Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Design choices: 'The Last of Us'

[accessed 26th February 2014]

Although I have not played 'The Last of Us' (the reason being it is out exclusively for the PS3) I came across this enlightening documentary about Naughty Dog Studios and their journey in creating a brand new IP.

The only initial premise when the studio set out to create a new game, was that they wanted something post apocalyptic. They began by looking at the book 'The World Without Us' by journalist Alan Weisman, which explores what would happen to our surroundings if humans were to suddenly disappear. Apparently water is pumped out of the New York Subway systems daily and if this were to stop, within a mere two days the streets would flood, causing vegetation to grow around the buildings. Lots of the research into how temples ruin undertaken for Naughty Dog's 'Uncharted' game series was applied to modern urban surroundings in 'The Last of Us'. This discussion of how nature consumes unmaintained urban environments shows the importance of research in creating a believable world. This comes through strongly in the concept art phase, where concept artist Aaron Limonick discusses water damage and the shifts in colour through vegetation's lifespan. Similarly to the narrative in 'I am Legend' this virtual world adopts the idea that animals have perhaps escaped from zoos and re-colonised the now rich consumed urban surroundings. There is a constant balance in this IP between beauty and suspense:

As mentioned in the title of this post, I am really interested in the design choices that determine narrative and playability. There is a constant 'Ying and Yang' relationship between how the story reads, and the game being fun and immersive. Initially the team wanted to keep the game grounded in reality, meaning that the idea of a zombie survival game was rejected. However, the idea of an infection and macabre creature-like enemies was eventually brought back in. This presents the team with the challenge of creating a whole new alien enemy. Many great design ideas come from nature, and the infection in 'The Last of Us' is inspired by the Cordyceps Fungi:

[accessed 24th february 2014]

This fungi infects insects, destroying their brains and sprouting fungi from their bodies which then spread spores, further infecting their population. Their are thousands of different species of the fungi, each specialising in one species of insect. The design team with Naughty Dog established different phases of the human infection. The final phases involve the face splitting into brutal fungi like caps. This presented the team with the question: How do they navigate if most of their facial sensors have been torn apart by the infection? The answer was to have them echolocate like Bats. This also added to the IP, giving the enemies a chilling and distinctive clicking sound as they stalk their surroundings.

Again, this theme of fungi added to the balance between beauty and terror. The final stage of the infection where enemies die and grow into their surroundings often add a sense of vibrance to the virtual environments, illustrated by this concept art piece:

There are stronger examples of the fungus adding saturated colours to the environment around the fifteen minuet mark of the 'Grounded: making of' video

Although this relates more to the game's narrative and written elements as oppose to aesthetic design choices, a final point that 'The Last of Us' appears to be notable for is its refusal follow convention, particular when it comes to the portrayal of female characters. Sadly in gaming, female roles are usually put in to place to act as overly-sexualised damsels in distress or love interests for the strong male protagonist. This Game however shows signs of strong female characters making crucial calls, particularly with the dual protagonist role of a young teenage girl. A scene is discussed where young protagonist 'Ellie' stumbles across a girls diary while exploring her abandoned bedroom. She criticises the trivial superficial worries expressed in the words, in comparison to the harsh world she is having to navigate through.

This shows promising signs, as perhaps with 'The Last of Us' setting the standards, AAA titles will be challenged to break convention and look for deeper more philosophical and even liberal narratives in their titles. Perhaps in the future we will look back at some of our recent titles to this date, and see them in same light as exploitative pulp media of decades past. This prospect is very exciting for someone like me hoping to work in the industry.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Creating A New IP

For my final project, I will be working within a small team with the goal of creating two playable video game levels. This will mean that we will producing new intellectual property, and world building as a process. As one of two concept artists, my role will be to establish the game visuals in the earliest of stages. This video about the making of Naughty Dog's 'The Last of Us' illustrates well the process of creating a brand new IP:

One of the main challenges we will face with creating a new IP, is that we aren't strictly working with any existing game mechanics. Although we will be following tutorials and working towards an isometric shooter model, we really don't know much at this point how the game will operate, and whether it will be fun for the player. There will likely be lots of going back and forth between artwork, test levels, and character animations throughout the process to ensure smooth playability. On a similar note, developers in the film talk about not 'sugar coating' feedback. We will need to be able to take blunt yet constructive criticism from each other so we can keep moving forward with the development. A good model for my workflow would perhaps be the one discussed by concept artist Aaron Limonick in the video: Beginning with a loose piece to capture the mood and start discussions. There will then likely be several more passes, thinking critically about the virtual spaces, why certain aesthetic elements exist, and how the player will navigate and hopefully become immersed in the surroundings. More so than ever, I will be working towards someone else's vision, meaning that I will receive great amounts of feedback to help visually express what the writer and other team-members are thinking of. This video relates well to our project, as Naughty Dog appears to be one of the less corporate AAA developers. There seems to be a great sense of community and a sort of positive informality. Realistically, I cannot see us meticulously planning every small job and who it will be assigned to far in advanced. I believe we will rely heavily on communication and discussion, constantly reflecting on where we are in the development stage and where we need to be (Although we will be stressing the grander deadlines, for example when we will need to have the bulk of conceptual art finished ready for environment building and character modelling)

Although we are working in the realm of the indie game, looking at a leading company like Naughty Dog highlights some of the important thought processes that are crucial in creating a successful IP

Ralph Steadman Skype Talk

Recently the College organised a live stream with legendary illustrator Ralph Steadman, famous for his collaborative work with writer and coiner of the phrase 'Gonzo Journalism' Hunter S. Thomson. The Skype format was actually rather interesting. Instead of Steadman making an appearance in the lecture theatre, we were treated to a look around his studio, where he held up original works in front of the webcam. The session was very freeform, Ralph picking up pieces as he came across them, in a sense reflecting the chaos of his artwork.

There were a few key things I found very interesting and inspiring about Ralph's approach to creating art. Firstly, despite the heavily stylised aesthetic of his 'illustrations' (A phrase he dislikes as he believes it relates more to graphs and diagrams) he is grounded in the fundamentals. We were shown many pieces from his early life drawing practices, demonstrating a level of dedication and the sense that his practice in the arts has been a journey.

Ralph had also developed some interesting techniques for creating chaos on his blank canvases, à la Jackson Pollock. He told us that there are "no mistakes, just opportunities to try something different." This reminded my very much of the happy accident approach I try and adopt in my concept art to break away from generic compositions. This was illustrated further in the film For No Good Reason, where Ralph spends time with actor Johnny Depp, talking about his work and his relationship with Hunter. Ralph flicks a blot of ink across a black piece of cartridge paper, and announces that he can already begin to see the form of a Horse. This is the process where the human mind tries to make sense of chaos. An example often used is the way that we find shapes in the clouds. This approach gives a sense of excitement to Ralph's practice, he doesn't start out with preliminary sketches or have a clear visualisation of how the end result will look, he almost allows the process to guide him, rather than fighting and tussling with it.

Finally, Ralph injected a great sense of humour and political satire into his art. Much of his work criticises war, U.S politics, the human condition, amongst other issues. He works on the principle that his art genuinely has the power to change the world. It was inspiring to hear about the practices of such a pivotal figure in the illustration world. His artwork is original, relying strongly on bold chaotic markings with a flare for edgy humour and thought provoking subject matter. His presence really makes one think, what can be achieved through one's art? Is there merit for change within the media of concept art? Can games as a platform make bold statements similar to those made by legendary cartoonist Ralph Steaman? Is there something raw and visceral about working with traditional media, and should practicality (working fully digitally) cancel out the need for using raw traditional materials?

Ralph seems very connected with his work, blotting out wild ink splats with an orchestral conducter-like flick of the wrist, and then spraying fine clouds using a straw and his lips, scratching away and his layered up composition. There is something very primitive and animalistic about his approach, combined with technical prowess that lends itself to disciplined life drawing sessions. There is a clear synergy of chaos and elegance to his cartoons:

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Life Drawing Sessions

One area I am trying to improve upon is my drawing skills, which has led to me joining the College's Life Drawing Society. Each week a different model is brought in to pose. Sessions often run for around 2 hours, starting with small 2 to 5 minute poses. These are helpful as they loosen up the hand and get the eyes working. Very much like speed painting, theres no time for tedious shading or details, it's all about getting the form down. I often do these quick sketches in my sketchbook. Longer poses allow for different shading techniques, and consideration to line weight and often there are materials like cloth on the surface where the model sits which makes for an interesting study. I complete these longer poses on a larger scale, often working on an easel. Below are some examples of my work:

The sessions (which I am attending regularly on a monday) are helping train my eyes: thinking about form, anatomy, foreshortening etc... I plan to keep attending, and improving my drawing, which ultimately will improve my digital work.

Daily Spitpaint

Speedpainting is a great practice for digital artists. It takes attention away from detailed rendering, and forces you to focus more on colour and overall composition. Recently a group has trended on Facebook called 'Daily Spitpaint.' Each day a selection of topics are posted by the group moderators, and artists are allowed 30 minutes for each painting, which must respond to one of the topics. Although the activity is open to all medias, the group has attracted a range of talented digital artists, such as Titus Lunter and Mark Molnar. Some of the topics offer great opportunities for studies from reference:

'Couch potato' encouraged a lighting study.

'Dead eyes' inspired me to study actor Michael C. Hall portraying 'Dexter Morgan.'

'Tiger Parachute' encourage a study of a tigers face and fur.

'Chrome boy' led to a study of chrome and how it reflects its surroundings.

Some of the topics led to experimentation:

With 'Charon,' I achieved an interesting composition by copying areas of the piece and rotating and distorting the perspective.

With 'Tree Cathedral,' I tried a technique demonstrated by Mark Molar in the magazine 'ImagineFX,' of laying down cool colours as a base for the composition, and adding warm colours for a vibrant effect.

With 'The Joker,' I tried a chiaroscuro approach.

When creating concept art, I am often doing static environments or character turnarounds, so with 'Prisoner Number 5, I attempted something with a dramatic perspective.

Overall, participating in the Daily Spitpaints offers opportunities for both self improvement and networking. There is a great sense of community among the booming group, which contains successful artists from within the industry. It truly is a great platform for getting your artwork seen.