An Environment Artist who worked on a narrative-driven game Tell Me Why Florian Potier told us about the production process behind making locations for the game, shared the workflow, and talked about being a part of a game developing team.
Hi everyone, I'm Florian Potier, 3D Environment Artist currently working at Appeal Studio on some unannounced games.
Last year, I had the chance to collaborate with Dontnod, on the game Tell Me Why, a narrative game, which takes place in Alaska and follows the story of two twins, Tyler and Alyson, who will try to solve the mysteries of their past. Having loved the Life is Strange series (and more generally all narrative games), it was a real chance for me to work with them on this kind of project.
Joining the Team
After 2 years of self-taught game art training almost every night, I decided to try my luck by applying at Dontnod. Efforts paid off, since I got an Art test that went well, and finally an interview on their premises. After that, I got a favorable answer, and I could collaborate with them on the Tell Me Why project. My first task was to make props. In retrospect, it was a good way to familiarize myself with the world of a video game studio, the workflow, the way it works, etc... All this was new to me.
It was also a way to prove to myself that I can work on big things. After a few months of doing props, I was given a small level (Alyson's room) and then a larger one (Snowy Viewpoint).
On each level, we worked in pairs: there was the "main" Environment Artist and the "backup" Environment Artist. I was also able to help other Environment Artists on their own levels (especially the General Store and the Graveyard).
Understanding the Environments
The Concept Artist team for this production was great. We had all the concepts we needed. My first step was to analyze these concepts as much as possible, to understand the space, the volumes, to see what would be difficult to transcribe in 3D, etc... And to discuss it if necessary, with the Concept Artist in charge of the scene.
Part of the team had also made a trip to Alaska a few months before, in order to bring back as many photos as possible. These photos were an important resource, as they allowed us to get an authentic idea of the environments we had to produce. Everything was photographed: streets, houses, stores, but also more specific things, like floors, or walls, in order to obtain relevant textures. Finally, Google Street View was also a great resource to gather new references from.
The workflow was pretty standard. I was modeling in 3ds Max, baking and texturing in Substance Painter. As usual, the first step was blocking, then the first iteration, and finally, the polish. A stylization had been defined for Tell Me Why and some tools for Painter/Designer were set up by the team, in order to stylize each texture homogeneously.
Alyson's room is the player's first contact with the game. It is also a small scene, where every detail can be seen by the player. So we had to be particularly careful to make sure that everything worked properly, and was as visually appealing as possible. The room’s architecture was not the main difficulty. The modeling is very simple, and I didn’t need to do anything modularly.
Beyond the modeling, this room was mostly an exercise in Level Art: to place correctly a large number of props, in a restricted environment, while remaining in phase with the character (Alyson), her character, her personality traits, her activities, etc... The way the books or craft shelves are arranged can give strong clues about the character. So we had to be careful about the message we wanted to convey through this Level Art.
Arnaud Barbier, our Lead Environment, was able to guide me to achieve the result you see. Anyway, the final result is above all great teamwork. Geoffrey Soudant made a great concept, and Michael Bellamy lit the scene with great accuracy.
I think there are two types of details: those that directly bring something to the game's lore, or its characters, and that are interactive most of the time. Tell Me Why is full of them, and each picture, each object is often an opportunity to learn more about the game universe. For those, we often had placeholders, which told us which objects were going to be interactive, and where they were placed.
Also, there are secondary details, those that can give rise to small storytelling, without any real importance on the game as a whole, but which allow bringing a little credibility to the game and to the environment.
In my opinion, the combination of the two makes for a compelling package for the player.
Designing Outdoor Environments
The exteriors are, for me, more complicated to realize than the interiors. The organic look is something that is difficult to achieve, even with references. The assets to make a forest or a river are also longer and more complex to produce. Some assets have a Megascans base, to save some time, and start on a solid base.
To begin with, I had the awesome concepts of Jeremie Verbecq
And the process was really similar to the interior creation: blocking, iterations, and polish.
Another thing that required a lot of adjustment was the consistency of the locations. For example, there is a glacier in the game, which is visible in several places. So the vista of the twins' house had to be consistent with the vista of the Snowy Viewpoint.
This consistency is important for the player to stay immersed in the game.
Sylvain Bellanger was my teammate on this level, and he helped me a lot. Thanks to him.
When I started producing, I had almost everything to learn about game art, at least in real production. The biggest challenge was to learn a lot of things in a short period of time and to apply the next day what I had learned the day before. To have succeeded in doing so is in itself a small pride.
Fortunately, I was able to count on a benevolent team, which showed infinite patience, to answer my many questions. I would like to take this opportunity to personally thank Arnaud Barbier, Sylvain Bellanger, Célia Déjou, Sahra Mekhaemar, Eric Secordel, Lucie Allaire, Lilian Helsy, Nicolas Hiernaux, and Pascal Duriaux, who all helped me a lot. More generally, I would like to thank the entire Tell Me Why production team, and Dontnod for having trusted me.
And finally, thanks to the 80 Level website for this article.