The premise of this game reads - A city builder/tower defense set inside the mind of an adult human.
Visually, one of most important things we feel separates games is the execution of the theme they are built around. In the case of our game, not only is the theme something new but driving the narrative through the game puts an additional responsibility on the art and the mechanics.
To kick it off, I spent some time looking at and playing some City builders and Tower defenses; find out what they did well, what they didn't and most importantly what was the underlying feeling and experience they wanted to convey to their players.
A quick look at Kingdom Rush will tell you their emphasis on casual gaming. While playing Kingdom Rush is a great experience, the soft colours, harmless art style & animations and the low emphasis on the plot reinforce the casual gaming bit. It is an immersive experience purely by the virtue of the pace and the mechanics of the gameplay.
Moving on to Cities: Skylines for the city builder reference. This game has a great social value - there are lots of players building real world cities in the game based on images and plans, akin to a massive 3-D jigsaw puzzle. The core of a city builder is the joy of building something grand from scratch. The final product being a representation of the player themselves.
The goal with the art in the game was to tie the qualities of these two genres seamlessly together and reinforcing the analogy we were going with.
The game lets players make choices in the character's stead and shape the character's personality in the process. So, the primary purpose of the art was to emphasise metaphors that likened the elements in the game to the objects we perceive as mental models of how the brain works.
Next, there are various elements in the game that loosely have the same visual importance as each other but function very differently mechanically (goals vs. towers, memories vs. traits). The art has to minimize the cognitive load on the player as much as possible.
Finally, as a medium, we believe that videogames are capable of a newer form of storytelling. By providing some of the context and the pieces for the story, players are encouraged to fill in the blank spaces and come up with their own interpretation of the narrative. We want to encourage more people to write stories in this format and having art that is easily transferable would make it possible.
With these points driving our thought process, we went ahead to make the first draft of the first version of our concept art.
We started out with a lot of visual references and illustrations for the brain, mind and thoughts. Mostly the obvious ones: X-rays, MRIs, pinkish illustrations of the brain engaged in an activity, people at peace and a lot of zen meditation. After going though a vast selection of images, we observed that one of the key things a lot of them were missing was the evolution of the mind. The premise of our game and its progression hinged heavily on getting this right. So, we needed an image and the accompanying art that could afford the transformation of the character.
For starters, we had to make sure that the player understood that the game is taking place in the character's head and that they are "building" the character's personality as well. We implemented quite a literal solution to this. The outline of the map was the side view of a human brain with the Self/Id at the centre of the map. Surrounding this were all the traits of the character perfectly contoured around the periphery of the map. Each of these traits were ticking locations of their own. Different traits had different tones and buildings in these traits fulfilled the fantasy of the city builder.
As I mentioned, these were very literal interpretations of what we were trying to achieve.
The next step was to see if we could make the image deeper using colour. For instance, by adding some warmer colours to traits and darker colours to others, could we emphasise the underlying emotion of each of these traits further? Also, since we are planting a fictional, almost whimsical, universe in front of the player, we wondered if our towers were a bit too straight-forward. In short, the buildings had to remind the player of buildings but should look nothing like them.
To do this, we tried to strip down how an image can convey the idea of a building to the player structurally. We started experimenting with the paint tower since paintbrushes and pencils make it easy to represent tall structures. The idea was to incorporate as many elements that remind the user of painting in the image while making sure that the overall structure was that of a general building. What this did well was portray a whimsical side with oversized stationery but it still looks a lot like something on a desk.
With the next batch of images, we used more elements that reinforce the building metaphor. Since the currencies in the game are transported via trains, crafting a tower inspired by a station or any guarded venue is what we made. While this addressed most of the issues, each image occupied a lot of space on the screen.
After some more tweaking, these are what we finally came up with. These versions took much lesser space and got the metaphors on target.
That said, we still haven’t addressed the issue of making the art in this game more replicable. More on that soon.