sweetness over adult cynicism and cruelty. It has snow bees, reindeer and a broken devil mirror which corrupts the eyes and hearts of the world, and sounds like the makings of an excellent Team Ico game.

However, Adam and team cite another of gaming’s precious few fairy tales as their key influence – Alice: Madness Returns. Like Alice, Shard will an action-adventure game, featuring platforming and puzzle elements “here and there”. Unlike American McGee’s bloody Wonderland, however, Shard’s world will be ‘cleanpunk’ – a term coined by Adam to describe “high fantasy, with small mechanical elements that are clean, shiny, delicate. We wanted a very clean-cut visual look.”

The player will take Gerda through each of the four seasons. There’s an introductory Spring level planned, to be populated by huge, man-eating plants and a seed-flinging “mad old lady”; two overlapping Summer levels, which will showcase the shadow realm corrupted by the broken mirror; a foresty, clean-cut Autumn, riddled with bandits; and Winter, which Adam “can’t wait to actually start, because the concept of it seems fun”. In Winter, Gerda will face the aforementioned chilly bees, and smash crystals in order to restore the land to its former glory – the Queen’s palace always visible in the distance.

Gerda’s tool through all of this is a penny – a doff of the cap to the early stages of Christian Anderson’s story. As childhood neighbours, Gerda and Kai would overcome the winter frost by pressing heated copper pennies against the glass of their windows, creating a ring through which a “bright, friendly eye” might peek. In Shard, the penny’s anti-frost symbolism is expressed somewhat differently. “Of course it’s enlarged,” says Adam. “I can’t imagine many people being fended off by a penny. It will be effective enough to beat off anything in the way”. The giant coin can also be thrown as a shakram for ranged biffing.

As development on the game progresses in Epic’s UDK, Gerda will grow to wield a basic flame projectile spell, an area-of-effect shadow ability and a protection ward which provides temporary vulnerability. So far though, Adam’s proudest of the snow. “I had a go at doing snow in the first year. It’s hard to do and make sure it doesn’t take too much toll on the engine. But we do want a pretty game. We want to build a decent atmosphere for the player.”

“I reckon the magic will be trickiest to implement. I’m sure there’s an easy way and we’re being stupid, but we find the technicalities behind it a little awkward. We want the spells to be keybound when you get them, which will mean a little playing around. I think one of our scripters has found a way, but I haven’t seen it yet.”

A quick glimpse at Shard’s early tech demo, however, will reveal a certain amount of technical prowess already on show. “I think I lucked out with my team,” concludes Adam. Everyone in there is good at what they do, and we have a good range. Hopefully the full game will have small effects, like breath from character models or smoke from fires, which will make full use of the engine.”