Two of the more unique-looking video games of 2014, both Lumino City, a hand-built puzzler by London-based indie studio State of Play, and Child of Light, an old-school RPG painted in watercolours from developer-publisher giant Ubisoft (made at the company's Montreal base), earned substantial praise for their truly singular visuals. At the 2015 BAFTA Game Awards, held in March, Lumino City won in the category of Artistic Achievement, while Child of Light was a nominee in Best Visual Arts at this year's Game Developers Choice Awards.
I spoke to Katherine Bidwell, co-founder of State of Play, and Patrick Plourde, creative director on Child of Light, about their incredible-looking releases.
From Paper to Play – How They Made 'Lumino City'
VICE: The physically handcrafted style of Lumino City follows closely in the pattern of its predecessor, Lume. Obviously a sequel to any game is likely to bear aesthetic similarities, but as striking as the look of Lumino City is – and it's bloody gorgeous – were you the slightest bit worried of being seen to "repeat" your visuals, rather than (re)invent in that area?
KATHERINE BIDWELL: To be honest, it never crossed our minds. We were so excited about the possibilities of the style we chose for Lume and we just wanted to embellish and learn from what had excited us about making it. We started with a clean slate, production wise, with Lumino City. We knew we were scaling up the game, which would mean a reduction in scale of the models, which in turn meant a need for new techniques with our model making. If Lume was a starter for the visual style we knew we could deliver, Lumino City is a main course, dessert, cheese board, coffee and wine all into one.
The game's design has much in common with animation, I guess mostly the stop-motion discipline in its backgrounds, its stages.
Myself and Luke [Whittaker], our co-director, have an animation background from before we formed State of Play seven years ago, so there are no surprises that there is a comparison. Interestingly, we had never done stop-frame animation before until we did a couple of scenes using this technique in Lumino City, so that was all new to us.
Were there any key inspirations in the city/character design?
I think working closely with architect Catrina Stewart really influenced the design of the city, and she was an integral part of the game design process. Architecture is a massive part of what Lumino City is about, and both myself and Luke are passionate about the way buildings and architecture can tell a narrative within a game environment. On holiday I am often taking pictures of buildings and thinking, "Who lives there, and why is that designed like that?"
Explain the appeal of creating a virtual world, as experienced by the player, with very physical environments? It seems almost backwards in its approach to being progressive, at a time when CGI has infiltrated all manner of televisual projects.
I think you get an honesty about the world we created for (lead character) Lumi to inhabit in Lumino City. When faced with a blank computer screen, your starting point is a very pristine, perfect world – but we all know the real world isn't like that. When creating a virtual world on screen, you are constantly trying to "rough the edges" to make it more "real". We went about it the other way round, and I think this radiates from the screen in Lumino City. We deliberately left glue marks, scratches and knocks to give the world life and vitality. Nothing can replace that. For us, if you want to make a light look like it's on in a lighthouse, then we simply flick on a switch, rather than code a lighting engine for a game, which will never quite feel right.
There's the need in any game to have gameplay, as silly as that sounds. You can create the most wonderful setting, only for it to be inappropriate for the kind of game you want to present. Was there much compromise made in the art department to allow for the game's puzzle elements? Anything that you had to alter to fit the challenges faced by Lumi?
We knew right at the beginning of the development stage that our biggest challenge would be ensuring that the gameplay was not compromised by creating a game in the visual style we wanted to do. So before we made any models we had a simple prototype of all the puzzles and gameplay, which we then tested to death before committing to the final models and designs. This meant that when we making the final models we were confident on the gameplay and narrative flow. I think the biggest challenge was making sure every scene made sense to the player, ensuring we lit the models correctly so that all areas could function in the gameplay space. A scene where this is important is the library, where each shelf needed to be lit to see the letters. So, we had to get the balance between the scene feeling like natural lighting and being clear and concise to the player.
Do you think the handcrafted look lends itself to potential players perhaps otherwise put off by things that don't look easy to just pick up and get on with? That it's more approachable, relatable perhaps, than an array of polygons and pixels?
Yes, I really do. People of all ages and backgrounds have responded to Lumino City in a really positive way. The tactile nature of the game means that it's really approachable, and I think that will be even more apparent when we launch the iOS version later in 2015.
The making of 'Child of Light', part one
VICE: Was the intent, from the very outset, to marry this fairy tale-like game with art that looked as if it could have bled from the pages of a book? Or was the final art design something that didn't firm itself up until some way along?
PATRICK PLOURDE: The intention was there from the very beginning. A couple of years before, I had been to see an exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Art, on Disney's sources of inspiration. That was my introduction to the art of the Golden Age of Illustration – from artists like Arthur Rackham to Gustave Doré and John Bauer. I instantly fell in love with them.
So, after finishing Far Cry 3, I sat down to think about what interested me for my next game, and I came back to that exposition and that type of universe.
We are telling a modern fairy tale story inspired by ancient, dark, complex folktales that came into being long before Disney. The art style needed to be original and evoke those sources. The inspirations from the Golden Age of Illustration were perfect to conjure up that wild space. The illustrated feel also complemented the storybook-like ballad used to tell the story.
"Poetic" and "nostalgic" were the key words I used to describe the emotion I wanted to create when playing the game. Of course, the graphical style evolved as (art director) Thomas (Rollus) joined the team, and we started to prototype things in the engine, but we remained true to the initial intent.
Was there a particular process employed to get that look, which didn't require the actual painting of assets? Or, was there art painted, properly, prior to addition to the code?
We've used a proprietary engine called UbiArt. This engine is great to streamline the data creation for the artists and level designers. It's really flexible with what you can do, so at that point it's simply to find the art direction you want, then integrate it.
The game doesn't fit the look of most Ubi projects. Just what potential does the UbiArt Framework have, going forward, after its use here and in Valiant Hearts? And given that a lot of the team came to the game off Far Cry 3, just how much of a cultural and creative shift was necessary to begin piecing the game's look together?
Culturally, the biggest change was that the artists at Ubisoft Montreal have spent so many years working on games with a realistic style – Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, Rainbow Six – that it was a drastic departure for them. Some we talked to originally couldn't make the leap. The artists had to create not only the style we were looking for, but also the way to produce it. We had about a year to produce the game, so there was not a lot of time to fool around.
In the end, I think that this process was what most of the artists we worked with were looking for. The fact that it was so different was the main reason for them to join in the first place. It's always fun to challenge yourself to move outside of your boundaries.
Do you think that aiming for photo-realism is a dangerous pursuit? We've just seen The Order: 1886 maligned for its unremarkable gameplay, but visually it's hugely impressive, like that was the absolute priority during development. That can't be healthy, can it?
Each project is different. I don't think we should think that one style is better than another. If somebody wants to pursue realism, go for it! That's the power that we wield as creators. Then it's up to the players to judge if they like what we created.
How important was the "shock" factor in the game's appeal – that a title that looked the way it did was the work of a studio better known for third-person photo realism?
Internally, it was really important. Child of Light was the game that a lot of people thought we could never make in Montreal. But by simply showing a couple of concept artworks internally, we generated a big buzz. It was a signal that this game was trying to be something else, and we gained a lot of support quickly.
After that, it really helped to put Child of Light on the map with the gaming community. Our marketing has been driven by PR, and the art style was just the best business card we could introduce ourselves with.
In the end, people love beautiful things, and that's what we wanted to create with Child of Light: something beautiful. Games can go in any direction, to convey any type of experience. A triple-A studio producing a game like Child of Light shows off the versatility of this medium we all love!