[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).