Game Design: Building a Creepy & Wonky Art Style

Giselle Valenzuela guided us through The Untold Story of Bernadette, a game she created at Ringling College of Art and Design with a distinctive Laika Entertainment-like style.


Hello! My name is Giselle Valenzuela and I am a recent Ringling College of Art and Design graduate with a Bachelor of Fine Art in Game Art. Currently, I have recently moved to Foster City, California, to begin my journey in the gaming industry as an Associate Lighting Artist at Sledgehammer Games!

I was born in Miami, Florida, and have lived there my whole life before moving to Sarasota, Florida, for college. I was always very fond of the entertainment industry as my first dream in life was to become a famous actress or Broadway star. Unfortunately, that dream was buried when I was rejected by my dream high school and was completely crushed. If it were not for this, however, I would have never gone to Robert Morgan Educational Center where I found my love and passion for the arts. Growing up, I would go to my abuelita’s house where my two uncles, tio Ceasar and tio Jaime, would always have a new video game for me to play. I am grateful for them every day for nurturing my love for video games and the industry that creates them. I was thriving in my Fine Arts, where my teacher Mrs. Sharpe introduced me to Ringling College and continuously supported me to follow my dreams and attend art school. 

Studying at Ringling

I applied to Ringling College for Game Art with a fully traditional portfolio consisting of graphite, colored pencils, acrylic and oil paint art pieces. I was ecstatic when I was accepted and with the amazing support from my mother and father I was able to attend. There was a moment of doubt if I would be able to make it to the major because of my lack of knowledge with 3D art, but I decided to take on the challenge. Not only did I learn to be proficient in various programs such as Unreal Engine 4MayaZBrushSubstance Designer, etc. but I was also able to grow as an artist and discover my art style. As a student, you soon realize you learn just as much, if not more, from your peers as you do from your professors, which is something that is very celebrated at Ringling because the school is very focused on team building and community. The Game Art program has allowed me to dabble in various fields when it comes to game development such as concepting, 3D modeling, 3D sculpting, texturing, material creation, world-building, and lighting. I dedicate my success to the fantastic team of the Game Art professors and the never-ending support from the Game Art and Design, family of 2019. 

How It All Started

I consider Bernadette to be a passion project that allowed me not only to discover but also solidify who I am as an artist. I have always been a fan of media that has a creepy twist and darker meaning to its stories. During my second semester of junior year at Ringling, we were going through the pre-production phase for our senior thesis and my goal was to create something that further expressed my art style. My professor, Morgan Woolverton, would always inspire me to push my concepts and to not hold back my creativity. With his constant support and drive towards new ideas, The Caretaker was born. 

The creation of this character is what shattered the box of my imagination and let it run wild to concept out my senior thesis. The Caretaker was the starting point of my project and she needed a parallel – another character that resembles her only in motifs but not in personality and spirit. The little orphan girl with a plunger for a leg was that character, and her name is Bernadette. With these two characters, it was time to decide on what environment they belonged in. What is their world? What does it look like? 

Art Direction and Style Guide

I wanted to create a 3D side-scroller adventure that was reminiscent of Tarsier Studios’ Little Nightmares but had the artistic style of Laika’s stop motion films such as The BoxTrolls, ParaNorman, and Coraline.

These are the four pillars I would say best describe the feeling and artistic direction I was aiming for in my thesis. My mentor for the project, Danny Samuels, worked for Laika during the time The BoxTrollswas being made, and he shared some insight into important rules to follow in order to create a successfully creepy and wonky art style.

I wanted there to be an obvious progression in my world when it came to wonkiness, crazy shapes, and mood. However, all of the models have slight imperfections that help destroy the parallel lines. In addition to this ruleset, the usage of eyeballs and triangles was imperative to the creation of the world as they represent The Caretaker and the oppressive feeling of the environment.  

Figuring out the style guide was a challenge but helped solidify the project to make it feel more consistent and focused. Visual development was also an important part of figuring out the kind of art I wanted to bring to life. Below is an early isometric drawing of “The Hallways” to get a sense of how the eyeball camera, known as “The Iris”, would interact with the spiraling staircase. 

Most of my artwork at the beginning of concepting Bernadette’s world was super refined and had more attention to detail. I soon realized that this refined work did not show off the immense personality that my world had to offer. I began to let myself be more loose with my drawings, as it allowed me to focus more on creating intriguing shape language and weird concepts. I was very inspired by the concept art seen in Paranorman and The Boxtrolls because they didn’t focus too much on micro-details and focused more on the props’ silhouettes. 

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By letting myself be more loose with my concepts, I was able to crank out quick mood pieces and level designs for the environments. These new drawings assisted me with the early blockout process of the project. While designing, I would always try to find a way to implement a triangle or eyeball shape to keep the motifs running wherever you are in the world.

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Modeling Assets

One of the biggest challenges I faced during the project was transitioning the personality in my visual development to the 3D world. The 3D modeling work was possibly one of the most important aspects in creating my environments in order to get that whimsical feeling as players go through the game. For this reason, I spent an immense amount of time modeling and remodeling various props until I finally created one that satisfied my ruleset, while also being appealing.  

I first modeled the drawer realistically with the use of real-world reference. I still gave it a more fun shape and the addition of the eyeball motif to stay true to the art style. Then with the use of Maya’s deformer tools, I tapered and twisted the shapes around until I was satisfied. A good thing to note is that the more edge loops you have the easier it’ll be to shape objects when using the deformer tools. However, it is important to be selective of where you place the edge loops in order to not have an unnecessary high-poly mesh. After this step, I switched the object’s display mode to unlit to check how the silhouette of the prop looked from all sides. I finished it off by switching to the lattice tool, which allowed me to manipulate the prop from all angles to continue pushing the silhouette. 

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Above are a few more examples of models found in “The Haven” which is at the beginning of the game. The models progress in wonkiness and personality the further players go into the world. For this reason, the models found at the beginning of the game are much tamer. 

The World of Bernadette

The story of Bernadette takes place in an alternative post-disease future, where the adults of the world have lost their sanity and began turning into monsters. The children of this world are the only ones that remain sane for there is nothing purer than a child. The cause of the disease remains a mystery, but it was an attempt to pass judgment on Earth and to purify it of its sins. 

This brings us to a foster home run by The Mother Nun who looks after ten young orphans. As the disease spread, The Mother Nun slowly began going mad and threw the orphans to the attic and began boarding up the home until she lost full control of her sanity. The Mother began constructing a fortress filled with her all-seeing eyes to watch over her precious children and to keep them from escaping the home. The Mother soon became known as “The Caretaker” and began putting her orphan children to work in “The Playroom” where they were forced into labor and tortured. 

Young Bernadette, who has been in the orphanage her whole life, lost her leg in “The Playroom” and was deemed useless to The Caretaker. She was thrown and locked away in “The Haven”, essentially left to die. Bernadette acted quickly however as she cleaned up her wound and constructed a makeshift leg for herself with a plunger. This is her chance to finally escape the home and find her real parents. Although the journey is noble, Bernadette remains blissfully unaware of the apocalyptic world that lies outside the foster home. The outside world is the least of her worries when she first has to make it past The Caretaker’s all-seeing eyes known as The Iris. 

Throughout the game, Bernadette goes through three completely different environments which are known as The Haven, The Hallways and The Playroom. This was meant to be a progression from the top floor in the home to the bottom floor where The Caretaker resides.

The Haven

The Haven is actually the attic where the foster children were placed by The Caretaker. I called it “The Haven” for it is the only place the children feel safe in the home. Below are a few progress shots from the blockout to the polish phase of this room.

My goal for this environment was to create a space that felt like a child’s living quarters but with a strong sense of oppression. Due to the apocalyptic event that occurred in this alternative future, the technology feels like it was pushed back a couple of decades. Players will notice an odd mixture of items, for example, old wooden toys mixed in with light bulbs. Most of the objects in this room are scaled according to the main character, but a lot of sizes are exaggerated for various reasons. Things like the grand height of the ceiling are meant to feel intimidating for a child as small as Bernadette. The chicken coop like feeling that the wooden arches and planks radiate help portray that the character is trapped and imprisoned. The attic is barren but populated just enough to make it feel somewhat like a home for the children. These are all things that I thought about when bringing this environment to life.

Staying true to my style guide, there are obvious motifs seen in the models themselves and in the shape of the entire attic. I also like to include more subtle motifs that are not super easy to catch at first. 

My favorite use of motifs is found in my wallpaper material. I first designed the mask above in Photoshop to get intricate details revolving around eyeballs, The Caretaker and storybooks. I made sure it tiled nicely in Photoshop and then threw it in Substance Designer to create a modular wallpaper material I would be able to use throughout the environments. 

Staying true to my style guide, there are obvious motifs seen in the models themselves and in the shape of the entire attic. I also like to include more subtle motifs that are not super easy to catch at first. My favorite use of motifs is found in my wallpaper material. I first designed the mask above in Photoshop to get intricate details revolving around eyeballs, The Caretaker and storybooks. I made sure it tiled nicely in Photoshop and then threw it in Substance Designer to create a modular wallpaper material I would be able to use throughout the environments. 

The Hallways 

After Bernadette makes it through “The Secret Passage”, she finds herself in The Hallways where The Iris resides. The Iris is the source of The Caretaker’s all-seeing eyes that “look after” her children.

The scale in this room is purposely nonsensical to Bernadette’s size as the stairs were made for The Caretaker to go through. The main focus in this room was on the exaggeration in shape language to represent madness and discord. The eyeball motif overpowers the scene as all eyes are on Bernadette when she escapes through from the home. 

Above is the eyeball texture I made in Substance Designer before taking it into Unreal and adding the final touches such as refraction and emissives. I wanted to have a creepy yet fun stylized eyeball that acts as spotlights for The Iris, essentially a huge camera made out of makeshift pipes and eyeballs. The appearance of The Iris is foreshadowed through all the motifs that are found before stumbling upon this room. Besides the unsettling models, I wanted the walls to be filled with mirrors and portraits of unknown creatures in crazy shaped picture frames.

I had the pleasure of collaborating with a fellow Ringling student and great friend Aaron Persh on portraits that are seen as Bernadette goes down the staircase.

Through the use of mise-en-scene concepts, Bernadette goes down a spiraling staircase to foreshadow upcoming danger and chaos. She is met with the source of The Iris which is then followed by the entrance of The Playroom. The models are starting to become more abstract and the player path is being engulfed by piles of coal coming from the furnace. 

The Playroom

The Playroom is just a twisted name for The Caretaker’s lair and also where the child labor takes place. I wanted this environment to be unsettlingly abstract and focus on leading lines. There are not many assets in this screenshot, but there is just enough to tell a story. Bernadette comes across this scene and watches her fellow orphans as they are as trapped in the belly of the beast just like her. The player path has become a sea of coal from the children’s labor and the fumes from the furnace have tainted the atmosphere.   

Lighting and Composition

The lighting plays a huge role in selling the mood and tone in all of my environments. I was very inspired by Playdead’s hit games Limbo and Inside because of their phenomenal sense of atmosphere. I admire the compelling compositions and their use of lighting to guide players through the game. I settled as early as blockout on the mood I wanted to portray throughout the game which assisted in building the environment around it. Hulu’s award-winning TV series The Handmaid’s Tale exaggerated their lighting in scenes to create compelling imagery, which became my main goal when developing the mood in each room. 

My goal for The Haven was to showcase a hopeful environment as the setting sun shines gloriously through the window openings in the attic. The light and god rays land directly on Bernadette to signify the beginning of her journey. The composition was built around Bernadette being in the center of the triangle light shape with her long shadow behind her. Adding the slight vignette around the corners help entrap Bernadette and make the scene more claustrophobic. Although The Haven is supposed to be a safe place for the children, it still contains a solemn tone overall with its slight signs of oppression. The warm color is highly exaggerated which made it easy for me to add pops of contrasting colors to help the viewer’s eyes move around the scene. Usually, I saw players move their eyes to the red lid of the toybox which then leads to Bernadette’s bed and the complimentary green wallpaper. Adjusting Unreal’s volumetric fog both in the directional fog and post-process, I was able to achieve a soft feeling scene similar to the ones found in Little Nightmares.

While Bernadette makes it through the secret passage, night time has fallen and the moon has aligned perfectly with The Hallways’ ceiling window. The moonlight casts a cinematic light revealing The Iris as it pours down to the bottom of the spiral staircase. I wanted players to feel the chaos and madness in this room while also taking note of the clever use of different mise-en-scene characteristics. The iris shape and barlike window frames purposely cast dark shadows over Bernadette as she goes down the stairs, this represents that she is entrapped and being watched. The shadow shapes coming from the eyeball camera and railings cast wonky bar-like shadows over Bernadette, as well as another sign of entrapment. The composition glorifies The Iris while guiding the viewer’s eyes around the scene. Bernadette is silhouetted by the window behind her, which then leads the eyes down the stairs and then up again to The Iris and The Caretaker on the opposite side of the screenshot. Overall, the scene is a light blue, which is why I made the decision to add a bright orange coming from the furnace below, this gives the viewers a point of interest that foreshadows the dangers below the scene.

Inside was what inspired the look of The Playroom because of its’ amazing use of simple shapes and compositions to make compelling imagery. My goal was to create a frame around the distant scene of children walking on the bridge with The Iris watching them. The frame itself resembles the shape of an eye to continue pushing those motifs until the end. The use of leading lines helped give life to the scene and focus viewers’ eyes towards the center. The furnace, along with all the burning coal, causes a very odd and ominous color palette that taints the atmosphere. The choices in color were also meant to give an unsettling yet solemn feeling when Bernadette comes across this scene as she trudges through the coal.  

Bernadette and The Caretaker

My goal for Bernadette and The Caretaker was to resemble each other specifically in their rags and ways they showcase oppression. Although The Caretaker is seen as a monster in the game, she is actually just as trapped as her foster children are. 

I always imagined Bernadette to be a fairly simple character. Making a simple character is not challenging, but the challenging part is making that character look appealing. The Laika characters above are all very appealing main characters that fit within their world. What makes them appealing? Each character is not overly designed and is made up of a few elements that make it unique. For example, Coraline is a tall lanky girl with a big yellow coat and blue hair. Not much to her, but more than enough to create an interesting and appealing character. Adding random clothing articles or any extra nonsense can ruin the appeal of a character very easily if not done correctly. 

After many concepts being thrown out the window, I finally came up with a design for Bernadette. Overall, Bernadette has a creepy feeling radiating off of her, especially because you can not see her eyes under her hair. Her cloak and underdress are meant to mimic The Caretaker’s triangle shape and push that prisoner feeling. She will surprise you with her cute braids as this is her attempt to feel like a normal girl. You’ll notice that she is bandaged up around her mouth to signify that she is silenced and has no freedom of speech. Her colors are simple and accented with pops of red on her most interesting features. Bernadette carries a red ear tag to push that to The Caretaker she is just a product to be used. Her red bows express her will to live like a normal little girl. Finally, her plunger for a leg, which is the most unique feature, signifies that she has been tortured, but also signifies her will to keep moving forward. 

After designing the character, it was time to go through the pipeline of blockout, modeling, materials, and textures. To make sure Bernadette fit into the environment, it was important for her to follow the already established style guide from the world’s props. 

Early modeling progress of Bernadette / Further modeling progress:

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Final model with materials and textures:

An important thing to know about The Caretaker is that she was not always a monster. There was a point in time when she was a loving nun who looked after the orphaned children. Her costume resembles that of a nun in a much more creepy way but also covers everything underneath her that is not human anymore. The Caretaker is chained all around her neck and is held down by a chandelier carrying melting candles. This is a manifestation of her entrapment and the burden of her actions weighing down on her humanity. If one were to simplify the character’s shape they would notice that she is literally a triangle, which is why the triangle motif seen throughout the world is so prominent. 

The Caretaker is a way more complex character than Bernadette when it comes to design. This was done on purpose to create a visual contrast between good and evil. Bernadette, although a creepy child, represents the innocence of the world whereas The Caretaker represents the sins of the world. Going back to what I mentioned earlier in the article, The Caretaker needed a parallel, an opposite, someone that embodies everything she is not. Which is why Bernadette is her perfect match. 

Final high-poly of The Caretaker / Final render in engine with materials and textures:

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Below is a quick cinematic with The Caretaker in motion:

Original Score

No product is complete without a great soundtrack backing it up! Bernadette was blessed by the musical talents of Michael Lauretti and Maya Sternberg as they created an original soundtrack for the project. You can check it out in the video below:

Challenges and Tips

This solo project was a great challenge when it came to production time mainly because it was a big world I decided to tackle. Although the project made it to the end, there was still so much more I wished to polish and create. Due to the specific style guide in my world, I spent an immense amount of time in the modeling phase and ran out of time to make a lot more detail-oriented materials and textures. 

The best advice I can give is to always plan out your project and try to maintain within your scope in order to not accidentally burn yourself out! Think about when you can be modular with different parts in the production and use them to your advantage when you can. This will allow you to have more time for other things you would like to focus on!

Thank you all for reading about the world of Bernadette and a big shoutout to all the amazing people in my life for the support! Below is the final trailer for my thesis for you all!  

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Comments 1

  • J. Fairchild

    I am very impressed! It is easy to see you are on your way to a well-deserved wonderful future.


    J. Fairchild

    ·4 years ago·

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