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Hey guys, and welcome to the first Developer Diary from Lunar Giant Studios. I’m Neil, the guy responsible for the art of Delve Deeper, as well as being one of the three designers that cooked up the concepts.  As a developer, people are always interested in what you make, and how you make it, and especially love to see some of the behind-the-scenes stuff that normally never makes it out into the open. These Developer Diary posts will shed some some light on the nuts and bolts of game design, show you things in progress, and give you an opportunity to ask us about the things you’re interested in knowing about Game Design.

We’re also going to be starting a series of Game Analysis videos. Instead of just highlighting what we like or don’t like about games, we thought it’d be helpful to talk about the elements in them we think are smart, some that aren’t as good as they could be, and how the design of the game comes through. Some of these will dwell on old classics, like the X-COM franchise, and some will talk about modern games that also deserve attention for game design, like Team Fortress 2. Like with the Developer Diaries, we’d like to hear what you want us to talk about, so be sure to tell us what you want to hear discussed.

We’re planning on making these bi-weekly, so you’ll get a Developer Diary one week and a Game Analysis the next. From now on we’ll be aiming to release them on Saturday, this one was just slightly delayed from all the stuff I’ve been doing for Touch of Death’s Art Direction, which is going to be the first topic of discussion. In specific, the need for consistent look and tone, and how these elements combine to make a good game aesthetic that sets the stage for the rest of development.

An early rough of Touch of Death's hilly background.

The Aesthetics of Tone

When you’re first starting out on a game, one of the biggest things to decide on is the look and the tone. But rather than being two separate elements, these two aesthetic elements are really just the same bigger element. But before we talk about how these two work together to make a good game, let’s talk about each of them individually.

In terms of game design, Tone is the balance between Funny and Serious, Grim and Cheerful, Empowering and Disempowering. It’s not the theme or the genre, but closer to the unqiue flavor of the game. Tone helps you communicate to your players, “Hey, this game is going to be scary, so attune your dials to Scary Game conventions,” which lets you step into their preconceptions of what the game will be. That’s a very powerful storytelling and gameplay tool when used properly, or a cut-and-paste grab bag of cliches when abused lazily.

When properly handled, you can use a game’s tone as a shortcut, like how Left4Dead says “This is a dark and self-aware Movie Zombie Game,” and lets the audience fill in the blanks about the story, setting, and even gameplay expectations. That lets developers focus on the important parts while still creating a rich game world. Tone can also be used to surprise gamers by breaking the rules they’re used to, like how Chrono Trigger had a moment that punished you for behaving in the standard “loot everyone’s sock drawers” JRPG behavior. But you wouldn’t be surprised if someone yelled “Thief!” at your home invasion if it was a Western styled D&D or Bethesda RPG.

For a game like Delve Deeper, deciding on the Tone of the game was easy.  Dwarfs to me have always been about a combination of silliness and severity. In fiction, juxtaposing the harshness of the life with their hard-drinking antics feels like a wink and a nod to the audience that this was supposed to be for fun. As a proponent of the Tolkein spelling of Dwarfs over Dwarves, I obviously had a copy of the Hobbit movie made by Rankin and Bass on hand to get us into the right frame of mind. The fact that one of our maps was about going down, down to Goblin Town was not an accident.

Touch of Death needed a bit more thought. On the one hand, we were doing a violent game about a Kung Fu rampage with potentially sensitive cultural overtones. On the other, we were trying to emulate the frantic and often hilarious style of the 70′s Shaw Brothers movies through the lens of a funky American movie importer. Setting the proper tone was important, because going too far in either direction would put us dangerously close to making either a boring parody product or an offensive bit of cultural exploitation. This is when you really need to strip away the layers of meaning and get down to that core bit and ask, “What do we want to say? What things do we want people to recognize? What conventions do we want them to assume?”

Black Dynamite, a modern spoof of 70's Blaxploitation films, down to the film stock

First off, we wanted to avoid an outright parody that could be viewed as mocking. Here at Lunar Giant we love Kung Fu movies a great deal, and I’ve even studied Kung Fu myself for several years. Doing something disrespectful would be counter to our own feelings and distract from the game. We also wanted to avoid making it too serious, since a Kung Fu master obliterating Ninjas could be silly enough for a movie but playing it too straight would risk treading into sensitive cultural territory. The intention is more Ninja in the Deadly Trap or the cult classic Five Element Ninjas than Fist of Fury.

For us, the tone we required was delicate. One accurate to a 70′s film without the nasty bits from that era:  over-the-top action, classic wushu plot elements, and faithful representations of the names, places, and martial arts of the “movie world,” while the music and user interface can be styled in such a way to highlight the 70′s setting of the “movie” production. But where a movie like Black Dynamite jumped into the offensive elements feet-first as broad parody, we’re planning on snipping the blatant 70′s insensitivity out.  Where Black Dynamite was playing to a film audience that understood the elements being parodied, Touch of Death was being marketed at a younger audience both here and overseas and we didn’t want to accidentally appear like we were embracing those elements.

Painting Worlds with Meanings

The Look of the game is usually related to the tone of it, so that they work together to create a unified experience. For Delve Deeper, the Look of the game was very much inspired by the old Super Nintendo graphics, with an emphasis on goofy silliness.  Bright colors, round characters, and exaggerated comedic enemies helped keep the look and tone consistent. With Touch of Death, the look was more complex. We needed to grapple with some technical constraints first and foremost. As a game marketed to mobile platforms it simply didn’t have the ability to handle a billion things at once and still look nice. But to make the game look overly cartoony… that would go against the tone of the game. We couldn’t afford that. I pulled on my animation history and the first thing that came to mind was Samurai Jack.

A somber frame from Samurai Jack, one of the best cartoons ever.

Samurai Jack is probably the only martial arts action cartoon to take it’s heritage seriously. A lot of work was put into making sure the techniques that Jack used were done with respect given to those actual traditions, and when they could they used actual performances to model him on. This gave them a similar need to ours in tone as well, for they had to make an enjoyable cartoon that could bounce between serious and silly. There were quiet moments in episodes of Samurai Jack that said volumes only with the barest of movements, and it was in great part to the incredible aesthetics of the show. You can tell a story with a simple shot of landscape.

Other people have discussed the difference between Graphics and Aesthetics well enough that I don’t need to dwell on that. When designing the look of your own game though, you have to do a lot of this in reverse. Instead of going right to character designs it helps to decide what you need the world to look like first. Is this high contrast? Is it dark? Is it bright? You’ll notice, many of these are the same terms we thought up earlier when we were brainstorming about Tone.

For example, in a dark, brooding Mystery Setting you’ll probably think of Film Noir and Blade Runner. Vertical lines, dark colors, high contrasts, dark and light. The environments and then the characters will need to be designed to suit that, not the reverse. In fact, many of the same terms will apply to the characters: High contrasts between dark and light, complexity in motivations, characters that are part hero and part rogue, with a razor-sharp dividing line that they teeter on.  Establishing a tone, therefore, establishes much of your look. You can look at the world and tell what kind of place it is. The aesthetics of your setting are linked in that way. When you choose to craft a world to look a certain way you’re creating a story about it, and creating a relationship between it, the characters, and you the viewer.

Since our tone for Touch of Death had to express both a love for the medium and a good-natured poke at the classic era of Kung Fu films, we needed a cartoony aesthetic that still felt hard and edgy. Not surprisingly, character designs with lots of hard, sharp edges often exemplify these kinds of themes. For example, look at the image below. Which of the two sets of Ninja Turtles do you think was the happier, goofier squad and which was the darker and edgier design they took to make them “more serious” and dangerous?

No bonus points for counting grimaces vs smiles.

There’s a number of reasons for this, but you can chalk it up to the association between hard lines and danger versus soft, round lines and approachable snuggliness. You could combine the happy faces with the harsh lines, but there’s something more effective about stark lines with serious intentions. The characters in Touch of Death needed that kind of an edge, something the rounder, snugglier Dwarfs from Delve Deeper did not have. Even the most intentionally menacing critters in our previous game, the Goblins, looked too much like comic relief.

So the main character of Touch of Death, our white robed master, went through several iterations until we finally arrived on a look that we felt gave him the right kind of seriousness while not making him seem out-of-place in a game that is a spoof about movies about Kung Fu. Phew, that’s a lot of levels of abstraction. I’ve been calling him Master Kickass for a few days now, but we haven’t settled on an appropriate real name for him yet and hopefully will be able to show you some nicely detailed pictures of him and the ninjas next time. The world he existed in went through a similar number of changes. It could not be a stereotype of China, but it had to convey the kind of popular, oft-reused settings that those Kung Fu movies so enjoyed. As the pre-alpha picture way up top showed, we could make the environments pleasing and understated if we kept to the same painted minimalist art style that Bill Wray and Scott Wills brought to Samurai Jack. As a Jack fan I was excited to try something in that style, and I think it captures an Eastern feel in a comic sense without becoming caricature and while fulfilling the specific needs of a mobile platform. Complex stuff, right?

The How and Why

I’ll make sure to always post this section to all the developer diaries I do. Think of it as the TL:DR of the post, as well as a final spin to put on what I said. The How and Why are often important questions. How is something done?  Why is this thing done? What does this have to do with game design and when does anyone care to do this?

How: Designing the look and tone of a game requires a long look at the aesthetics and most importantly, a long look at the story you want to tell. Strip it down to the barest themes possible. Is the story a complex narrative, or is it a simple concept like Angry Bird’s message of “it’s fun to smash things for points in clever ways.” Support your idea with a tone that suits it. If your theme is about a loss of childhood innocence, a dark and disempowering tone suits it. A tone about exploration and fear. Then find a look that supports that–like building a house of cards. A dark and minimalist graphic, to keep you focused on the avatar as yourself rather than as an independent character, would suit that tone and that theme. That’s what makes a game like Limbo work, that and good mechanics. By starting at the core and building up in stages you can craft a game bottom-up in a way that makes it all work together.

Why: Not every game is done this way, and the result is a muddled product. Duke Nukem Forever is the obvious best choice ever, being the result of so many different hands and with so many different themes, none of them fleshed out. Duke has no core theme–is this a game about being an empowered badass? Well, then why can he only carry such a limited and limp arsenal? The tone changes wildly as well, from sophomoric to sadistic, and the look of the game simply can’t keep up. Not surprisingly, the game was murdered by critics and received weakly by fans. Games with strong themes that have tones and looks that suit them become beloved treasures, like Super Metroid or Silent Hill 2. You don’t need complexity so long as the simple idea you have, such as “it’s fun to jump on platforms and shoot things,” is backed up by a tone and look that supports it. Megaman went a long way with just that simple premise. Have an idea that’s fun, make it fit the game you build around it, and make it look right when you turn the TV on.

Spacelab Signing Out

I hope you enjoyed this Developer Diary and I hope you give us some feedback on the next one to come, scheduled for August 6th. Leave a comment if you have a topic you’d like to hear about, or something you’d like to say about what I wrote for this one. Next week tune in for a video commentary game analysis, assuming I can get the mic to record properly that is. And stay tuned for more Touch of Death info as it comes out. We’ll have some good tidbits for you soon.