Interactive Storytelling Columns / Voices

Interactive Storytelling

Lisa   L. Cyr
Over the past decade, our lifestyles and work habits have afforded more leisure time than any other generation. With much of our disposable income increasingly being spent on entertainment, there is a window of opportunity for anyone who can create imaginative and visually compelling content that tells an engaging story. For illustrators, the ever-growing entertainment-based markets yield, exciting and prosperous avenues—offering not only on- and off-site freelance work, but also full-time employ­ment with benefits, stock options and bonuses in a very upwardly mobile industry.

When it comes to engaging an audience, interactive and new media initiatives are at the forefront. Because of advances in technology and the Internet, we are seeing a plethora of digital entertainment vehicles introduced into the culture. The opportunities seem endless. “More than any other genre of entertainment, gaming advancements are happening at an absolutely mind-boggling rate and the need to stay on top of technology is critical,” details Daniel Dociu, concept artist and chief art director for NCsoft North America. “When the next generation of gaming hardware comes out, the potential of the machines is high and developers need to question how they can best use or take advantage of the com­put­ing power. A lot of the time, it means more man­power and bigger budgets to create; an approach where more is more.”

Like traditional story­telling, content is key. If a story is weak, the best imagery, sound and special effects in the world will not make it better. There needs to be a strong underlying narrative. Because interactive games deal with fantasy and science fiction as well as realistic and historical settings, a vivid imagination coupled with the ability to research a topic thoroughly is necessary.

New media also has an interactive component, where messag­ing and user motivation come into play. Users interact with the art form and are led through an experience using visuals, sound, motion and storytelling. Sometimes the experience is a solo act on a console, but more often it is a community-based activity, where interaction is done on the Web with multiple players, spanning several time zones. “They use a multitude of senses and learn by having to react and make decisions within the game,” notes Dan Ferguson, founder and game development director of Blockdot, Inc. “They do this for fun, to escape or to be stimulated. Gaming creates an environment where the user is very open to a message.”
 

Assassin's Creed (PS3 and Xbox 360). "I developed the overall look of the Masyaf Fortress, a castle high in the mountains and built on the edge of a rock," says Raphael Lacoste. "It is the place where players receive their missions, learn new skills and train." Photoshop, software; Ubisoft, client.
 

Since the design of the experience controls the messaging and motivation, creators need to be responsible about how their work will affect the people who interact with it. “I’m currently working on a major project called Utherworlds that combines my art, the written word, animation, music and new media. The project revolves around the power and influence of positive thought and the importance of emo­tional intelligence in the growth of humanity,” outlines Philip Straub, illustrator, author and founder of Unity Entertain­ment. “The project helps frame the bigger picture for my work and my life, binding it to a greater purpose. I’ve read that if you can find a mission in life, some­thing that drives you, then you will live in balance. I’ve sacrificed so much to make this project a reality. Nothing quite like it has ever been done before.” The intellectual property includes a book, Web site, online and mobile game aspects that have charitable com­ponents to them, unique merchandise and much more. “Once launched, there are plans already in motion to form a founda­tion around the project,” Straub adds. “The premise will be to con­trib­ute a portion of revenue, generated from game sales and corporate sponsors, to reversing global climate change and other humanitarian causes.”


Utherworlds (social networking). "Just beyond human consciousness, there is a place where all dreams and desires exist, a world where unconscious thought dwells and flourishes," says Philip Straub. "This image depicts a passage to the realm of Hope where a glimpse into the main character's past is revealed" Photoshop/Painter, software; Unity Entertainment, client.

Utherworlds (social networking). "The natural order has been disrupted and sentient beings have lost their way, giving into the temptation of negative thought," says Philip Straub. "In this image, the guardian of hope named Lealinnia is introduced and our main character, Lucas, gains a deeper understanding of his personal journey." Photoshop/Painter, software; Unity Entertainment, client.
 

For creatives who want to work in the inter­active arena, a com­mitment to becom­ing a digital illustrator who can think in the round is a must. “In their minds, artists need to visualize the scenes they are trying to depict, mentally walking around and moving within the space until they find the most compelling point of view,” details Straub. “It’s like being a director in your own head.” When it comes to pre­pro­duc­tion work, the digital domain offers great flexibility. “The benefits to working digitally in a commercial production environ­ment are massive, allowing quick revisions and a rapid turnaround,” adds Straub. “Knowledge of standard software, like Adobe Photoshop and Corel Painter, is a must.”

Talented illustrators who have a strong command of the digital arena can work on a variety of projects from concept art (character development, structures, vehicles and environ­ments) to promotional initiatives (ad campaigns, collateral and packaging) and merchandising (toys and products). “Game preproduction is quite exciting and artists are free to experiment, more so than in the film industry where much is defined by the shooting locations and the director’s vision,” adds Raphaël Lacoste, matte painter/concept artist at Rodeo FX and former art director for Ubisoft. “Environments that give indications about lighting, scaling relations, color palette, composition, creature design and character behavior help with game visualization, provid­ing direction to a whole team of designers.” Opportunities also exist for those with a strong understanding of 3-D environ­ments, where Maya and 3Ds Max are the programs of choice. There is a strong demand for artists in the production areas of 3-D modeling, surface texturing, character rigging, animation, special effects and user interface design. For the traditional media artist, making the transition to digital may seem daunt­ing but it really isn’t. “All it takes is some effort and time invested in learning,” acknowledges Straub. “Just be open to new experiences.” For those who are willing and passionate enough to take on the challenge, the rewards are great with a future that is expanding.


Assassin's Creed (PS3 and Xbox 360). "The Kingdom, the place that links the different cities within the game, is stylized after Palestine and Syria in the twelfth century," says Raphael Lacoste. "I worked on the image composition and the mood, defining the landscape, lighting and textures." Photoshop/3ds Max, software; Ubisoft, client.
 

The best way to break into the industry is to learn as much about the business as possible. “There is a wealth of information out there. Go to any one of the many game, film and technology conferences like SIGGRAPH, the GDC (Game Developers Conference) and the San Diego Comi-Con,” advises Straub. “Take workshops on the finer points of game-making, prototyping and the digital tools used to create games and regularly follow the industry through the many online resources out there, such as Gamasutra.com, The CGSociety (cgsociety.org) and ConceptArt.org.” The Internet has opened up a large artistic community, where creatives share knowledge across conti­nents through online tutorials and industry specific chat rooms. Job postings are also found on many of these sites. “At one time, you needed to go to school to learn from a master, but now the master comes to you on DVD,” adds Lacoste.
 

Guild Wars (massive multiplayer online role playing). "For a brief moment, the player enjoys the illusion of having found refuge in an isolated cave," says Daniel Dociu. "Then, suddenly the bizarre rock formations covering its walls and ceiling start reconfiguring into a menacing dragon, towering over the scene with lava erupting from countless, gaping crevices." Photoshop, software; ArenaNet, client.
 

When it comes to portfolios, buyers are looking first and foremost for artists with strong, basic skill sets: draw­ing, painting, perspective, composition, color, two-dimensional and three-dimensional design and art history. “When search­ing for talent, I am primarily interested in seeing sketchbooks, drawings, paintings and anything that can show me that an artist has a solid foundation in art,” shares Dociu. “Then, and only then, do I even bother to look at the more technical side of their résumé.” With many schools changing their focus from traditional to exclusively digital, much has gotten lost in the shuffle. This has created a challenge for art directors seeking talent. “There is an incredible inflation of low-level talent, artists who know the tools (hardware and software), but lack a solid artistic base,” adds Dociu. “Artists who have a strong traditional background are at a great advantage today because it takes a lot less time to learn new tools than it takes someone to rebuild, from scratch, a foundation in art. Good, traditional art skills are irreplaceable.” To call attention to your work, industry competitions and annuals like Spectrum (spectrumfantasticart.com) and expose '  (Ballistic Publishing) are great resources used by art directors, agents and buyers. For full-time work, there are recruiters like Digital Artist Management and GameRecruiter that actively look for talent on an ongoing basis. When it comes to freelance, there are agents who work exclusively in the entertainment industry.


Doritos® Dash of Destruction (advertising). "Doritos Unlock Xbox contest asked gamers to submit their ideas for a Doritos brand-inspired video game for Microsoft's Xbox," says Dan Ferguson of Blockdot, Inc. "From thousands of entries, Doritos® Dash of Destruction was chosen by the online audience to be made into the world's first user-generated Xbox 360 video game." Mike Borland, game concept; Blockdot, Inc. design and development; Photoshop/Maya, software; Doritos/Microsoft Xbox, clients
 

More and more companies are viewing interactive storytelling as a lucrative venture. Mergers and mega-joint ventures are expanding the playing field and markets are starting to cross-pollinate. “To get an idea of the magnitude, gaming has surpassed the film industry as far as revenue and it’s only growing,” relays Dociu.

Even corporate advertising has jumped on the bandwagon with the invention of advergames. “Initially, advertising on the Web took what worked in the physical world and repurposed it for online consumption, creating a passive or interruptive experience,” says Ferguson. “Gaming is radically different, as it provides a connection that users can fully participate in. The experience is deep and research shows that people who have played an advergame have a huge increase in brand awareness. As long as the experience is more of a game than a commercial, people are willing to spend time with a brand, give it their attention, take an action or even share their information.” New media’s ability to deliver focused interaction between a brand and its customer has made advergames a highly sought after promotional medium. With easy downloading off the Web, this form of communication has allowed businesses to cost-effectively penetrate a world­wide market.



Superman Returns: The Videogame (console). "This concept painting was used by the production team as an overall visual target for color, value, lighting and mood for the entire Superman world," says Philip Straub. "As for any city, it was important to establish scale, architectural evolution and definition for the various districts." Photoshop/Painter/Maya, software; Electronic Arts, client.

Guild Wars (massive multiplayer online role playing). "I envisioned a location in the game world that was dominated by a monolithic structure of awe-inspiring scale, powerful yet compositionally simplistic," says Daniel Dociu. "It looks like the product of a long-lost culture, so ancient it even precedes mythology." Photoshop, software; ArenaNet, client.
 

As time goes on, new interactive art forms will emerge and so will delivery systems. The industry is changing monumentally and many say it is still in its infancy. While the traditional markets for illustration are diminishing, new media and interactive initiatives abound. The industry is evolving and a new generation of artists is redefining what it means to tell stories. ca

©2008 Lisa L. Cyr, Cyr Studio

Lisa L. Cyr is an accomplished author and multidisciplinary artist with a content-driven focus. Her books, Innovative Promotions That Work, The Art of Promotion, The Little Book of Big Promotions, Brochure Design That Works and Graphic Design That Works (Rockport Publishers), feature top national and international promotional work with sidebars that go beyond the basics to explore strategic and innovative thinking. A graduate from The Massachusetts College of Art (BFA) and Syracuse University (MA), Cyr’s artistic oeuvre has been exhibited both nationally and internationally in museums, galleries and universities. Her work is also included in the permanent collection of the Museum of American Illustration as well as private collections. She is an artist member of the Society of Illustrators in New York City and works in partnership with her husband Christopher Short, painter and 3-D illustrator.

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