Beauty in 2D: why Daedalic still makes point-and-click adventure games with hand-drawn art
Ben's note: We cast a wide net when it came to looking for guest posts to run while I'm traveling, and Daedalic Entertainment was enthusiastic about sharing their thoughts on hand-drawn art in their games. The words they sent over are insightful, but the images really sell this story for me. Enjoy!
This article is a little bit about the how of making 2D games, but, as with most game design choices, people are more interested in the why. This piece is about the way we at Daedalic Entertainment do 2D art and who does it. It is about the art and the artists and the games that come out in the end.
Point-and-click adventure games aren’t the only old school things about Daedalic Entertainment. Unlike a lot of modern games, we celebrate a sense of visual authorship. And I believe that the most direct way to communicate to someone that there is one individual standing behind a certain emotional moment in a game - behind a specific animation - is via 2D art. 2D art the way we do it is the final concept of a character and a scene directly translated to screen without going through modeling, rigging, texturing and whatnot… It is the artist's handwriting. It is what makes these games personal, both for us as for our fans. There is mimimal technology intervening between the artist and the audience.
Frame-by-frame to Deponia
The nicest thing about our 2D animation is that it's hand-drawn. There is always the hand of the artist sketching and thinking and painting right behind it (in the case seen above: Simone Kesterton). First the animation sequence gets planned and outlined, and then cleaned so only the crisp outlines remain. Finally, it gets colored – frame by frame – and all by hand. Nearly nothing of what you see in a game like Deponia is computer generated.
Picture this effort done for a platform game. Imagine every single character animation, every stompable enemy, and each twisting platform being drawn. It is a lot of work. Now imagine doing a puzzle game. Most platformers (and most other games) consist of a fixed set of rules and graphics that repeatedly appear and reappear in all kinds of variations throughout the game. An adventure game always takes the hard road. The whole gaming experience consists of a sequence of special and non-repeatable situations and events.
For example, in Deponia (and its sequels Chaos on Deponia and Goodbye Deponia) the whole story takes place on a huge junkyard planet. It's a gigantic playground where every possible (or impossible) object or situation can be found and one bizarre moment follows another. While the main character, Rufus, has a handful of standard animations (e.g. picking up an object, walking and talking), new animations have to be designed and drawn for each special situation. Whenever you solve a puzzle, you get rewarded by a unique animation that might never appear again during the entire game.
The sheer number of required assets for such a thing can make an artist go mad. You really need to love what you are doing, if you don't want to get suicidal or strangle the puzzle designer responsible for the whole mess. Of course, we always try to figure out clever ways to reuse animations or singular frames, but it's still a hell of a lot of work, and many gamers will notice if you cheat too much.
The same is true with our background art. Each scene that players visit in our games is unique. We rarely reuse the assets from other screens.
The picture above shows artwork by Tobi Trebeljahr taken from the game Memoria, a fantasy adventure telling two intertwined and morally complex stories. One is about a fowler who wants to save his former companion, the other is about a princess heading to war in order to become the greatest hero of all time. One is a fairy tale crime story, the other a hero's journey. The art style has to do justice to both stories combining themes of epic glory with more gentle undertones.
Usually, the feel and look of a game gets defined by a concept artist. If you work with 2D, this is, of course, not any different. But, while other games use their concept art as bonus content hidden in their main menus, our concept art ends up being the actual in-game art. Sure, you have to add a lot of detail to make it more than just concept art, but in the end it will feel like walking through a painting built on the rough outlines it started from.
2D art allows the artist's personal handwriting to shine through. This almost always applies, regardless of the quality of the artwork. You can see every brush stroke if you look closely. There is a lot of detail to discover. A lot might not be relevant for the solution of a puzzle, but it certainly breathes life into the game's world.
A night with the rabbit and friends
Adventures are all about stories and stories are all about character. No matter how beautiful your background art turns out in the end, it is nothing without the characters roaming its landscapes. They need to be interesting and the art itself has to help translate motivation and personality. It is surprising how much sympathy can be evoked by just looking a well designed character in its eyes and watching it move. They need to be believable and this can pose a huge challenge when it comes to 2D art design.
First of all, they need to fit in with the art style of the backgrounds. They also need to be designed with all further animation requirements in mind. For example, it is a lot easier to animate a comic character with jeans than a more realistic looking one wearing a waving dress. The latter requires a lot more effort to animate well without the entire effect looking awkward.
In the case of The Night of the Rabbit each character is sketched by the creative lead and writer, Matt Kempke. The lead character artist, Olga Andriyenko, then takes this vision and translates it into the final character, understanding the original vision and then adding her own style and flavour to the mix.
If you’ve come this far you may wonder why we do all this. Why go through all this trouble game after game when 3D has so many advantages and is so much easier and more flexible to use? Well, it is an act of dedication and a decision that was done very early in the company's history. The first game ever released by Daedalic was a former university project called Edna and Harvey: The Breakout. (A follow up was released a few years later called Harvey's New Eyes). The entire game was drawn, written and animated by Daedalic's Creative Director Jan Mueller-Michaelis (aka. Poki).
The art style in the Edna games is very weird and simple. It was both born from nostalgia of how games looked back in the 90s as well as a sense of subversion regarding on how games should appear. Edna is witty and nasty and it does a lot to surprise and confuse you while playing, twisting the genre's conventions. The art reflects that.
In a way, it still is the core template of what a Daedalic game is: On the surface it is a nostalgic journey through gaming experiences that many people believed were dead for some time. But beneath that, they are articulations of individuals who just love what they are doing and pushing the genre's boundaries both in story-telling and in art.
Admittedly, not everything we do is strictly hand-animated. We do also have 3D animation in our games. And with each new project, we decide anew what technology we will use and what effect we want to achieve. But 2D art will always be special for us, and it still is the reason why many love our games in the first place. It is the reason why nearly every article talking about a new Daedalic game starts with sheer wonder at this company that still does old-school point-and-click adventure games in an old-school graphic style. Regardless on how strange and unique that may sound, people seem to like us for it.
In the end it all pays out. When you have all those neat details in the game and it's full of quirky variety and lough-out-loud surprises it can’t help but charm you. And it is even more charming when you feel the effort and love behind it.
If you're curious about the end product of all this hard work, head over to Steam and give a game or two a try.