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The Art Of Braid: Creating A Visual Identity For An Unusual Game
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The Art Of Braid: Creating A Visual Identity For An Unusual Game

August 5, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

[In this fascinating deconstruction, artist David Hellman explains his collaboration with Jonathan Blow to create the evocative, painterly art for acclaimed downloadable game Braid, which debuts tomorrow on Xbox Live Arcade.]

Braid had already appeared at two GDCs before I ever got involved. Jonathan Blow, its creator, showed Braid's time manipulation puzzle-platformer gameplay at a couple Experimental Gameplay Workshops, and an Independent Games Festival, where it won an award for game design. Minus some polish, it was nearly a finished game: playable, coherent and individualistic.

Visually, though, it was primitive. Its blocks, spikes and ladders were utilitarian, communicating merely the elements of platformer-ness. It could have remained a visually simple game, but it already contained hints that it wanted to be more, to express itself across the full multi-media palette available to video games.

The fragments of fictional prose introducing each level indicated Braid's ambition. They mused on the nature of relationships, regret, and temporal paradoxes. World 2 introduces a limitless rewind mechanic -- you can reverse any mistake, erasing the concept of "failure" -- framed by a wistful reflection on perfect forgiveness between lovers.

It sounds grandiose in summary, but it's not. The connection is never forced. These things simply co-exist, and they mingled in my mind as I enjoyed a lively, at times slapstick, eminently playable platformer with acknowledged debts to Super Mario Bros.

Hired as visual artist in the summer of 2006, my challenge was not only to clearly present Braid's mechanics and behaviors, but to help tell a story that was anything but literal: part anecdote, part artifice, part philosophy. This article explains the process of developing visuals for a nearly-complete game with a highly idiosyncratic identity, the challenges encountered, and some of the nuts-and-bolts of our methods and tools.

No Shame in Tracing

To start, Jonathan sent me a screenshot and asked me to draw over it.

Here it is, in its programmer art glory. Though visually crude, the game was actually pretty advanced, from a functional perspective. Keys, switches, ladders, spikes, monsters, and a guy in a suit - it was all there. For dessert I'll show you how little (or much!) this screen changed in the final game.

Here's my first try. I deliberately got away from the materials and palette in the screenshot. This looks kind of like some areas in Yoshi's Island, on SNES. The background was meant to radiate gently. In an e-mail I described the atmosphere as "ethereal"!

Again, something really different. Strangely, the background is full of dancing figures. Jonathan had used the phrase "thought-conjecture-worlds" to describe Braid's setting, so I was trying to be non-literal about space.

Why not compliment the foreground with something topically different but thematically related? (How are dancing people related at all? Not telling.) We didn't use this idea, but we did support the story in multiple not-literally-relating ways. More on that later.

Ancient ruins (TM).

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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Haig James Toutikian
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Great great article! I really liked how it shows the progress of the art direction from the beginning to end with comments under the images :D I hope to see more articles like this one

Jeff McArthur
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Wow great article, thanks for describing (and visually showing) us the iterative process of creating this game. Love the art style, I'm definitely going to have to buy a copy of this game, even if my main point to do so is just enjoying the great art!

robert toone
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Excellent article. I really enjoyed experiencing the experimental development of the art style, for such an art style game. The game looks great and goes along with it's play style.

I look forward to such articles in the future.

Tom Newman
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Great article! Looking forward to any future articles laid out like this!

Gopalakrishna Palem
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Good Article, great principles.

Ensuring aesthetics do not dominate the player's perception of the world, highlights the game design philosophy.

Would love to play this one.

Rikard Peterson
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This article was a bit different than most. Love it!

Jeff Zugale
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This is good stuff, both the artwork and the complex thought process and care behind it. I'll be buying and playing this game to see the rest of it. Thanks for sharing!

Anders Hojsted
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It's interesting how he can tell about these things because he isn't bound by an NDA. There's too little knowledge-sharing like this in the games industry because of all the secrecy.


Christopher Waite
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That was a really insightful article. Actually, it's convinced me to purchase the full game. The effort and passion that has gone into the various iterations of the design, really makes you feel that you are playing something special.

Arthur Times
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This may seem like a dumb question but I'll ask it anyway.

What language did you program the game in. I know XNA Creators Club really focuses on C#, but does XBLA allow C++?


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Being a student of game animation and creation, I absolutely loved this article. Look forward to more like this. It was aa great teaching tool. I am going to put it on our forum in class. Thanks.

Jason Bakker
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Any aspiring game developers want to hazard a guess as to why, on the collision screenshot, there are two different tiles used? (The brick one, and the grey one.)

Aaron Murray
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Thanks for posting this article. As a dev, I love reading about how others attack the issues we face. At the same time, it is helpful for outsiders to see how much work goes into the finished product, and how beneficial constant iteration is...

Jason Bakker
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I guess not ;) If anyone is wondering, it's because in game engines you often flag wall and floor as different collision types, so that the engine knows to collide with each differently (walls tend to be a lot more "slippery" than floors).

If there were screenshots of, for instance, one of the spike floors in the game, that would probably be a different collision type again (so that the engine knows that when you collide with it, you're supposed to die).

The more you know!

Dax Hawkins
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Regarding Arther Times post above:

XBLA to some extent is language agnostic. Most of the games up there are C/C++ but there is one game in C# (Schizoid).

Xbox Live Community games, on the other hand, must be built with XNA Game Studio and written in C#.