The Illustrative World of Video Games Columns / Creativity

The Illustrative World of Video Games

Rachel Cassandra
Upon exploring the mysterious island in The Witness, players will discover the remains of an abandoned civilization. The not-quite realistic illustration style lends an air of impressionism to the game.
 

In addition to racing cars and shooting enemies, video game players can now enter a Swedish fairy tale, work as a border agent for a fictional dystopian country and become a dog asking rabbits for clues in an ethereal, foggy world—all thanks to independent gaming. The independent, or indie, gaming industry has trans­formed the landscape of available adventures; with this diversity comes a similarly diverse array of illustration styles and techniques.

In indie games’ early years—1990 to the early 2000s—3-­D artist Luis Antonio of the adventure game The Witness says people from math and programming backgrounds populated the genre. Indie games have since become more accessible to artists and illustrators who haven’t yet worked with game design tools. “Someone who understands balance, composition and movement is much more important than someone who is really good technically at building things,” says Antonio. “It’s easier to teach [people] how to use software than it is to help them be a good artist.”

Games are labeled indie when individuals, small teams or indie companies create them. Now that the engines for building games have become increasingly accessible and games can be distributed easily online, indie games have flourished. Like indie films, being an indie game doesn’t necessarily predict its size or profit, as demonstrated by such wildly popular games as Minecraft and Flappy Bird. Minecraft brought its creator billions. But on the other end of the spectrum, there are games like Mike Joffe’s Benthic Love, which explores the romantic lives of anglerfish and has a fan base of about 2,400.

That’s the upside to working on indie games: creative control. As Antonio says, developers will censor your work and pressure you to avoid creatively risky decisions in order to draw as wide an audience as possible. Free from this restraint, indie game makers can delve into more meaningful projects—those that may trade a wider audience for a more deeply affected one. Many indie games forgo striving for reality, instead embracing stylized illustration and aiming to make unique worlds—something these three games manage to do in spades.

The Witness

“Some people really enjoy doing guns all day,” says Antonio, who helped create Manhunt 2 and other violent games while working for mainstream companies like Rockstar Games and Ubisoft. He far prefers the team structure used in the creation of The Witness, in which “no one has a position, there’s no hierarchy.” He states this showed up even in the way they created the posters and the trailer. “In any other company, we would have outsourced. It’s very empowering. We’re just trying to solve problems.”

In The Witness, players begin in an enclosed castle on a deserted island, where they learn how to play the game by completing tasks. Players have no instructions, and their only means of interaction involves solving mazelike puzzles on placards scattered throughout this new world. The island offers stunning stylized depictions of foliage, crumbling buildings and bodies of water. Although players can venture anywhere in the world, the game artists created pathways through vegetation so players don’t feel overwhelmed by the world’s expansiveness. The art team also selected brighter colors to draw players to the important parts of the game, including puzzles and relevant material.

When Antonio and the art team started on The Witness, they researched how various visual artists simplify reality for paintings, prints and illustrations, borrowing aspects of the aesthetic tech­niques they liked when they realized they didn’t need to animate every individual leaf of a tree to make it look like a tree. Like landscape artists, they could represent leaves in broad strokes. The team brought in architects and landscape artists to build an imaginary world that could actually exist, obeying natural laws. They also created an imaginary procession of three civilizations—the remnants of which can be found by players—as well as fictitious geography and geology for the abandoned island. The artists drew on this depth of story to create The Witness’s current appearance. Because of the intense level of story detail, creators expected the game creation to take six months. Instead, it took four years.

Players traverse a paper world in Lumino City as they help Lume in her quest to find her grandfather. The art team built the entire world from physical materials and used tiny motors to power its moving parts.
 

Lumino City

The illustration styles of indie games venture far from the look of mainstream games, which Lumino City artist Luke Whittaker describes as a “synthetic aesthetic.” Instead of striving for reality in Lumino City, indie game developer State of Play created an entire paper city, through which protagonist Lume swings, walks, climbs and solves puzzles on a grand adventure to find her grandfather. Game makers meticulously designed the paper city and had physical parts laser cut. They were left with “a mad pile of pieces, like a crazy jigsaw with no instructions,” as Whittaker describes it, which they pieced together into the city. They painted and colored it, sometimes using felt tip pens. The game makers developed an internally consistent palette for the city, even defining how stone, wood and roof tiles would look in their tiny world. They strung miniature LED lights on buildings and used tiny motors to power the set’s moving pieces.

Generally, indie game artists use a mix of Adobe Photoshop, Adobe After Effects, Maya, ZBrush and 3D­Coat. But because indie games include such a wide range of stories, budgets and aesthetics, designers sometimes use atypical programs—like State of Play’s use of Adobe Animate, previously called Flash. The end product is essentially an eight­hour interactive film. Lumino City’s game makers had to animate the character Lume almost frame by frame. After photographing a model of her in neutral lighting, they brought her to life through animation. From there, they added some visual noise and film grain and manipulated the depth of field with blur.

Lumino City’s team consisted of two to three people at various points over the course of the game’s creation; because the team was so tiny, Whittaker became director, artist, animator and model maker. His extensive arts background—he studied both lens­based media and new media production—came in handy for this project. Though Whittaker works in video games, his games betray his reliance on tactile, physical art making. One of State of Play’s smaller projects, INKS, is a pinball game in which the bumpers leak paint when players hit them, causing splattering and enabling the balls to leave thin trails of paint as they roll.

Unlike mainstream games funded by large companies, no standard funding model exists for indie games. Some of them have no funding and are simply passion projects, squeezed in around their creators’ full­time jobs. Others, made by indie companies, operate with relatively large budgets. Games can be privately funded or grant funded.

Initially self­funded, Lumino City’s game makers minimized their budget whenever possible. They rented a motion control camera for only one day because of its hefty $4,000 daily price tag and filmed the entire game in that day. “Katrina, the architect, had just graduated,” says Whittaker. “So we had to sneak back into her architecture school and do some cheeky laser cutting when no one was looking. When you’re on a tight budget, you go after any favors you can get.”

The game Never Alone features an atmospheric tundra where the spirit and natural worlds seamlessly intersect. All aesthetics, including character design and stylized illustrated cutscenes, were developed in conjunction with Alaska’s Cook Inlet Tribal Council to ensure an accurate depiction of Iñupiat culture.
 

Never Alone

Dima Veryovka, former art director at the indie game company E-­Line Media, worked on first­person shooter games for two and a half years, aiming for realism. “You always lose because you can’t compete with nature,” Veryovka says. Instead of competing with it, Veryovka and his team members chose to embrace nature for the game Never Alone.

In Never Alone, a girl, Nuna, and her fox companion collaborate to solve puzzles in the Arctic tundra. E­-Line Media co­created the game with Alaska’s Cook Inlet Tribal Council, a service provider for Alaska Natives that also funded this interactive endeavor. Much of the game’s aesthetic is drawn from the Iñupiat culture, an Inuit tribe.

Never Alone’s seven game makers spent time with Iñupiat artisans and looked to cultural objects and artifacts for visual inspiration. The game used an inclusive development model to work with an Iñupiat committee—which included 36 elders, multiple storytellers and an Iñupiat writer—to accurately represent the culture. Iñupiat values—such as interdependence between nature and humans, the overlap of the spirit and material worlds, and intergenera­tional dialogue—were integral to gameplay.

Some members of the Never Alone creative team visited Alaska and participated in culturally relevant events, like pulling in a whale. “The tundra has this atmospheric effect,” says game artist Casey McDonnell, “this huge, vast flatness and these beautiful colors.” They conveyed this effect through desaturated pastel hues. Nuna’s appearance drew upon Iñupiat dolls made out of bone, baleen and animal hides, and the team ensured her costume was authentic to her geographic area. Early mockups of the game included a button that switched between the spirit and material worlds, but Iñupiats on the committee explained that the spirit world is not seen as separate, so E-Line Media changed the game to integrate spirit characters into the real world, where they interact with Nuna and the Fox. The game team took photos and videos for reference, some of which they decided to integrate into the game in 26 unlockable mini documentaries that discuss Iñupiat life.

As Veryovka says, “It’s not a fantasy game. It’s a game about real people, people who live there, and we have this responsibility to portray these people in the proper way.” The response of the Iñupiat community has been exceptionally positive. McDonnell says elders have been playing the game, and one tribe member told them, “This makes me proud to be an Iñupiat.”

These games represent but a few of indie gaming’s success stories. Even just a few years ago, creators with independent interactive visions had little hope of finding funding, a means of production or an audience. Now there are endless niche games that offer a wide range of stories and illustration styles—from old-­school 16­-bit pixelated graphics to lifelike 3-­D representations. Indie games increasingly are competing with mainstream titles, and their aesthetic styles help them stand out from the crowd. The rise in indie games offers the world a diversity of play experiences with transformative capabilities—and opportunities for fascinating entertainment, whether you find yourself on a deserted island, in the tundra or in a fantastical city. ca

Want to learn more? 

MONEY

Indie developers and illustrators can freelance or work full-­time on games. Contracts for indie games tend to be more relaxed, which enables developers to work on multiple projects at the same time as well as retain the creative rights to what they produce. Game developers are often paid a flat rate, but the pay rate frequently includes royalties from the game, especially for smaller games with less funding.

BREAKING IN

Illustrators can meet game developers and creators at regional gatherings. For example, the International Game Developers Association has local chapters, which sometimes sponsor meet-­ups. At larger game conferences, like PAX and the Game Developers Conference, illustrators can meet both indie and mainstream developers. Online forums on websites like CGSociety (cgsociety.org), Polycount (polycount.com), ZBrush Central (zbrushcentral.com) and ConceptArt.org can also connect interested parties.

PLATFORMS

Steam is the largest web­-based game publishing platform, but a number of other platforms exist, such as GOG (which stands for Good Old Games), itch.io, Origin, GamersGate, Game Jolt and Humble Bundle, which offers discounts for charities and bundles games together to raise money for specific causes.

Rachel Cassandra (rachel.cassandra@gmail.com) is a writer and designer based in Oakland, California. She’s written for Vice, GOOD, Bitch and Narratively, and recently published the book Women Street Artists of Latin America. She’s pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at University of California, Berkeley. Her current fascination is indie video games, and she believes games have the potential to change our world for the better.

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