A charming skull-laden kickass world: The art of Brutal Legend

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It has been said so many times that it now borders upon a meaningless cliché, but the fact remains: a lot of games look the same. I’m not going to lament the propagation of brown color palettes, generic RPG characters, or any other individual aspect of art design. But I will say this: I do not envy the job of someone who is asked to do what Lee Petty was asked.

See, Lee Petty is the Art Director for Double Fine. He and his team are responsible for the incredibly creative and cohesive world of Brutal Legend, and it’s hard to imagine just how much work went into making this creativity and cohesiveness work in the context of a videogame.

But that didn’t stop me from trying. I had the opportunity to ask Lee about Brutal Legend and his work with videogame art in general. Read on as Lee and I dig deeper into the game’s art than ever before, and check out some never-before-seen artwork from the game. 

Imagine this: Tim Schafer walks up to you and asks you to make a videogame world out of every metal album cover in existence. I mean, good lord, what do you even do with that?

“It was a bitch,” Lee told me. “We had years of concept art and a ton of really awesome ideas that all of the members of the team had come up with. Way more than could fit in one game. Or maybe three. Trying to integrate that into a cohesive experience with some sense of progression and achievement was really tricky.

“I think what worked for us is that we had largely divided the characters of the game into several ‘factions’: the human ‘Ironheade’ faction lead by Eddie Riggs, General Lionwhyte’s glam-rocking sell-outs, Ophelia’s Goth influenced ‘Drowning Doom’, and the demonic race of the ‘Tainted Coil’. Each of these groups represented some side of the metal experience for us — and they all had their own look.

“We pretty much organized the world around these groups — so various areas of the world reflected their inhabitants. As the player progresses through the game, the world around them changes as they encounter and become involved with these different groups.

“Layered underneath all of this was the backstory. That meant incorporating remnants of the ancient race of Titans throughout the world. This is the race that helped forge the world, and allowed us to create some really cool “album cover vista views” with giant weapons and skulls embedded into the terrain.”

With so much to create and integrate, there must be, I don’t know, one or two bits of art that have to be drawn up, right? I asked just how much art is created for a game like Brutal Legend.

“A metric ass ton,” Lee responded. “More than any other studio that I’ve worked at, Double Fine provides a lot of time for “exploration and inspirational” concept art up front in a game’s development. But the concept art doesn’t stop there. Once a game is actually in full production, there is still a lot of “production designs”, “model sheets” and “draw-overs” that are generated to help guide the art team.”

And the amount of environmental design changes?

“Two metric ass tons. Although we have a process, with defined milestones, for making a “level” once we’re in production, games evolve pretty organically. We employ agile development when making our games–so every two to four weeks the entire company is always looking at the game and thinking about how well some of the pieces are working together. One of the things that makes big games difficult is that it’s hard to see how all of the elements are fitting together until relatively late in development. But it is how well the game harmonizes with itself that makes for good art design.

“Something that felt great earlier might need some lovin’ later in development because other parts of the game have changed. With environments, for example, it’s a close connection between the space design and the actual moment to moment gameplay that makes the world really rich. Gameplay is a very iterative process, so finding ways to account for that in the visual design is key. It’s an imperfect process, filled with both successes and failures, but it’s something we try and do well at Double Fine.”

The scale of some of these changes can be rather startling, and there was no lack of this in Brutal Legend.

“Early in the development of Brutal Legend’s world, we made everything giant. We wanted an epic, crazy metal world so everything was made immense. In our early skirmish mode (multiplayer), where the player can fly, this worked out great. However, in the majority of the single player game, which was developed later, the player is on the ground — either chopping wildlife with his axe or driving his car through a throng of druids. While on the ground, it felt like the player was “staring at the ankles of the world”. The immense world was simply too large to be appreciated from that angle.

“Because of that we re-thought the world a bit, and added more detail of different scales to the game, catering specifically to what Eddie was going to be doing in that space. If it was an “on-foot” mission, the space was smaller and the detail more human-scale. If it was an “open world” driving space, we mixed in a variety of different sized detail, and organized the space around specific “album cover vista views” to still capture the epic heavy metal feel that we wanted.”

As I hinted at before, art design, in many cases, feels dull and impersonal. Shouldn’t an artist inject personality into videogame art?

“I think personality is one of the focuses at Double Fine — not just in the art design, but in the story, the characters, and the gameplay. There are other studios out there who focus on creating slick “roller coaster, Hollywood” game experiences, but I think Double Fine really excels at instilling a sense of personality.

Sounds easy, right? If only it were. There’s a reason that so many games look similar, and Lee had some thoughts on why personality was so evident in Brutal Legend.

“I think giving a game a strong sense of personality starts at the top with strong creative direction; that creative direction should influence and be incorporated into all aspects of the game. From a visual standpoint, we thought about the whole world as a living breathing METAL world, which meant incorporating many of elements of heavy metal as natural elements in the world. So the sky is metal, t shirts are the bark that sloughs off of trees, and beer is a natural resource that trickles in streams from sacred trees.”

Wait, you mean all members of a development team should inform and support one another? Yeah, it sounds obvious, but a large number of games seem to stray from this path. To make a game a success, Lee thinks a little cooperation can go a long way.

“More than ever,” Lee said. “I think the best game experiences are when all aspects of game production are really in tune with each other. The best teams approach the game as creative partners, blending together their divergent backgrounds and perspectives to make something that is better than a single discipline could.

“So, yeah, all of the aspects affect each other whether you want them to or not. Playing the game a lot in development and thinking about how those elements can be brought closer together, even in small ways, is one of those things that is both satisfying to a developer and a player.

“Tim is a huge creative presence at the studio, and the backstory he wrote and his tastes had a huge impact on the art. Tim’s a very visual guy, too, and thinks a lot about context and what story the art and the gameplay is communicating to the player.”

Ah, yes, Tim Schafer. The man with the plan. Let’s be honest: he’s the kind of boss that we all wish we could work for. And I just had to know: what sort of craziness suggested by Tim actually ended up in the game?

“When you work with Tim Schafer, there are a lot of jokes and lot of crazy ideas that end up the game. In fact it’s so common place, I’m not sure I can come up with a great example. I do remember that we were having trouble coming up with the design for the “Bound Serpents”. These were elements that we could put all over the world that the player could do a guitar solo on and get some rewards for exploring the open world. The problem was that everything we came up with involved the player doing something that was destructive, making the world look more desperate, or downtrodden. Tim wanted the player’s actions to the make the world better in some way (“to create beauty simply by rocking”).

“I came up with the idea that there were ancient statues that the Tainted Coil demons had defaced. The visual design for the Tainted Coil was an unusual combination of the paintings of 16th century artist Hieronymus Bosch and the Bondage/S&M scene. Taking this into account, we made the statues bound with leather studded straps and placed a red ball gag put in the mouths of the serpents. The player would play a pyro solo on his guitar, which would free the statue from its straps, causing it to spread its wings in freedom and the bright red gag ball would fly off and roll around the world like a ball.

“I was always trying to get as many gag balls as I could in the game; it’s been a career goal of mine.”

Can anyone think of a more noble career goal? Didn’t think so.

Indeed, inspiration seemed to flow from every stream in that game, but what exactly was it that the game’s inspiration was founded on? After all, as we saw before, there’s plenty of opportunity to fill the game to bursting with every possible inspiration.

“Last year,” Lee said, “I gave a speech at GDC on the art direction of Brutal Legend. For that speech, I broke down the inspiration of Brutal Legend into four main elements: Heavy metal, fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, Hot Rods, and Tim Schafer. It was the combination of these elements that gave us our unique feel.

“Our take on a heavy metal game was a charming skull-laden kick ass world filled with painterly skies and giant hot rods. I think other people would’ve approached a heavy metal world game very differently.

Lee felt that great art design in general, across all games, is tied directly to inspiration.

“Something I often say is to not imitate your inspirations, but make them your own. Being influenced by others’ work is a good thing, but if you don’t bring something of yourself to it, you’re in danger of your game not having its own visual identity.

Of course, there’s no simple answer to the question “What makes awesome art design.” There’s quite a bit to consider, and there’s quite a bit that you might not have thought about yourself.

“I think excellent art design is also about unity and not uniformity. Some dissonance in art design is good. It’s all too easy to design the art of a game in a really obvious, cookie cutter fashion. Making choices like the “good guys” are green and all of the “bad guys” are red. It sounds silly, but this type of thing happens a lot in games, especially when, from a gameplay point of view, there are valid reasons for that type of approach. But I think when something has more depth and subtly, you get a better total game experience.

“I think it’s a tricky combination of left and right brained thinking. Trying to let your imagination go to new places and thinking about last few thousand years of art as inspiration, but then adapting all of that to work with the medium of video games.

“But that still isn’t enough. You have to help find a way to make it happen. You need to communicate ideas to a team, and work with a whole group of people of very different backgrounds to make something that somehow feels cohesive and original.”

Without much of a personal background in art, art design, or really anything beyond three-armed stick figures, I also wanted to know just how many different facets of art design there were to consider in the creation of a videogame.

“Art design isn’t just about a drawing on paper. You really have to know your medium, and be willing to work closely with some very smart and technical people to understand what the hardware can do. You need to find what elements of your art design work best on screen, at your target resolution, and with your particular game engine.

“What’s working best needs to be embraced and expanded and maybe other elements need to be re thought or redesigned. For example, in Brutal Legend, one of the things that always felt great was the skies. Even early in development, they had a great painterly, overly dramatic quality that made the whole game feel more “metal”. At the same time, the characters’ surfaces felt flat and uninteresting. Because the skies were working so well, we pushed the characters’ surfaces to feel more believable and respond better to what was going on in the sky. This decision helped define the sky and lighting as one of the central parts of the game’s final look.”

Well, from where I’m sitting, Double Fine has always gotten art design right. Psychonauts, of course, did just about everything right, and Brutal Legend kept up that tradition for the HD crowd, and in style. So, what’s next? Ha, as if I was going to get an answer to that.

“Just keep an eye on Double Fine. We’ve got some really cool top secret stuff going on right now that I can’t wait for people to see.”

Let the speculation begin. Personally, I’m pulling for Goggalor vs. Eddie Riggs in Space, but perhaps that’s just me.

And, hey, while you’re here, don’t forget to check out some awesome exclusive artwork from the game in the gallery below. For more art from Lee, check out his personal art blog.

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