I stumbled upon one tiny image.

My brain burst into emotions. I remembered getting chewed out by my boss for messing up with a client, being recruited by a secret underground organization, running a smalltime casino in a jazzy little port town, I remembered my good friend who drove me across the land in his madly upgraded company car, exposing corruption, swinging a scythe, and in the end finally getting on a train with the girl I had been chasing all that time. I got chills.

All that came from one single image…

Correct. I remembered Grim Fandango.

What if I could capture that in my art as well?, I started thinking.

However difficult it sounded, I couldn’t stop listening to the voice in my head saying: ”Build an adventure game, every pixel of your art will from then on carry with it the emotions from the game!” And so I did, and here I am. I have released the first chapter of my game “The Journey Down” and have accumulated enough knowledge regarding backdrop art that I believe I might actually enrich the game making community by ranting about it for a while. And thus, I introduce:

The Journeys Down and Inside Backdrop Art

It’s an interesting art, designing backdrops for adventure games, the traditional laws of composition, lighting and perspective still apply, but they are now all secondary to the rules of gameplay. The environments need to be easy to navigate, indicate crystal clear pliancy, and most important of all, when put together with the rest of your assets, they need to create a living breathing coherent world for your adventure to take place in…. A rather daunting task to say the least. So, where to start?

Two games released roughly the same time, mi1 and Space Quest IV

First off, what have you got to work with?

Traditionally there are two very different schools of backdrop layouts in adventure games. Those made for non scaling characters, and those made for scaling characters (and first person games obviously but they aren’t covered in this article.)

Back in the day when adventure games first started having backdrop art (Space Quest I era) computers weren’t very fast and game artists weren’t exactly artists, thus a rather large amount of corners were cut without anyone making a very big fuss about it, one of them being the decision not to scale characters. This tradition held on for a long time but the pattern finally started to break up around the monkey island era. (Loom actually did a lot of nifty shifting between different scales as the character moved behind walkbehinds, but it never saw any real time scaling as far as I recall.) After MI1 I doubt LucasArts released a single adventure game that didn’t have dynamic character scaling. Sadly however, Sierra clung on to the non scaling character style far later for some macabre reason, giving otherwise beautiful games such as GK1 horribly skewed and distorted backdrops.

Since Gabriel can move the whole depth of the room without scaling, the poor, poor artist had to draw the entire room in a completely orthographic view, devoid of the slightest trace of depth perspective.

Since Gabriel can move the whole depth of the room without scaling, the poor, poor artist had to draw the entire room in a completely orthographic view, devoid of the slightest trace of depth perspective

Guybrush from MI2 on the other hand gladly shrinks the further he moves into the backdrop

Guybrush from MI2 on the other hand gladly shrinks the further he moves into the backdrop, and thus lets the buildings shrink in the distance.

So why do people still make games with non scaling characters?

It’s easier. Everything gets easier. Artistically you won’t have a choice other than always drawing your rooms with straight on, one point perspective, just as if it were a platform game. If perspective drawing isn’t your forté. This should come as a blessing to you. Also it’s easier since animation work will be a lot less messy since the art you draw will always be represented in a 1:1 ratio relative to the art shown in the game. This also means that your art will always be crystal sharp instead of the mess of pixels one often encounters in a scaling game. For some styles, this way to go is the perfect choice. A good example of great use of non scaling characters is ”Shifter’s box”, a game that fully embraces its low resolution and strict perspective by using harsh shapes and colors to create true pixel-perfect adventure game magic.

If used right, the harsh rules of non scaling character games allow for amazingly good looking art. This here is a scene from Ben Chandler's "Shifter's box".

So why use scaling characters if you can get by without them?

Having scaling characters means you can have depth in your pictures. Not just gameplay wise, but aesthetically as well. And once you got depth, you got perspective, and once you got perspective you’ve got composition by the balls. No longer do you have to have lots of horrible horizontal lines all over your image messing up your composition! Say goodbye to doors of the same size, kiss mirrored walls goodbye and forget about all those horrible limitations that make your backdrop feel stiff and uninspired. Suddenly backdrops become breathtaking, beautiful masterpieces in their own right. If you approach adventure game building from a more traditional artists perspective, which I have, this is certainly the way to go.

This brings us to composition.

Lots of straight parallel lines are compositional suicide. However, the artists on MM, for technical reasons, had no choice. The artists on DOTT on the other hand, had better technology to work with, and certainly knew what they were doing aesthetically.

Swooshylines

The green lines on the pictures above are the major curves that the eye follows when looking at these certain pictures. In the first case, you can see that there’s no flow whatsoever, just a bunch of really harsh 90 degree lines that keep halting the eye every time they intersect. In the DOTT picture however, you get what we nerdy artists like to call ”swooshylines”. Swooshylines are a bunch of curves that make the flow, the actual journey the eye makes in a picture, a pleasant one. Usually when drawing a nice generic landscape, the artist tries to make the swooshylines end up on an interesting spot, to make the eye and brain feel nice and satisfied with the journey it has just taken. Having a nice journey and then enjoying a good landing spot, that is what a good composition is all about. Notice, on the DOTT image, how the curve to the far left keeps making the eye slide right back into the image again. It can not escape.

Layers of depth

To help the eye read an environment properly, many artists like to separate images in three distinct layers of depth. Foreground, middle ground and background.

In adventure games this also serves another purpose. It indicates what areas are accessible in the current room, and what areas aren’t. The foreground usually serves the purpose of framing the image, and thus helps the viewers eyes to stay within the canvas, and focused on the areas of interest.

Having lots of focus on intricate details in the un-interactive foreground is a big no-no. It distracts the viewer from focusing on what the room is really about.

The foreground in this picture from THE DIG is clearly separated by being a lot darker, and a lot more ambiguously lit. The background too, is clearly separated by being a lot brighter. Hence, the player has no problem whatsoever understanding what areas he/she is supposed to be probing in.

Foreground layers are usually calmly lit, so that they get a nice, even, non-distracting look to them. This also goes well with the fact that our brain is used to having darker shadows closer, and brighter shadows further off, as the atmosphere mixes into the shadows.

The middle ground is basically where you want all your stuff happening. It is vital that the walkable areas be as easy to read as possible. People go nuts when they click on the ground somewhere they think they can go and the character just stops half way without a response. And rightly so, that is the result of poor interaction design.

Nearly all focus in this scene is in the background on the worlds largest ball of twine, a target we will soon reach and meddle with. Mind you, everything truly interactible though, happens in the middle ground. The foreground is made up of a simple black bush in the bottom left corner.

Nearly all focus in this scene is in the background on the worlds largest ball of twine, a target we will soon reach and meddle with. Mind you, everything truly interactible though, is in the middle ground. The foreground is made up of a simple black bush in the bottom left corner.

The only time you want to put items with high focus in the background is when they truly are relevant to the setting. A common example is showing a location you can/will be able to go to later on in the game. Don’t waste your contrast on things you don’t truly need. Focus should be spared to the important regions. If you start putting everything in focus the room becomes confusing and uncomfortable for the player to be in.

Lighting

As any person who has walked the same path in both day and night time knows, lighting changes the mood in a scene radically.

Strong lights always attract a lot of attention, not because they are bright, but because they in general create harsh contrasts, and harsh contrasts are always a trap for the eye. For this very simple reason I recommend only having one major dominant source of light in your scene or everything will become messy and confusing. A second complementary light source will always add more ambiance to the scene but make sure that you separate them clearly both by direction and hue, or you will make the job far more confusing for yourself. The easier time you have had rendering your light, the easier time will the viewer have reading what you have painted.

A very common and simple “trick” is to complement your warm sources of light with cold ones. I like to separate them as much as possible too so that objects in the middle of the scene catch a little bit of both lights.

These room design hints merely begin to scratch the surface of what one might call “room design 101”, but I hope they contained enough new stuff to make some of you want to get down and dirty with your art, and complicate things a little.

Don’t be afraid of messing things up, you can always undo your mistakes, and if worse comes to worse you can always start from scratch. Honestly thats the best tip I can give anyone, try over and over again till you get it right. It’s not a big deal really if a sketch turns out bad. When I draw stuff most of it turns out crap anyways, I’m just too smart to show anyone.

Author bio:

Theodor Waern lives in Gothenburg, Sweden,
works with nordgame.com for a living and spends 100% of his free time drawing, sketching and pondering about the continuation of his own adventure game project, The Journey Down.

The Journeys Down and Inside Backdrop Art