Eric A Anderson discussed the way color, light and clever environment design help him to build amazing virtual worlds.
We were fortunate to talk to Eric A. Anderson – the art director of Cyan’s Obduction and the artist, who contributed to Jonathan Blow’s The Witness. Eric is an amazing developer and an incredible world builder. In this interview he discussed the way he approaches world creation in games, talked about the artistic side of things and discussed the way he worked with Unreal Engine 4.
My name is Eric A. Anderson. I live in Spokane, Washington, and I’ve been developing video games for over 15 years. I have been with Cyan (creators of Myst and Riven) on and off for most of that time, and I’m currently Art-Directing Cyan’s latest project, Obduction. Over the years, I’ve worked on numerous games – large and small – the most notable of which are probably Uru: Ages Beyond Myst (Cyan’s ill-fated Myst MMO game, released in 2003) and MystV (2005). More recently, I was hired by Jonathan Blow as one of three core artists for his ambitious project The Witness (2016), for which I constructed roughly a third of the world and helped to define the very unique look of the game.
I may not be a lot of things, but I think I might be some kind of specialist in the “walk around a complex world and solve complex puzzles” genre, because that’s what I’ve spend most of the last two decades doing. There were also some less-than-great mobile-game efforts, as well as countless commercial animation and work-for-hire jobs throughout… But sometimes an artist just needs to pay the bills, especially in the often tumultuous games industry. I think it’s better to look at every experience, including the failures (ESPECIALLY the failures) as an opportunity to learn, grow, and apply that knowledge to future projects.
Obduction’s Artistic Direction
Obduction is a curious project from an Art Direction standpoint, because although it is in no way connected to Myst series, it is very much intended to follow in the footsteps of those games – especially as far as the player’s experience of exploration and discovery goes. As such, we didn’t want to stray too far from the overall visual style of Myst and Riven, which I guess I would describe and “surreal photo-realism”. It means I didn’t want to push the stylization too far from photo-reference (say, like The Witness did with it’s heavy simplification and visual deconstruction)… and we are instead relying heavily on photo-sourced texturing and not shying as much away from surface detail. Of course we need our sweeping vistas and dramatic reveals, but I think the single biggest recurring theme in Obduction is visual juxtaposition or otherwise disparate elements. The main world of the game is heavily designed around this concept, with elements from various different origins (and even time periods) being blended together in the same space. This theme is further reinforced by the central narrative, which is all about parts of multiple worlds being thrown together in the same physical space, and how those different elements contrast each other in interesting ways… Again, not too unlike the original Myst aesthetic.
All of the world designs for Obduction actually began life as top-down maps handed to us from the Design team (led by company founder Rand Miller). Once we began mocking them up in 3D, we did so directly inside Unreal 4, using a toolset we added called “Slabs”. This very simple prototyping method is actually something I became absolutely addicted to when using Jonathan Blow’s custom engine for The Witness, and it was one of the first things our programmers implemented in Unreal. It’s essentially just a way to re-size 6-sided cubes by dragging them one face at a time… rapidly authoring complex forms out of basic volumes, all directly inside the Unreal Editor. As the game worlds got more and more refined, we started replacing the slabs with actual geometry assets, but it allowed us to flesh out the entire scope of the game immeasurably faster than if we’d tried to mock it up with custom meshes.
In fact, our runtime collision geometry is mostly still constructed from a system of slabs. It is extremely lightweight in terms of polycount (making for very cheap collision calculations) and its flexible editing allows for easy adjustment and bug-fixing of collision issues.
Making Environments Manageable
When constructing large, complex worlds like these, questions arise like “how do we teach the player what they can and cannot interact with?” or “how do we convey to the player where they can and cannot walk?”. Managing a player’s experience inside a complex environment is a constant concern when building a game space, but usually the solution lies in simply being consistent in your visual language.
The navigation question is literally a matter of ensuring that if the artwork looks like a path should be navigable to the player, then let them navigate it…. and vice versa… if a path is not navigable, intentionally author the artwork to make that obvious. Try not to allow ambiguous navigational situations into the game. It sounds trivial, but often requires iteration and tuning.
Managing a player’s experience inside a complex environment is a constant concern when building a game space.
Player interaction issues are a bit trickier, and can very drastically by game. The Witness is a good example of very clear-cut player interaction, since the only things a player ever required to interact with are puzzle-panels with a very concise visual language. Obduction is trickier, since players can interact with in-game objects – so it’s more about teaching the player what kinds of things they are allowed to interact with, and then trying to author the non-interactive scenery in a way that conveys that… and (hopefully) avoids red-herring or pixel-hunt situations.
Unreal Engine 4
Lighting and Color
Lighting and color are absolutely fundamental to good environment design. I would go so far as to say, maybe the most important elements overall. In my day-to-day, one of the most common points of feedback I give is for artists to reduce the visual noise of the texturing… to mellow out the albedos of the materials so that the lighting can come in and make a scene feel cohesive. I think there is a tendency for artists to get lost in the minutiae of a scene, and put too much emphasis on textural information. I prefer to instead focus on overall textural cohesion, and let the form and lighting do most of the work. The Witness is an extreme example of this (where modeled form and good lighting is doing almost ALL of the work), but I think it’s valuable for artists working in any art style to not rely too heavily on textural detail.
I think there is a tendency for artists to get lost in the minutiae of a scene, and put too much emphasis on textural information.
Lighting is the glue that ties a scene together, and allows the viewer’s brain to process all of the elements together, as a cohesive whole. And color is a way to help guide the player; to focus their interest where the design dictates.
Telling a Story
Environmental storytelling is definitely the cornerstone of Cyan’s games. There is no one secret to developing environments that help convey narrative to the player (and a lot of mainstream non-adventure games are doing great work in that department these days). But it helps to have a solid understanding of the story as early in the worldbuilding process as possible – especially the stories of the character that lived within those spaces. By having a good knowledge of the characters, it empowers the artists to add personal touches to the space that are more than just “art that looks cool”, but instead help to fill in narrative details that would otherwise go untold.
It’s also empowering to let the player fill in non-crucial story elements themselves. By discovering “hidden story” as part of the game world, rather than through exposition (from an NPC or journal entry), it lets the player fill the role of detective and archaeologist, adding nuance to the gameplay, even if not every player will want to delve that deep.