Striking the balance in the production of a video game remaster is tricky business. You can easily please as many fans as you disappoint. With modern tools and technology, gamers’ expectations bounce between revisionism and purism.
Double Fine’s high-level vision for its remasters in terms of the visuals have always leaned toward purism rather than revisionism, because the original was a design-driven process rather than a tech driven process.
“We wanna keep true to the original work of art. It’s a collaboration of a bunch of artists coming together. The acting, the writing, the sound design, the music, the animation. All these people worked together to make this thing, and we don’t wanna mess with it. We just want to present it in the best way possible, and make it more true to the original intentions. We’re getting rid of artefacts, compression, and ageing technology to make it look like it looks in our minds.” —Tim Schafer, PCMag by Andy Kelly
Thus, taking a revisionist approach simply because we have better tools and technology is undesirable, since it could alter or contradict the original vision for the video game and possibly undermine the elements that made the video game such a beloved title in the first place. Clearly that would be a mistake.
“I don’t really like the idea of making up stuff that’s not in the original ‘finished’ art. . . . My wish is to keep it as true as possible . . . but with some helpful blending and pixel wrangling.” —Peter Chan
Which isn’t to say that technology does not influence the visuals, but any compromise or advantage that technology offers is incorporated into a deliberate visual style.
“You have to understand 3D modeling was being incorporated. . . . My conundrum was to find a way to have the 3D models and backgrounds live well together. Since the 3D models were simple and chunky, I knew my backgrounds had to have the same limitations. So I chose a more monochromatic color palette. I also chose hard lighting to create spotlights and dark black shadows (first time being introduced to Mike Mignola’s art style and lighting). The hard lighting forced my designs to stay simple, only needing three values (highlight, medium, shadow). . . . I thought by doing this, the 3D models would fit seamlessly with my backgrounds.” —Peter Chan
Thus, in remastering Full Throttle, we took a curator’s approach, delving into the design decisions and thought process of the original designers to immerse ourselves in the world that they originally created. The goal is to understand Full Throttle’s world as the original designers’ envisioned it at the time, rather than how they actually expressed it in 8-bit. Acquiring this insight allows us to vet our remastering approach and any production hiccups against the original design. Fortunately we have access to physical assets archived by LucasArts, including original concepts, source files used by the original team, etc.
Even better, we have access to key members of the original development team, such as Tim Schafer, Peter Chan, and Larry Ahern.
But, as with all best-laid plans, complications inevitably arise. In this case, there were complications due to requirements of current video game platform technologies, unexpected results during the process of remastering, or a very strong desire on the part of the original designers to make a change to something that they considered fundamentally lacking. So the challenge for us was to reconcile those inevitable changes and embellishments with the original vision of the Full Throttle world.
“. . . Imagine FT style being somewhat slick, chiseled with a little sandy grit thrown in.” —Peter Chan
“We loved making Day of the Tentacle look like a classic Chuck Jones cartoon, but a lot of people thought it was too childish. We didn’t really care, ‘cause we thought it looked awesome, but it turned some people off. So with Throttle we wondered if we could do cartoony, but for adults. This is when we started using the term ‘stylised’ more often. Not photorealistic, but not for kids either.” —Tim Schafer, PCMag by Andy Kelly
The backgrounds for Full Throttle, while “slick and chiseled,” were not as hard-edged, clean, and flat as Day of the Tentacle’s. There were more texture and material details in the Full Throttle style; the “sandy grit thrown in.” They were just suggested or alluded to, however, and not intended to be high-detailed or photo-realistic, as Tim noted. The velvet wallpaper and carpet in Corley’s or the wooden slats on the Kickstand, for example.
For this reason, we decided to approach the backgrounds in a painterly, alla prima manner. This allowed for harder edges and large areas of pure colors, but with “gestural” details.
Upward of a dozen artists were involved over several months to digitally repaint nearly 200 backgrounds at high-resolution and with widened aspect ratios (the original game was in 4:3).
The approach to remastering the characters was more straightforward; the line and hard-edged-color style were clear on Full Throttle thanks to all the in game close-ups. The relatively small cast of characters also allowed us to iterate on master character sheets with the original character artist, Larry Ahern. Thus, any questions during the remaster process created by lack of detail due to the low resolution of the original or any necessary additions or embellishments were easily answered by referring to the remastered character sheets.
The major challenges of remastering the characters came in the form of logistical and technical issues. Managing continuity and consistency on a tight schedule and within a technically complex authoring pipeline necessitated by a now archaic animation engine was a source of much hand-wringing and bug fixing. Upwards of 30 artists were involved in re-drawing over 8000 unique frames of animation over many months.
The biggest visual change for Full Throttle (and perhaps the most pined over) came with the rendering of 3D assets for Full Motion Videos (FMVs). Modern toon shading could be applied to bring the vehicles and 3D “Ben-on-his-bike” closer to the style of the character art while rigging allowed animators to animate Ben to remove the arm distortion in the original when the bike turned. Most of this was barely visible in the original, but laughably obvious at 4K resolution.
Terrains were also updated, as the decision was made that the original modeled or hand-animated originals, whilst faithfully remastered, did not hold up in terms of consistency and fidelity at 4K.
The 3D remastering pushed the limits of our prime directive, but vetting them against the original vision of Full Throttle with Double Fine kept it true in its design.
There are approximately 445 individual FMV “cuts” that constituted approximately 134 full FMVs.
Curating and remastering the original art assets from Full Throttle was a significantly large undertaking from a production standpoint; kudos to Double Fine for dedicating so much awesome talent and resources to bringing this classic to 21st century audiences. As a curator of sorts, “walking a mile” in Tim, Peter, and Larry’s shoes was fascinating and informative. I’ve often considered a video game to be as much a record of a team’s experiences as it is a piece of entertainment. Where a video game shines or falls short generally reflects the production or design successes and hardships, in my experience. While not apparent to most consumers, as a developer, I find they can be quite a learning experience. To paint over Peter’s original backgrounds, for example, is to (quite literally) retrace his decision-making process as an artist. Sometimes it uncovers funny details that you might not notice while playing through the game or reveals some design technique that you may not have considered in your own work. On a macro level, deconstructing the original FMVs and rebuilding that pipeline, even with modern tools, were extremely challenging (see Trevor Diem’s blog post); we walked away with a great appreciation for the original team. “How did they manage to get this done back in 1995?!” was a phrase I found myself repeating during late-night debugging sessions; totally flabbergasted.