When I was in high school I took A LOT of art classes. Half my day was spent in drawing class and I loved it. My schedule alternated between art and core classes and drawing became a huge focus in my life with dreams of going to art school after graduation and getting into illustration high on my list of to-dos. But it wasn’t meant to be as I drifted from the art world and ended up in the lucrative world of public education. I don’t regret the choices I make in life, but part of me wishes I had stuck with the art skill tree as many of my friends who did went on to become quite successful and take on all sorts of exciting jobs.
As the leader of an indie game studio, you wear many hats and one of the ones I have enjoyed wearing the most is my art design ball cap. (Yes it’s a ball cap) It’s like the art design job I always dreamed I wanted to have back in high school but instead of working on the composition for a single picture I’m composing an entire game. It’s been a fun and creative challenge and a great learning experience considering it’s still rather new to me.
What is visual design?
Think of your favorite video game be it Mario Kart, Resident Evil, Grand Theft Auto or even Pac-Man. Now describe how it looks in one or two sentences. If you can, then the game’s designers did a good job of developing its visual style., or simple the way the game looks and feels to the player.
Take for example, Mario games which are made to look like playable cartoons with bright and colorful characters made with lots of rounded shapes and living in cutesy environments. This makes sense as Mario games are made to have a vast appeal to a large audience of gamers of all ages. The violence isn’t graphic either and is limited to some stray fireballs or boot stomping. Everybody knows and everybody loves Mario in large part to its recognizable visual design. Why do you think Nintendo likes to slap Mario’s brand on every game genre imaginable? Mario Party, Mario Tennis, Mario Golf, Mario Kart, Mario Paint etc.
Now look at a game on the complete other side of the spectrum such as the Dark Souls series. If you are unfamiliar with Dark Souls, it’s a popular game franchise that caters to the most hardcore of hardcore players. It’s a dreary fantasy survival game where death and a game over screen lurks behind every corner. Dying over and over again is key to understanding and overcoming the deadly game world inhabited by dragons, skeletons, and the spirits of other lost souls hellbent on restlessly killing the player. To help convey and build up that constant sense of dread the game’s visual style is centered around cold and gritty muddled colors, deep shadows, and narrow corridors within dark dungeons where escape seems impossible. The game looks scary even on pause.
Now imagine if these two games swapped nothing but art styles and Mario became the dark and gritty game while Dark Souls transformed into a Saturday morning cartoon. I don’t know how appealing a Mario Brother’s game would be if bloodthirsty half dead goomba’s charged out at Mario out from a rusty green sewer pipe to devour him limb from limb. Well actually that sounds awesome but at that point are you really playing a Mario game anymore? Who would play that game and would it sell as well as what players are used to? Conversely, I doubt Dark Souls would find the audience and success it has if happy skeleton clowns charged at you with candy canes and lollipops. The point is, visual design goes a long way to identifying what a game is supposed to be and is one of the first things that needs to be decided upon when designing a game. It’s sets the stage for everything else that follows.
Going green with Greenpunk
When we first began designing REDLINE one of the first things I did was to look at other sci-fi games similar to ours. A common theme around sci-fi and robot based games in general is to follow the Dark Souls approach and make them realistic and gritty. Many of them look very industrial and militaristic which does makes sense if your game is built around giant robots as the main appeal. But often that is all those games have going for them visually and as a result too many “robot” games end up looking similar as they tend to blend together. You’ve seen and played one, you’ve seen and played them all.
To combat those preconceived expectations we wanted REDLINE to stand out right from the start and so made a conscious decision from the beginning to go in an opposite direction. Granted, in a futuristic robot based war game like ours, there needs to be some amount of grit, going the Mario route wouldn’t fare well, but there is also room to try something different. In designing REDLINE we borrowed heavily from an aesthetic known as “greenpunk” in which nature goes hand in hand with technology. Examples of the aesthetic we worked for can be seen in the work of artist Simon Stålenhag and even the movie, Reel Steel where advanced technology blends in with modern scenery and imagery to create something vaguely familiar yet new. It’s a unique look that’s appealing and stands out from those tried and repeated sci-fi tropes that have become all too common today.
In REDLINE, battles will take place as equally in high tech futuristic cities as they will in the wide open desert plains and forested mountains of the wilderness. There will be advanced weaponry to use and equip your efreets with but also tried and true cannons and missiles little different from what militaries use today. Even though the game takes place roughly 40 year from now, we want it to feel in some aspects that parts of it could happen today. This design philosophy also lends itself to a colorful palette of warm colors, open sprawling spaces and upbeat music designed to wrap around the player like a warm blanket. It’s small choices like this we hope gets players interested and continue to keep playing as the game grows over time.
Next week I’ll be back to talk about and explain how we further created the visual language for REDLINE through the creation and implementation of style guides. A kind of visual bible our artists use to help build the world of the near distant future. Until then may you rediscover old dreams made anew.