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Art director Rasmus Poulsen discussed the power of art in games and the way contract, color and design influence our interactive experiences.
My name is Rasmus Poulsen. I’m originally from Denmark, where I studied Visual Communication and Production Design at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art: School Of Design. While studying I got an internship at Io-Interactive in Copenhagen, working on Hitman: Blood Money. After my studies I got hired as a concept artist, but ended up getting a crash course in all things related to game art: modeling, texturing, matte painting, special effects, post effects, color grading, level layoyt etc. Currently I live and work in Montreal, Canada.
Game Development Journey
While studying, I thought I was going to work with graphic design, doing posters and such. However, during my studies I discovered that I still enjoyed drawing, and that I actually got the same pleasure from it as I did when I was a kid. The first Hitman game got released during this time, and I figured that if computer games was being made in the city I lived in, then there was where I had to be. And so it was.
I really enjoyed working on Kane & Lynch 2, because it pushed the envelope so much in terms of new aesthetics. I also enjoyed being involved in the mobile title Hitman Go, because it represented such a fresh take on an IP that I was very familiar with. It was fun to see the team take a different route than most would have expected, and I enjoyed supporting them in refining their direction, and nail the essence of what a Hitman game can be. Beyond that I really enjoy the project I am currently working on at Ubisoft. Unfortunately it’s too early to be talking about what it is.
The art director, and game director on Kane & Lynch: Dead Men were really inspired by slick hollywood crime cinema, and it permeated Io Interactive at the time. With Kane & Lynch 2 my team and I pursued a bold, new take on what cinema could look like, and the style we pushed for, really made the game stand out. I was involved with the Hitman IP for many years, and although I didn’t get to finish a AAA game, a lot of the “Hitman style DNA” is shared by Io Interactives’ Hitman game from last year. In many ways, all the people involved in the Hitman games all have a shared understanding of what those games should be, how they should look, and why they are “cool”. I think we all share a bit of a “less is more” attitude when it comes to the aesthetics, and it lends the IP a more mature tone than many other IPs.
As for what I bring to the games I work on, I think it’s about contrast. The desaturated, mundane and ordinary versus the highly unexpected, colourful and flashy. The mundane and recognizable creates a sense of believability, cementing the stage and suspending disbelief if you will. And the colourful and exciting elements can then rest comfortably on this stage, and lure the viewer in. Combining these traits in this way creates worlds and aesthetics that many people can enjoy, because it excites them just enough to stick around, but not so much that they are scared away. They won’t have to venture too far out of their comfort zone. And I’m not saying this as if I’m holding back when art directing or painting. K&L 2 was a pretty extreme example of something that dared to be uncomfortable and alien. But the projects locations and aesthetics are still rooted deeply in mundanity and credibility. I find that contrast exciting. I don’t think this applies uniquely to 3rd person games….I see it more as a general world building approach, be it for film, comic books or games.
I would say movies inform our games much more than photography. Because they deal with movement, and movement is key to games…at least 3rd person games. A movies perspective is of course predetermined, where in 3rd/1st person games you are pretty much free too look around, and explore on your own. Photos are completely static, and in that sense are even further removed from games. But obviously we wouldn’t have movies or games without photography, and our understanding of visual narrative, storytelling, framing, lighting and exposure all come from photography and classical painting.
Building the Look
The construction of a scene or an area can come from anywhere. A music video, a photo, a scribble on a napkin. For games I think it is relatively important to experience it in the final medium. As such doing quick visual prototyping is important to understand scale, distances and the time it takes to experience and move through a space. Grey box modeling and prototyping goes a long way in this regard, but textures are needed to get a good understanding of how scale is experienced, because grey box modeling offers little to no reference points. Personally I don’t use 3d when designing, but I use it a lot when building worlds, areas and levels for games.
How do game art decisions influence gameplay?
Regarding world building and art direction there are more similarities than there are differences. Obviously games have their own sub set of specific needs that one needs to understand to build a world that is accessible and that “plays well”. It’s best to place important visual cues where the player will naturally see them. So not too high and not too low, and if it’s a very important cue, we might even build a funnel for the player, so as to ensure a camera angle that will reveal what’s deemed important. Then there’s the treatment as you mention, where the camera is a key player. Obviously this is very much inspired by movies and by the world as seen though lenses. Shake, dust and flares are all artifacts and traits from lenses and cameras that we can use in-game, to make the experience feel more familiar, relevant and immersive. Utilizing the tell tale signatures of cameras and artificial eyes can make an experience feel more real, because we are so used to seeing the world through youtube and cinema. As far as proper supporting gameplay and game-design, that is a huge chapter onto itself. And yes, I agree this is the main difference in game art when compared to more passive media.
I think environments are a great canvas for storytelling. For world-building. Depending on the type of game, the environment plays a smaller or larger role, of course, but I love making spaces that you can explore. And I love the passive storytelling of environments and locations. Not in the sense that I like locations filled with ham fisted clues that you absolutely MUST find. I like it when the location simply exists to give you a feeling, and a sense of space and time. Where time spent in a location gives you a subconscious understanding of the world you inhabit. More of a feeling than a strict understanding. Something you can explain, but something you can only explain with your own words, rather than reciting a script from the “exposition notepads” that some games rely on. For Kane & Lynch 2 for example, we filled the game world with these sad, unimportant details to reflect the characters state of mind. Disused shopping carts in a parking garage, trash, TVs tuned to a dead channel and all that. Something movies does quite a lot. Letting the world be a reflection of the mental state of the characters. Where the design of the world is allowed to become more poetic that “just” a background location. Yet we did it without breaking the credibility of the world. We accentuated certain elements to give the player this feeling, but only the elements that would be present in real life. So using mundane and credible objects to give the player a slightly otherworldly, nightmarish and lonely feeling. Like an author squeezing poetry into what would otherwise be a simple description, and thereby giving the experience a richness it would not otherwise have had.
Does gameplay sometimes stand in the way of the creative freedom?
I suppose it can feel that way sometimes. But if you are feeling that way as a creative, it might just mean that you have the wrong process. If it feel as if someone is in your way, it’s probably because they should and could have been part of your process earlier. If you have a good process that allows the different crafts to influence each other, you will find that the problems and the opportunities are actually shared. And that if solved properly by all parties, creates a holistic experience. If you don’t allow this, it might end up feeling like a mixture of different products and experiences. However, if all roles are allowed to pitch solutions to shared challenges, not only will your teams help each other rather than blame each other, you will also find that the solutions are multidisciplinary. If my art direction isn’t directly related to key elements of the game design and gameplay, it is a missed opportunity. In other words: If the unique selling points from all disciplines overlap, you will have something that really resonates. If every time you perform the action that is unique to this particular game, is also thetime when the game looks the most unique, it is going to be a very memorable experience.