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Creating Realistic Environments for a Horror Game

Aris Dragonis explained how to use traditional workflow (Zbrush + Photoshop) to create striking realistic scenes.

Aris Dragonis shared the process of creating an environment for his survival horror game The Shore. No photogrammetry here! Just Zbrush and Photoshop.


My name is Aris Dragonis, I am 28 years old and I come from Larisa, Greece.

My journey into 3D started when I was 15. I was lost in video games and played World of Warcraft at that time. One day I said to myself: I can draw and paint, I have these skills and I want to do something in my life based on that. While playing, I thought about the way those characters in the game were made, did a little research and was amazed by what I’ve found. The whole process was complicated but it was something that I could focus on.

So, when I reached 18 years old I went to Thessaloniki to study 3D animation for 2 years – that’s where everything truly began. I felt that 3D animation was just the very base as I had been aiming way higher. At home, I was also learning ZBrush, studying anatomy, sculpting and anything else I could find. Every day I was spending 8 hours on that, raging and getting pissed off because of how hard it was in the beginning. I never felt like quitting though, because I thought if I didn’t succeed there, I would succeed nowhere else. After 5 months of studying, I could already create some monsters and other stuff I was pleased with as a start. And everything I learned came from YouTube tutorials.


First, I started working on small freelance projects via polycount forums. I never took big projects until I considered myself ready for such tasks. Later on, I joined the BlizzCon 2015 contest Heroes of the Store and worked along with Chris Kellett, a filmmaker. I made the Diablo model for the film. Eventually, the project won first place, and I got a few job offers after that. I declined, however, because working for others was not something I had in mind. I wanted to devote myself to something bigger, my own dream, so I stuck with freelance projects for the sake of income.  As I always wanted to make a horror game, I began working on it with two friends, but they gave up 4 steps before the end. For me, that was a sign that if you want to do something right you must do it yourself.

Moving from characters to environment art was like changing chairs for me: you sit pretty much in the same position, only the chair underneath changes. It wasn’t that difficult, but I sometimes feel that I was born with an ability to handle any form of art, anything creative based on imagination.

The Japanese philosopher Musashi said that only a few people appreciate the art of war. A good warrior is not defined by the cause he defends but rather by the meaning drawn from the struggles. You see, if it were not for the friends and their decision to leave the previous project, I might have never chosen to work on The Shore.

The Shore

The Shore is a mystery survival horror game. I came up with the idea of it recently and cannot reveal the source of inspiration yet, but I will do it in the future. In short and without spoilering: a struggler will have to find what is lost. During the search in the wrecks of lost hopes, he’ll have to fight anything that will appear in front of him and find ways to survive.

Crafting Environments

In the game, everything has to fit together. I imagine the way an environment works as a chain: if one piece is broken, the chain will break, too, no matter how shiny it is. The environment must give the player a feeling of his/her favorite song where everything is harmonious: the sky must blend correctly with the sea, the sea must blend with the shore, the shore – with the rocks, the rocks – with the sand, etc.

When crafting the island, I took references from Hawaii and mixed them with my imagination, scenes from some movies, and other ideas from here and to form everything into one unique piece.

Almost everything is made only with ZBrush and Photoshop. For the natural assets, I take some pictures on the internet, change the textures in Photoshop and use them as paint brushes in ZBrush. In the environments, I try to use as many assets as I can to blend everything together, from little stones to mist clouds. What would happen when you place hot rocks into a cold environment? They will create some mist. I placed planes of animated mist clouds in-between the rocks and in the forest, and they gave a nice blending effect (I haven’t published WIP yet).

As for architecture, it is placed by hand rock by rock, boulder by boulder. Everything is assembled carefully to create a story at every step and turn of the environment. You might not know this story yet, but it’s there when you see it like rocks falling off the boulders because of the sea salt. Every element of the game has its own story to tell, and I believe that’s the key to making amazing environments.

Black Sand Material

The black sand material was the first thing I made for the game, and I worked for many hours on it. It’s made of real photos of black sand from the internet combined together in Photoshop. It’s worth mentioning that I didn’t want to make the sand 100% black and give it some color that would help it fit with the sky and the sea.


There are only 3 static lights in my scene, a custom HDRI for the dynamic skylight, and atmospheric fog. The temperature option was left untweaked.

The key is in the colors. Take the clouds as an example: the clouds below are made darker, the clouds in the middle are left a bit lighter and more colorful, and the top clouds are the lightest with faded colors. If everything is blended correctly, you might not even need the lighting.

Aris Dragonis, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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