We all remember playing shadow puppets as children, casting long-necked ducks and two-handed butterflies on walls, varying the distance from the light to turn them from babies to giants. But in many cultures, shadow puppetry has historically been much more sophisticated. Inspired by shadow play and dying traditions, Projection is an exercise in nostalgia, in more ways than one. In this puzzle platformer by Australian developer Shadowplay Studios, you control a little shadow puppet girl, manipulating light and shade to help her navigate through a papercut landscape. The gameplay has been compared to Contrast and the art style to Limbo, but I beg to differ. Projection is much prettier than Limbo.
The game is still only in its early stages, and development thus far has focused primarily on gameplay. By controlling a small ball of glowing light, you cast shadows which become solid platforms that you can stand and jump on. Bringing the light closer to an object shortens the shadows, while moving it further away elongates them. Shadows become both walls and pathways, both bridging and blocking. It's an uncomplicated concept, but an easy one to underestimate. When I tried the game at RTX Australia, I managed to get myself trapped in darkness when I cockily tried to move both girl and light at the same time, forcing a restart. It took me a moment to get acclimatized to the deceptively simple controls, but once I got the hang of it I had a lot of fun. You can also move the light while already standing on a shadow, making it lift you like an elevator or a dark god.
Creator Michael Chu found his inspiration for Projection's mechanics in his own home. “The idea behind manipulating shadows came from a low hanging lightbulb in my house. Every time I passed it, it was always fun to make shadows on the walls. During Global Game Jam 2015 I made the first prototype of the game in about an hour, but we did not continue the project for fear it would be too much to make in a 48 hours. A few weeks afterward, Yosha, Jared Hahn and I started working on fleshing out the mechanic.
“Since the game was about using shadows, it seemed natural to use shadow puppetry as the world Projection would be built upon. We visited a Shadow Puppeteer, Richard Bradshaw, who showed us the mechanics of how puppets worked. He also gave us direction on the different types of Shadow Puppets we should use including Javanese, Chinese, Turkish and 19th Century European.”
Drawing from this, Projection has you revive these dying puppetry cultures as you progress through the levels. The game's art style changes to reflect each culture as you meet them, allowing for some lovely images. The player character herself is styled after German traditions.
The idea of drawing upon shadow puppets from different cultures and puppetry traditions particularly appealed to head artist Yosha Noesjirwan (who is also working on a fighter featuring car dealership balloon men). When I spoke to Yosha at RTX Australia, he told me that Projection has given him a way to explore his culture, as well as something to talk to his parents about.
“The greatest part about researching into Wayang Kulit (Indonesian shadow puppetry) was getting to actually talk to my parents about it and helping to bridge the gap between the stories they were told when they were younger and the stories we can tell through games today. Before my parents had little interest in games. Their exposure to games had always been through seeing little snippets of what I was playing and mainstream media, which would generally be a lot of military dudebros shooting guns and explosions. But when I began asking them about Wayang Kulit for the game, they would relish in retelling stories that they remember seeing as children such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana. As a result, I was able to show that games can [be] and were more than just twitch shooting explosions and lens flares.
“There is something pretty fantastic about looking at just vague depictions of shadow puppets on google images and being able to turn to my parents and ask them for specific details. They would mention details such as how the colour of the shadow puppet conveyed their traits: black - calmness and virtuousness, white - nobility and beauty, red - unrestrained passion and blue which would sometimes indicate cowardice. Or mention how the puppets would move around, sometimes the puppet would be thrown into the air or how the control rods would sometimes be visible."
It’s always exciting to see developers exploring new ideas (or old ones?), and Projection has the benefit of beautiful art to boot. I’m going to be keeping an eye on this one.
Projection is expected to be finished in 2017. It will be released on PC and hopefully consoles, and it looks very pretty.
Look at it.
Images via Shadowplay Studios