[How can visual art create meaning in games, and what techniques will serve best? UK Blitz subsidiary Volatile Games' art team -- the people behind Dead to Rights: Retribution's neo-noir Grant City -- attempts to answer these questions.]
A great game experience is all about emotion, communicated to the player via the characters and the environment. To achieve this, the player must be completely immersed in that environment, in the game world. In this article we discuss some of the artistic techniques that we used in Dead to Rights: Retribution (published by Namco Bandai Games) to hopefully achieve that immersion and the emotions that we wanted the player to experience.
We wanted the art direction of the game [YouTube trailer] to be very much a stylish dystopia, based broadly on film noir and neo noir. This took in concepts such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis as well as German Expressionism (heavily influential in the visual development of original film noir), and architectural styles from Beaux Arts, Neo-Gothic and Structural Expressionism.
Throughout the visual development of Grant City it was, in essence, its back story that gave it direction and form.
Once a great and successful city built on the back of heavy industry, it is now on its social and economic knees; to reflect this we see the city in its rusting, oxidised iron palette and the crumbling, defaced surfaces of Art Deco architecture (itself a design style that exuded opulence).
This theme of a dead, or at least dying, city infested by corruption resurfaced in a number of ways. The concept for the Temple Tower was the modern glass tower thrusting up out of the older, hollowed-out, Deco building like some hideous parasite; there are still the remnants of elegant Deco references all over the first floor.
The GAC in the stadium picks up on the necrotic theme, where the stadium appears like the ribcage of a dead carcass, and it recurs again in the old hospital on Danvers Island, a "dead" building inhabited by the parasitic GAC.
Metropolis suggested the exaggerated scale, as well as visually explores the juxtaposition of the haves and the have-nots, a theme to which Dead to Rights: Retribution returns to through the game. From artists such as Edvard Munch, as well as films like Nosferatu, we took the bold use of shadow and strong contrasts between light and dark, which we found again in the work of relatively more recent painters such as Edward Hopper.
The texture theme is strong throughout; worn with neglect, architecture which was once proud but is now fallen, with earthy, rusty, industrial colors desaturated as though from weariness.
A lot of time was spent researching the buildings and structures that would make up Grant City. We pored over a large number of iconic buildings and structures found in major US cities and shortlisted the most appropriate examples. From other reference materials we took particular styles of architecture; once we felt we had gained a greater understanding of what it was that appealed to us about those particular styles, we applied that to create the foundations for a "Grant City architectural style", out of which grew the city's great buildings.
The architectural styles mentioned above provided the base upon which we then built and exaggerated the rarer principles of Iron Gothic and Dark Deco; this gave a feel of cinematic reality and provided a unique visual, one that has a basis in reality -- but with a twist. For example, the structure in the docks area was drawn originally from a well-known existing bridge in New York; by adding more struts and stanchions we created more negative space, making it more open than its actual, very dense, silhouette.
Altering the form in this broadly suggests and calls on players' knowledge or memories of cities like New York or Chicago, drawing upon their known industrial heritage without tying the game to those specific cities. That heritage was again underscored by the warehouses' rusting iron corners and footings.
We wanted the player to know instinctively, wherever they were in the game, that they were in Grant City, and that it was a metaphor -- in the same way that in a Batman comic every panel is instantly recognizable as Gotham City. That was the strength of identity at which we were aiming.
Having a film noir/neo noir-inspired script style gave us a definite starting point with regards to the lighting and atmosphere of the concept work. The whole atmosphere of the city, from the weather to the lighting (or in our case the light and shadow), was at the forefront of our mind when tackling the various locations and scenes. Low-key chiaroscuro with stark, dramatic lighting effects, mixed with torrential rain, freezing fog, or drifting snow overlaid on an architecturally rich city was exactly where we wanted to be.
So with all this in mind we began to consider the techniques we could use to achieve the very strong look, feel and experience that we wanted. In one respect at least, games are like TV, film and paintings: they are framed experiences. In film it is comparatively easy for the director to achieve the tone they want, to call forth a particular emotional response, using a combination of lighting, color, audio, camera angles and so on in addition to the acting of the characters.
It is obviously harder to do this in a game (other than in cutscenes) because the player is in this respect the director; they have the choice and the control over how to move through this environment. The trick then becomes how you maintain the player's freedom to explore the world while still creating -- framing -- the experience you want them to have.
To do this, the game artists drew on techniques used by traditional artists for hundreds of years: compositional theory and tools like the Fibonacci sequence, positive and negative space, the balance of light and dark, vertical and horizontal intersections and colour were all used to express mood, direct the player's attention and support the story and the characters.