When he was a freshman at the University of Illinois, game developer Zhenghua Yang got sick. The eighteen-year-old’s symptoms started small: a purplish rash on his elbow, a blemish on his face that kept oozing blood — then a nosebleed that gushed for fourteen hours straight. After a test at the university health center turned up a life-threateningly low level of platelets, a friend rushed Yang to the emergency room, where doctors diagnosed him with chronic refractory ITP, a rare autoimmune disorder. He would spend the next two years in and out of the hospital.
“I went through chemotherapy at one point, and lots of experimental medication,” says Yang. “The truth is that I actually can't remember most of that period of my life because of all the medications. I can mostly only recall bits and pieces, and since it was quite a depressing time, I tend not to think too hard on it.”
As it turned out, that dark period would fuel Yang’s first step into a new career. In 2012, Yang and his Boulder-based studio, Serenity Forge, released their debut game, Loving Life, a visual novel based around his illness. The studio, comprised of eight full-time employees, is still creating games in the shadow of the Flatirons; this summer the company will release its third work, Pixel Galaxy, a shoot-em-up with an unusual twist.
A native of China, Yang came to Boulder when he was ten and “never found a need to move,” he says. He founded Serenity Forge in 2008, while still in school at Fairview High School, but the team didn’t produce anything before splitting up to go to college in different states. Two years after its debut, Serenity Forge released Luna’s Wandering Stars, a physics-based puzzler in which players used principles of gravity along with anomalies like wormholes to send astral bodies spinning through space.
Pixel Galaxy, the company’s latest work, began as a collaboration between Yang and Jamie Tucker-Foltz, Serenity Forge’s high school intern. The developers started with the name, an idea that Yang admits seems “kind of silly” in retrospect, and built the game’s mechanics around it, taking inspiration from the fast-twitch gameplay of Hexagon, the splashy visuals of Geometry Wars and the pattern-based battles of the popular Japanese bullet-hell series Tohou Project.
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To this cauldron of influences, Serenity Forge added a theme of its own: friendship. In this game, unlike in classic shoot-em-ups like Sinistar, players can’t actually pull the trigger: They start the game as a single white pixel that can only fight by capturing foes and incorporating them into their “ship," turning them into auto-firing gun turrets and armor.
The end result is a shooter that ends up being more about geometry and spatial awareness than combat, like a hybrid of Tetris and Asteroids built out of swirling neon blocks. To survive, players need to maneuver and rotate their ships through a web of bullets, while keeping one eye on their rapidly-changing shape.
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Serenity Forge handled development of the game in-house from nose to tail, including music. To go along with the game's retro visuals, in-house composer David Forman created an original soundtrack, mixing old-school chiptune influences with the lusher sounds of modern electronics.
Pixel Galaxy is scheduled for initial release on Windows, Mac, XBox One and Wii U.