Sunday, March 18, 2012

Tim Shafer and Scott Campbell on Psychonauts

I've recently been playing Psychonauts which is highly praised for it's offbeat cartoon visual style. It led me to look further into it's development, which is by Tim Shafer who is widely known for his humorous and stylised games, such as the Monkey Island series, Grim Fandango and Brutal Legend. The art director behind Psychonauts was Scott Campbell, who studied illustration the Academy of Art in San Francisco and now works within a variety of mediums including painting, illustration, comics and concept art.

I found an interview where Campbell goes into detail of why he chooses to work in the style he does. 

JO: Any one artistic aspect you can point to in Brutal Legend or Psychonauts that is yours?
SC: I started at Double Fine because Tim wanted me to establish their style, based kind of on my cartoony style, for Psychonauts. So I guess that entire game has my signature on it. I designed all the characters, and designed and hand-placed all of the figments in the game. There were these collectibles, sort of like hand-drawn memories in the game, and that was the one thing I did beside the concepts.

Brutal Legend was a different style, so it called for a different look. We wanted it to be powerful, to make it feel like it could be on the cover of a heavy metal album, so that a metal fan would like any image from the game. So we wanted to do that, but also give it some of that Double Fine style as well....

JO: You have a very distinctive art style. Can you tell me where that came from and how you started drawing?

SC: After art school, there were a few years where I was working with some others who were trying really hard to keep each other excited with art. All my artist friends had a reason to do it, like, “Oh, I have to create art or I will die!” or, “I have to paint or I’m going to lose my mind!” and I just didn’t feel like that.

I wanted to figure out what I was trying to say with my art, and that was the one thing I never learned in art school. What am I trying to say? What was my reason for creating? I felt like I always wanted to get that same kind of excitement that you got when you woke up as a kid in the morning; you were so excited to get back to drawing that battle, or that weird thing you were drawing the other day. It was less about drawing and more like you were on an adventure. That’s what I wanted to get, that same childlike excitement.

Campbell is more concerned with the reason behind his work - exactly what it is he's trying to communicate, a key point to keep in mind for all illustrators and concept artists. Technical mastery of a medium can really only take one so far in terms of concept design. By likening the process of drawing to being "on an adventure", it opens up the artist's mind to explore all possible aspects of a project and thoroughly be immersed. This way, the final product has an underlying emotional quality which will draw in the players further into the virtual reality and make their experience feel almost more organic.


It's interesting reading about Tim Shafer's games. The industry's increasing production costs mean that companies are less and less willing to take risks, and so less widespread genres such as adventure and point-and-click (for which Shafer is known) have become niche, although still holding considerable dedicated fanbases. It's inspiring and admirable that a designer has stuck firmly to his own passions and genre-bending ideas, without influence from the demands of the industry. There seems to be a constant drive to create games that are serious and "tough", but why must it be that the majority of games are modelled to follow this? Why is there a lack of games which implement humour or unusual visual styles?

"Sometimes it feels like people are trying to be as scary and threatening as possible with their games, because they're worried about appealing to a certain hardcore young male demographic. What do young males want? They want to be tough and edgy and scary and the coolest. But I think actually that crowd loves to laugh, likes comedy and likes crazy, ridiculous things to happen - it is an appealing thing. And in fact, I think comedy is a way to appeal to a much broader audience than ever play games now. What's better than laughing, and why can't that happen interactively?"

The cartoon style of his games fits his use of humour, focus on character interaction and the bizarre situations his characters often find themselves in, and makes the experience much more enjoyable and immersive than it would if it were striving for realism. Shafer feels that games are wish fulfilment, and aim to fulfil some sort of fantasy of the player. Psychonauts experiments with the possibility of exploring one's mind and facing inner demons, something which is physically unfeasible and therefore opens up many, many possibilities in terms of art style.

I'm going to add this here because I found it very amusing:

"Very early on [Psychonauts] was actually about an ostrich, it always feels so funny to say that, the idea was that it was an ostrich with multiple personality disorder and his different powers were his different personalities, so he would become this kind of tough ostrich or really smart ostrich or an ostrich with a gun and you’d switch between them.

Then I was giving a speech at GDC about character design and I was like, “all games are wish fulfillment and so no matter what, all your games are fulfilling some sort of fantasy of the player” and then I was in my head at the podium, I just got really quiet as I got lost in thought about whether the game I was designing actually followed this rule that I was telling everybody about. Like, does anyone really fantasize about being a mentally insane ostrich?"


After having this very brief glimpse into the minds of two people who are at the forefront of stylistically-led games, I'm feeling more and more interested in exploring more abstract concept art design in my own project. If we were creating a fully-fledged game, I could imagine taking the Hansel and Gretel theme and implementing it into different level ideas which take the tale's aspects of parental abandonment, mental instability and hunger and allow the player to explore these through the eyes of Hansel or Gretel. Being associated with childhood, I think it would be fitted to the cartoon style I'm currently aiming for. 

My next step is to start creating concepts on a grander scale and to start defining it, so I can begin thinking about how to model it. 

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