Metanet's office building resembles the levels its developers make all day, full of sharp contrasting angles and shapes. There are straight narrow hallways, and white walls broken up by black doors, radiators, and windows. The corner entrance has a rectangle of white painted around a door, with a pronged frame of black paint. You can trace with your finger where a tiny little ninja—the star of Metanet's video game series N—might navigate along the perimeter.
N is a free Flash game, released in 2005, where tiny ninjas weave through deadly gauntlets. You can hop and slide down walls, run to gather momentum, and launch your ninja to dangerous heights. Each single-screen level is built of bold basic shapes, jagged, cold, unforgiving—and dangerous.
Your nimble stick figure ninja is fragile. Mines, rockets, lasers and even steep falls can destroy it. Every jump has an uncanny, challenging sense of moon-like gravity. Every explosion will literally tear the ninja apart, the game's physics sending limbs flying across the screen, each twitching like an ant. This balance between grit and schadenfreude meant the dark horse freebie had something for everyone upon its release—and why no first year university lecture at the time went by without at least one student secretly playing it on their laptop.
While this may sound like a simple concept, the two programmers have found a lot to perfect. Their quest to create the ultimate version of N has led them to N++, the third and last in the series, available on the PlayStation 4 today.
Sheppard and Burns met in their first year of computer science at the University of Toronto. A year after they had graduated, both felt frustrated that their education didn't entirely help them in making a game. Sheppard said school gave them the tools to solve problems, but didn't help them identify the problems these tools were for. They were also disappointed that whatever they cobbled together never got past the prototype stage.
Then in 2004, Flash in the Can, a tech conference now known as FITC, held a contest for Flash games. Sheppard and Burns crunched 12 hours a day for six weeks, lighting up the hours after their day jobs and even sneaking in some at work. They compiled all their physics and ragdoll programming knowhow and inspiration from other Flash games, like Soldat, into a something elegant and satisfying.
The result was N. They lost to Starsky & Hutch Pinball, a promotional title for a Ben Stiller movie of the same name.
After a few more months of tinkering, they put N up online and emailed friends. They had a loose grasp of how much their game was spreading via word of mouth, but it was only when N landed on Home of the Underdogs—an old hub for hidden gaming gems—that they realized they had an audience.
"The success of N was really surprising," said Sheppard. "We didn't really understand. We were just making a game that we wanted to play. We wanted a game that gave you more control, that felt precise."
N's sequel, N+, found itself on the Xbox for similar reasons as how N++ became a PlayStation exclusive: someone on the inside had become addicted to it, and approached them to do the honours. But talking about N+ riles up Burns. The history of N+ seems particularly sore.
While it brought their once web-freebie to an entirely new audience, the experience of making N+ was stressful and unsatisfying. N+ came out in February, 2008, a few months before Braid, a breakthrough hit that first established the Xbox 360 as a home for smaller titles. Microsoft, however, wasn't very experienced working with independent designers at the time, and Burns does everything but tap his nose when he suggests it's no coincidence many of the early Xbox indie-makers have now jumped to the competition. When N+ was released, custom maps could be made but not shared—that feature scrapped after swastikas began popping up in Forza, Xbox's showhorse racing game, on user-made cars, which spooked Microsoft last minute, according to Burns.
Adding to the pair's frustration, levels Atari outsourced for a Nintendo DS version of N+ did not meet Metanet's standards. Sheppard and Burns were hired to make 500 levels, and in the end made more than double.
"We were really burnt out after that," said Burns. "We were really sick of making levels, which is a shame, because it's really fun to make levels."
In the ten years since N came out, only five have been spent working actively on the series. Not long after N's release, the door for independent games had been permanently blasted open. Small studios began pursuing new ideas, and Metanet did the same. The free online game world, according to Burns, now belongs to short narrative experiences and "weird stuff."
Over the years, Sheppard and Burns gave intimate previews within Toronto's game making community of projects they hoped to do next. A game about a sasquatch with a day job, called Office Yeti, was inspired by the ZX Spectrum hooligan sim Skool Daze. Another, an apocalyptic sci-fi called Robotology, was created with elements pulled from other physics-based games like QWOP. Both are ideas they'd like to return to, but at the time both found it impossible to progress. N was still out there. N was everywhere.
Metanet's office isn't the only place in the city with an uncanny resemblance to their game. Toronto itself would make a good playground for a small, Ninja daredevil. Metanet even illustrated this with an amateur trailer back in 2007. They filmed footage of someone's parkour wall-jumps, rolls and vaults around the brutalist University of Toronto's Robarts Library—a titanic concrete vessel that some say looks like a peacock but more closely resembles a space phantom's evil organ. These monsters are scattered around the city. The northeast corner of the Annex's Central Tech high school looks like the flank of a Star Destroyer, and as a kid I mistook the old Sears building, a thorny inverted pyramid near Ryerson University, for Bowser's Castle.
"That's one of the taglines we've been considering, 'Does the world need another platformer? Not after this one!'" said Burns
Some call these eyesores. Sheppard and Burns disagree. Burns cursed that he lent out his copy of Michael McClelland's Concrete Toronto, but can still regale you with the labour disputes the city had with steel unions that created these structures.
"We like Brutalism," said Sheppard "It's been influential."
In the end, they couldn't get really away from N. They both described feeling a sense of guilt. Even if N+ had its fans, they felt they hadn't left their players with a definitive hit, and they still got emails asking about updates to the Flash version.
They eased themselves into making levels again around 2010. They began to consider a final version, with level sharing, a vibrant appearance, elegant user interfaces and a new arsenal of deathtraps. I would have assumed Burns was joking about wanting the last word on deadly platformers after Super Meat Boy—a similarly cute, punishing platformer—but he kept bringing it up.
When it comes to returning to their roots, it isn't being called a one-trick pony that concerns them, but the flip-side of revisitation. Burns thinks that platformer has become a dirty word to a lot of indie games— that it's "low-art," while others are anxious about looking like a Super Mario wannabe. That's bullshit, Burns said. If he's intimidated of anything, it's not doing the original game justice. Burns likens their situation to Spelunky, in that, just because something as perfect as Spelunky exists shouldn't stop anyone from making more Spelunkys.
"That's one of the taglines we've been considering. 'Does the world need another platformer? Not after this one!'" said Burns.
Ten years later, everything old can feel new again. N++ feels faster, tighter. Level sharing is finally available on a console. There are new enemies: toggle mines, a refined death-ball, and shadow ninjas who trace your footsteps (inspired by another free Flash game, Cursor X 10). Missiles can now collide with each other, making more mayhem possible. One of the few unchanged elements from the first N is the sound effect made when you collect these little yellow squares, a soft buzzer that evokes a television game show. That ping echoed through Metanet's loft as we spoke, and while the demo played, broken only by tea kettles and a rattling pipe.
The game has also been visually re-skinned, the vector-based system sleeker, more modern, its Wim Crouwel sensibilities clearer than ever. Colours pop in a hard way, and players can channel surf from a collection of vibrant palettes at any time, on any level. It looks more inspire d by a history of graphic design than a history of games. Sheppard was delighted when I compared the appearance to a European fashion magazine.
"All those people who write to Sony complaining that these indie games suck, they don't really have an appreciation for a European fashion magazine," said Sheppard. "Maybe they never will. But we'd like to inject just a little bit of that into their world. So if it's in this package, a game that they recognize that they maybe could start to like, then maybe they'll start to like these other things too."
I didn't notice it when I walked in, but on the way out I was confronted by a tall metal lamp, shaped uncannily like N's ninja. Sheppard and Burns swear they didn't commission it, a friend brought their attention to an Italian designer with familiar sensibilities. In their atmosphere, I'll believe it. N seems like a companion piece to the design the creators live within, their office, their city, their preferred schools of architecture. When I exited, facing west, looking at the CN Tower and the bank buildings that created a sharp profile as the setting sun turned them into shadows, I easily imagined how a ninja could bound over it all.
Correction 28/07: An earlier version of this article stated that a friend of Sheppard and Burns found a tall metal lamp on craigslist shaped like the ninja in Metanet's video game series N. Rather, the lamp is the work of an Italian designer and was shipped from Italy. Motherboard regrets the error!