There Is No Light: Environment Design in a Dark 2D Action-Adventure

Artem Zelenov from Zelart talked about their first indie game There Is No Light, a grim pixel art action-adventure coming in 2021.

About the Team

Artem Zelenov: Zelart is a small team from Russia that got together a year and a half ago to work on There Is No Light. Some of us already had experience in game development before that, but as a team, this is the first project for us.

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There Is No Light: Idea

Our main motivation was to make an action project that was not based on the mechanics of Souls-like games and the Metroidvania-genre approach to world-building. We believe that today too many developers use the “Souls-like Metroidvania in the style of classic dark fantasy with elements of rogue-like or rogue-lite” formula. We wanted to avoid this and give the players a project with a truly unique world and aggressive gameplay that is not based on stamina management.

When creating the world, we find inspiration in the popular Metro 2033 universe created by our compatriot Dmitry Glukhovsky as well as Shin Megami Tensei. Although most players see similarities between There Is No Light and Blasphemous and Dark Souls, we try not to look in the direction of these projects, although we love them very much. 

Art Direction

Initially, we thought that pixel art was easier to make. But over time and with the arrival of new artists to the team, we have realized it was a mistake that most developers make nowadays. The production of modern pixel art is no simpler and cheaper than the production of any other art. 

When developing sprites, we do not use a pre-defined color palette, but if the asset that needs to be drawn has a material similar to an existing one, we either use the same colors or something close in tone and shade. 

The most important thing about There Is No Light art is variety and freedom. We have more than 15 locations, which are divided into 4 directions that have their own unique styles, moods, and gameplay. Each sprite goes through several iterations until it matches the gameplay or environment it is in.

When designing bosses and mobs, we are also trying to create as much variety as possible. At one point, you may encounter Frontier's insane but amusing cannibals.

At the same time, at the other end of the dungeon, you will stumble upon a convoy with grotesque entities capturing lost people.
And how many times have you seen a tower as a boss?

Level Design

Each level is based on its lore. Before designing the environment and characters, we create a lore document for each location that describes what is happening here. 

When the lore document is ready, we draw a rough level layout that gives us an idea about the geometry and the surroundings of certain mobs. At this stage, we also distribute lore areas and create special level features that must be used when making the level in the game engine. Such a workflow, combined with a lore document, helps artists better understand the environment at the very initial stage of its production and reduce the amount of unnecessary art they will produce.

Next, the level is passed on to the artists to draw the first, roughest version of the environment, mobs, and characters. At this stage, we check how the assets work together, whether they are easy to read and do not blend with each other. Then we create the first blockout of the level in the game engine and test the behavior of mobs. 

After that, the level goes through many iterations, in which the narrative and sound are added, and the tempo of the level is formed. The final level is always very different from its original draft. After achieving the required result, we let somebody outside the development team play the level in order to get feedback.

Working on 2D Environments

When creating an environment, we use a large number of references. This is especially true for the subway, Central Station, technical and office premises. Locations that should resemble real-life places require special attention, as they should form a connection with our world.

Each location has its own color palette that helps determine what emotion the player is supposed to feel there. This is achieved through the placement of light sources, accentuation, and sound effects. We also use post-effects to help stylize the picture for the mood we need.

We follow the rules of “real” pixel art, putting each dot manually, but not limiting ourselves to a number of colors. Likewise, graphics do not follow the “only pixel” rule. Many shadows and lights in the game are gradients created in Photoshop and then turned into light sources by the engine.


All sounds without exception are created specifically for the game, so there is no difficulty in "synchronizing" the sound with the picture. The sound designer is given the necessary animation to get the timing right and the gameplay video to understand how it all looks in the game. And, of course, some lore is provided in order to understand what feelings the sound should evoke in a given situation. Voice actors are sometimes involved as well so that the characters and monsters in the game could have their own voices and individuality. Basically, all of the above applies to the background noises and ambiance of the location.

The required sound is created by layering many different sounds, editing them, and applying various effects. The screenshot above shows the sound for the opening of a large metal gate. More than twenty-five different sounds are involved here: various scraping of iron, the clanking of gears, creaks, crunches, rumble, and much more.

Release Plans

We plan to release There Is No Light in Q3 2021 on PC, PS4, XboxOne, and Switch. Our team works with the publisher Hypetrain Digital, they help us with many aspects of game development, as well as porting to consoles, marketing, and localization.

Artem Zelenov, Game Developer

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  • Anonymous user

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    Anonymous user

    ·3 years ago·

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