Environment Art Director at Techland Katarzyna Tarnacka has told us about the process of designing levels in Dying Light 2 Stay Human, spoke about the game's art direction, and discussed the ways of guiding the player.
80.lv: When you think about Dying Light in general and you think about art direction, what are the first things that jump to mind, what did you have in mind when figuring out the style?
Katarzyna Tarnacka, Environment Art Director at Techland: For me, we have different parts but we built every piece of the game on, they relate to art direction but also game design, but for me, personally, the most important part is dying light, the death of the light, the moment when the day changes into night, and I always thought about dying light and the world of Dying Light through that perspective, there’s this duality of this world, there’s this the day that belongs to humans, the night that belongs to infected, but then we pushed we forward and tried to find this division of the world in different areas, so that’s where we got the division of streets and rooftops, in Dying Light 2 the streets belong to the infected, people rarely roam there, only the strongest and toughest people go there, they don’t build there, it’s not a safe habitat where you can live normally.
Their current level zero, the ground level, is the rooftops, and this is where the humans live, this is where they build their structures, this is where they farm food, but this is also where the vegetation moved. And we decided to move the vegetation to the rooftops because we wanted to emphasize this difference between life and death, light and darkness even further, and we decided to go with the story that there was chemical was dropped at some point and it poisoned the groundwater, so the vegetation on the ground level is very scarce, rarely you see alive plants on the ground level but they do flourish on the rooftops. For me, this is, personally, my favorite, the most important aspect because you can go through a logical process from every piece of art direction through this duality of light and darkness, and death of the light.
80.lv: I didn’t think of that, whenever the night falls, I skip to the day, I’m not brave enough to do so.
Katarzyna Tarnacka: I do the same thing, I actually like the fact that in Dying Light the night was just absolutely too scary for me, there were only two quests in the main story that forced you to play the night gameplay, and that was it for me. I spent, I don’t know, thousands of hours playing that game, I can through the game with my eyes closed but those two moments when you have to go outside at night, they were too scary for me. And I love this fact, I wanted to put more emphasis on it.
80.lv: Can you talk a little bit about the process of designing parkour-appropriate buildings for Dying Light 2 from the point of view of sandbox games?
Katarzyna Tarnacka: It’s actually really difficult to design buildings the same way they are designed in Dying Light 2. I got used to it because I’ve been working on Dying Light as well so it’s many years for me, but I see it when people are joining us from different types of games, it’s difficult to switch your thinking into "not only it’s an open world, not only it’s first-person perspective but it’s also parkour".
So, we have no way of cheating and guiding the player, there’s no gating, you cannot gate a player in the city, so we have to come up with different ways of guiding players. We tried to, and hope we were successful, build the entire city plan in a way that you always see, at the end of the street there’s always something that you see and through that, you know where you are in a relation to the objects like monuments, interesting buildings, churches, and stuff like that. And then the placement of the parkour helpers which are all the assets that we use, all the objects and solutions that we use to help players find a parkour path. This is also something that we use to help players find a way whether it’s a way they are currently going because of a quest or whether it’s a way up or down depending on where they can go.
80.lv: What is your approach to level design?
Katarzyna Tarnacka: We’ve been working on the map for many years, even before the actual production of Dying Light 2 started we had already been building prototypes and seeing what kind of gameplay we can have because in the first one we only have basically two geometries that we interact with: slums which are very easy to create parkour on, and then old town is a little bit more tricky but also more interesting visually.
We tried many different approaches, we even built an actual map on paper and we had everybody on the team, level artists, level designers, concept artists, and 3D artists, moving around pieces of paper that were representing the buildings trying to figure out how to satisfy all the needs because the needs from different departments are very different and very often contradictory because level design needs things usually that don’t look like a city, and this is the toughest problem for us, but it’s also very exciting at least for me to solve this, how to create a city that serves the gameplay purposes but in that means may be contradictory for this and it may not look like a city.
But usually what we do is stuck with a gameplay prototype which is often a bunch of gray boxes and unidentified objects, and then we have some references and concept artists coming in and talking to the level designers very closely to find a way to modify it in a way that it looks like a city, you know, the shapes of the streets are natural and real, the buildings are correct sizes.
80.lv: You also have this little city within the city where survivors live, how was it created?
Katarzyna Tarnacka: In this game, you have two different approaches that are kind of opposites, and I mean the Peacekeepers are kind of the opposite of the Survivors, so we approach very similarly. We take both factions that we have, and we try to decide if these guys use yellow, then those should use blue because they’re opposites.
We, of course, modified it during the development because some things we playtested and we had to adjust, but I’m happy with the result that we got. To answer, first, we build the set of rules, characterize the environment, like what is the environment, what are the characteristics of those environments, and then we start to come up with human stories. Usually, when we create a very human environment, because in Dying Lights you have abandoned flats that aren’t really human environment anymore and we have hubs, settlements and villages, which are very much still being inhabitant by humans, we start to think about the details, how do people survive in those set of rules that we set for given faction, how do they live, how do they survive, what do they use, what does the day look like for a given imaginary person that we decide. And I think for me this is the key to think about the humans that live there. At some point stop thinking about rules and ideas but just think about how this guy sits here every day, he should have something to drink or maybe a book if he spends his entire day here, stuff like this. And yeah, solving problems like where they sleep. In Bazaar, for example, the construction of the church with the sleeping quarters.
Guiding the Player
80.lv: How do you create the elements designed to guide players and incentivize them to go somewhere?
Katarzyna Tarnacka: There are many different solutions that we use for this, it is not just one thing, and as you said it does get darker on the street level, and when we came up with the idea that we would like the street level to be dead, this is like the shortcut that we use to describe it when we decided that we wanted the street level to be dead, I had this idea that I would like it to feel kind of like underground or underwater, that you’re not in a natural habitat, you’re not where you’re supposed to be, you’re supposed to be up. And this is where level design comes here, and it is very important.
You probably know all the starter ramps, we put a lot of effort into playtesting them and placing them just on your way, like you’re running down the street, we don’t want you to stay on the street, we want to guide you up. So, if you gonna be running on the street, you gonna stumble upon some ramp that’s just gonna guide you in the nice direction where you probably need to go or where we want you to go because it’s prettier or other reasons.
We do have different color grading, when you go to the street level, the colors change, it’s not as bright, and it’s not as colorful. We have different sounds when you go down, and of course, it’s more dangerous because of zombies and bandits. And the very high-level ideas for the streets versus rooftops were pointy and hard edges on the bottom and soft round shapes on the top.
Making the Game Readable for Foreigners
80.lv: Do you need to do something specific in order for the game to be better readable overseas?
Katarzyna Tarnacka: I’m in a very fortunate position that we’re building a European city so it’s the other way around, we’re introducing our European type of urban way of thinking of the city to the American audience. For us, it’s not that difficult, we just reference what we know, we think about it a lot, we put a lot of work to make sure that this is not only for the European audience which is different in many ways. They have a different visual library and different expectations but also different sensibility, some stories feel deep for us or interesting for us, but they don’t feel interesting for audiences from different continents,
80.lv: When developing a game, what are the things that are the most challenging?
Katarzyna Tarnacka: It was a challenge to find a balance that we have buildings that look like buildings and they’re climbable and we’re happy about it. It was a challenge to create a game that fits all the platforms where we managed to put it. That was a challenge, we were thinking about it throughout the entire production and it’s not always easy to make decisions that have to be made in order to have this game perform on all generations, you have to make those decisions. It’s not always easy but you have to do it. And I’m happy that we managed to put it in.