Within Freaky Creations they have decided to share a bit the process that the team has followed so far, and still does, to create a videogame like To Leave. During the following weeks we’ll leave aside public events and personal experiences to focus exclusively in their work. How they take the music from the recording studio to the game? How a concept becomes an in-game experience? And how all this is regulated by their philosophy, which makes all the disciplines involved work together.
I think that we all agree that To Leave’s art is fantastic, right? Well, on this particular occasion, we are focusing on To Leave’s environment art process, and for this the environment artists, Ambar Troya and Emmanuel Ayala, will tell us about their labor.
Idea approval and the empty Canvas
When you look at an environment in To Leave you can feel that everything tries to tell you something, everything is crafted in a way that evokes emotions in the player in a way that it doesn’t interrupt the player’s ability to play the game. Ambar has been in charge of a great portion of the game’s foregrounds and she tell us that:
When we face a new level in To Leave, the very first thing we get is a design document of the level, it just contains simple shapes; boxes, circles, lines that distribute the space within the level, and also we get a document in which it states what this level is supposed to share with the player, what elements are going to be there, what feelings are we trying to evoke with this specific composition, and with this information we start to generate the concepts for the level. These concepts generally have a heavier focus on the beginning, on the end of the level, and any other place that the player is going to spend a little bit more time than usual, like resting places (Blocky Kids) or places that do not demand too much movement.
Design document example
Scheme for the art in a level
The elements of composition
To Leave was conceived under the idea that it wasn’t going to be a big game, which is why the art has always been filled with details and so specifically crafted for each level, and as Ambar says, this adaptation and the elements you end up observing is achieved by careful composition.
Once we have a clear idea of what the level should be, we chose different color tonality to work between background and foreground, it is based on a color map that we have already established for the game chapters, and it guides us depending on which kind of level we are working on; for example, if the level is an industrial city or the environment takes place during a sunset, the colors that we choose will be warm in tonality.
We also have a set of images that we use as reference for our elements within the environment and the sensations that we wish to share, regarding the foreground, the details need to be pretty clear and precise. At the beginning we used a lot of textures for it, and arranged them in engine, like a puzzle, but it became very heavy for the engine when integrating. We then opted for painting everything in simple colors and having the whole background and foreground been worked on at the same time, although on different files.
Foreground: composition colors
For Emmanuel Ayala, who is in charge of the background, the work is a bit different, everything is not as specific.
Within the levels you define sectors, and once you have that, you start experimenting with colors and basic shapes in order to find ideas for particular experiences. When these basic shapes start having a rhythm on their own and appropriate colors for them, you start to adapt them to the imagination elements of your level (windows, buildings, motors, etc.) that go according to where your level is taking place (suburb, sewer, industrial city for example).
Then you consider, how many depth layers my background is going to have? All of this always taking into account, what experience are you trying to transmit to the player with this composition. You may believe that what you have created looks great, but if it interrupts or interferes with the player’s gameplay experience (for example, it distracts him from the challenge or confuses him) it must change, change the number of layers, or colors or shapes, and this depends on each level’s gameplay experience.
To Leave’s strong point is the high contrast between colors and its pretty schematic style, working with shapes and taking care on what they express, all these still remains since the beginning.
- Broad background composition
While levels are being painted, they are constantly integrating all these elements to the game, it is tested, to check if it really works or if it needs to be fixed in some way. This is a vital part of the process for artists, according to Ambar, it lets you know if what you’re doing, works.
The constant integration shows if your concept is working or not, you can’t only take the testing results and work with that, if a player dies a lot in a part of the level, the solution isn’t to blatantly change that part, but sit down and deeply analyze what the source of the problems are and then proceed with the changes according to the level needs. This takes us not only to change geometry and spaces, but also art, and if anything has to go, its gone, it is not only a matter of how good it looks. In the same way, if there is too much unused space in the level, it must be filled in some functional way that benefits the level and the experience of it.
With all this, if you can always keep iterating and making the level better, in what moment you decide that it has been enough? When do you stop painting?
We follow an agile philosophy to work, in which we define how much time we are going to dedicate to each task. At the beginning we miscalculated some things and we ended up needing more time for certain tasks and that’s why other ones were delayed. The purpose of this way of working is to really get to know our own way of work, and then making informed decisions on how much time is going to take us to do something. In that way we can take full advantage of the time we have, without too many delays, and in the same way, to time that can be used to work in some other things that need to be done instead of overworking something. We basically paint the time that we choose to invest in some piece of art; a day, a week, but no more than that.
Both artists, as the whole development team, follow an agile work philosophy, and this has enabled them to establish pipelines that let them produce good quality levels in lesser time. After working on the composition of the level, they go to the polish phase, where the final lines are drawn, the final basic colors of the level are established, they paint volume and textures as needed for each level, and finally the last integration with the engine takes place, where they makes sure everything is working as expected.
Polish: final lines
As a last thought they tell us:
Always ask every doubt you have to the designer of the level, take down notes on all the possible details that help enhancing the experience that the designer wants the level to reflect, always be conscious of these details, no matter how little, because they are very important for the essential experience of the level.
Taking into account all of this, the level stays in a standby state, which is polished enough to present in fairs and events, so that they can move onto the next one, and the cycle repeats itself. Further along the development cycle, they will return to all these levels to make the final touches or adding some final details that the level still needs, and because of time had to be left for later, but for now the level creation carries on.
Environment with final details added