Reality’s Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be

December 9, 2016

I’ve been doing a lot of programming work for Robyn HUD, mostly around the areas of bystander and guard AI and the planning interface that the game will have. In fact, the programming’s been my sole focus for over three weeks now. That’s led to an increasing itch to take a break and doing something a little more “artsy.” Setting aside the programming for a bit, I decided to work on another important aspect of the game: determining its visual look.

[Early WIP prototype level and character model.]
Early WIP prototype level and character model.

Earlier this year, I threw together a rough prototype of the game. This was intended to get a handle on how the game would play rather than what it would look like. At the time, I created a basic level and a few test models to populate it with. I dashed these assets out quickly and didn’t stop to think about what I really wanted the game to look like.

Fundamentally, Robyn HUD is about a pair of thieves stealing stuff. As the name indicates, though, they do steal from the rich and corrupt to help the poor and downtrodden. And as with those classic adventures of Robin Hood of yore, I wanted my game to have the same sense of fun and adventure. I didn’t want it to be dark, moody, and angsty. I wanted it to be “shiny” (sorry, that’s the best way I can describe it).

I want Robyn HUD to have a bit of a sense of a heightened reality. Real reality is very difficult to do in a computer game. The closer a game gets to looking real but not quite reaching that level, the weirder the game looks. I suspect it’s because we’re surrounded by real reality every day and when we see something that’s close, then the small differences really feel off. Whether this is due to lighting, or the texture of a character’s skin, or perhaps the floaty way some characters seem to move, even in the latest triple A titles, there’s just something disconcerting about games that look close to real but aren’t. At the same time, since so many games strive for realism you have a lot of games that end up looking rather the same.

With Robyn HUD I knew then that I wanted something stylized in its presentation. And yet I still wanted it to imply a certain degree of realism. For whatever reason, it felt right that the game should have something of a comic book/graphic novel look to it. With that in mind I sat down to start sketching out some of my ideas.

From my work on Sleuthhounds I knew that characters define the reality of the rest of the game. Whatever level of detail is incorporated into the character designs that same level of detail needs to be incorporated into the look of the locations and objects the characters interact with in order for everything to fit together seamlessly. For Robyn HUD then I started working on some concepts for the Robyn character.

Since I wanted the game to be informed by reality, even if it wasn’t going to look really real, I started by turning to some photo reference. Or in this case Google images reference. In the television series Supergirl the character of Alex Danvers, as portrayed by actress Chyler Leigh, had something of the body language that I wanted the Robyn character to have. A quick search for Alex Danvers images gave me several poses that felt appropriate for Robyn.

[A few proto-Robyn sketches to find the visual look of the game.]
A few proto-Robyn sketches to find the visual look of the game.

I took those initial poses and used them as the basis for the Robyn character, making some changes to account for the outfit that I imagine Robyn will wear in the game. It’s important to keep in mind that these sketches are just to get a general feel for what I want the game to look like. The actual final Robyn character will look different from Ms. Leigh when all is said and done.

With the Robyn character, I wanted her “thieving” outfit to be practical but also somewhat inspired by the classic Robyn Hood. The bright colour of Lincoln green is great for camouflage if you’re an outlaw hiding in Sherwood Forest. However, it’s not so good if you’re sneaking through modern day metropolises at night. I started by taking the green colour and darkened it and desaturated it for Robyn’s clothes. This result is an outfit that still has green at its base but is a bit more appropriate for the settings Robyn will be sneaking through.

In thinking about sending a thief on a mission it occurred to me that such a person would need some place to store the loot that she liberated as she went along. For that I gave Robyn a shoulder sling messenger tube. I like this idea as opposed to something like a backpack or hip pouch as it’s reminiscent of the quiver of arrows that classic Robin Hood would wear. As a final nod to Robin Hood, I gave Robyn a small golden arrow pin (which doesn’t show up well in the images above, but trust me it’s there).

[Proto-Robyn sketches in evening wear.]
Proto-Robyn sketches in evening wear.

The Robyn character won’t be spending all her time skulking through darkened buildings though. At one point she’ll have to infiltrate a millionaire’s mansion while a gala party is in progress. In the spirit of not being able to beat them then join them, Robyn will have to go to this party in an evening dress. Here I sought out a couple of dress pictures to use as the basis for the concept sketches. In this case, I was able to go with a much more vibrant green.

The thing that struck me about doing even these few character sketches was that it was in a style that I couldn’t remember seeing used in games before. I believe, a similar style is employed in the adventure game The Last Express, which I’ve got sitting in my “to play” list but haven’t gotten to yet, but there it’s prerendered graphics rather than real time 3D models. At any rate, this style is obviously reality based and yet has that “heightened” comic book/graphic novel feel that I was going for.

I really like how these early sketches turned out. The trick now will be to figure out how to create 3D models that work for the gameplay elements but that also look as closely as possible to these actual sketches. Of course, the effects to achieve that look get back into the programming side of things (pixel shaders here I come!) and there’s no shortage of programming things to do in the game right now. So we’ll just have to wait and see when this particular task bubbles to the top.