Sunday 30 August 2015

Opinions needed: which art style for Cello Fortress?

The gameplay of my live performance game Cello Fortress is nearly finished, but the graphics are still basic blocks with some crude textures. Recently I've been working on figuring out what style I want for the game, and I've ended up with two possible styles that I like: one dubbed "Surreal Architecture" and the other "Rough Polygons". Since I have a hard time choosing, I figured I'd just ask here. Which style should I use for Cello Fortress?

I've also added the pros and cons of each style as I see them. Several are just my personal taste so let me know in the comments if you disagree.

"Surreal Architecture" style

The basic idea of this style is that you travel through a world of surreal architecture. The surrealism is of the subtle sort: on first sight it might look like normal classical architecture, but if you stop and think for a second you realise this cannot be: buildings are too big and repetitive, it makes no sense to have a city with nothing but church towers, and why is there an area with giant organ pipes?

This style is inspired by the graphic novel series Les Cit├ęs Obscures (also known as Cities Of The Fantastic or De Duistere Steden) by Schuiten and Peters. To get an idea of their style, have a look at these beautiful images. To a lesser degree it is also inspired by the Rork series by Andreas (picture).

The main reason to do this style is that I love classical architecture. I haven't done a lot of 3D modelling recently and this kind of stuff is one of my favourite things to model so I'd love to get back to that. The biggest problems with this style are that the link with Cello Fortress isn't very clear, and that it might distract from what the game is all about: the live cello. So the main reason to do this style is that I'd enjoy making it so much.

As concept art I've made some basic environments in 3dsmax and even rendered a video as if it were the game:

Click for high resolution

Click for high resolution

Previz video of the Surreal Architecture style.

  • More unique and notable
  • Lots of fun to make
  • Very close to me as a person

  • Lots of work
  • Distracts from game's core (the live cello)
  • Gameplay less readable for players
  • Link between visuals and gameplay less clear
  • Needs serious optimisation for good framerate
  • Doesn't fit style of existing vehicle and turret art very well
  • Not entirely happy with this concept art yet

"Rough Polygons" style

This style is a lot simpler. It is mostly about big, untextured polygons. It has a rough rook and most of the potential beauty of this style comes from the lighting. Using a combination of pre-baked lightmaps and some simple tricks I think I can achieve a global illumination-look as in this image.

A big benefit of this style is that is does not distract from the gameplay. Cello Fortress is such a weird concept that I often need to explain quite a lot to the audience and this style won't distract from the core. It also helps that the gameplay will remain very readable under poor lighting conditions: I often perform with Cello Fortress at festivals and it is not rare to have a beamer projection on a rough wall with too much environment light. Such conditions make the game look a lot less bright and crisp than a normal gaming environment.

Click for high resolution

  • Very readable and understandable for players
  • Looks good with crappy beamers on bumpy walls
  • Faster to make
  • Higher framerate
  • Fits style of existing vehicle and turret art

  • Less original / notable
  • Not as much fun to make
  • Strong shadows on the floor might be too dark but are crucial for this look

Why am I not sure which style to choose? The Surreal Architecture style is much more fun to make and would stand out more, but it just doesn't seem like the best choice for the game. It has little to do with the rest of the concept and would distract from what it's all about: the live cello performance.

Which do you think I should make, and why?


  1. Hmm.. I like the surrealistic concept the most. The reason i think you should go for that one is because, as you said: it is currently and will likely turn out much more unique than the rough, low poly concept. I feel like you would be able to make the player feel much more attached to the atmosphere, because of the already much more architect filled look and feel. Depending on the amount of details you expect to put into the game, and on the stage specifically, you should be able to make it look and feel great without taking too much distraction from the Cello.

  2. By far I prefer the architectural approach, particularly the first concept with the gothic style, and it sort of fits with the classical aspect of the cello, but I definitely agree with your concerns.

    The problem with this concept as I see it is that the buildings are too complex thus distracting attention. In theory though, a noisy background should contrast well with a clean foreground but I guess the distinction between the game-play area and the rest is not clear enough. I'm almost expecting to see entities inhabiting the buildings which intersects the play-field.

    A suggestion would be to simplify the style of the buildings, putting a lot more emphasis on silhouette rather than detail. Perhaps some of the towers could be replaced with block-structures as well.
    For the distinction between play-field and environment you could make sure any intersections with other buildings are kept clean in silhouette, perhaps by adding additional borders if needed (thinking about those walls in particular, the wavy pattern they are creating on the ground plane).

    Additionally, you could also push the surreal aspect of the scene a lot more in order to get a better composition. You could do all sorts of crazy stuff like bending the structures to imply a different perspective or having some of them coming from the top pointing down-wards even.

    1. The silhouette thing is interesting: I should try doing something more similar to the game Firewatch, where coloured fog creates strong silhouettes and that is the main thing you often see.

  3. Surreal architecture, for sure! Unless you might be making Mordor out of those polygons...

  4. It's not really a fair comparison is it? The first has multiple images, mood art and even a movie mockup. The second is a single image. No wonder the first style tickles our fancies more..

    But wait a sec.. I like the depth/paralax of the first (which would work in the second as well). And then I google "polygon mood art". Cooooool... Not to mention that you've shown with Proun that you can make simple geometry into an original and very sexy art style!

    If I were you you'd ask two questions:
    -What do you need to prove style 1 (which you prefer) works for the gameplay?
    -How would you push the second style to become cooler?

    Or just go for the old coin-toss. If it lands and you go: "Damnit!" You should choose the other style anyway...

    Btw, I'd go for the second

    1. One of the few people who prefer the second style, you must have seen awesome art like this?

      I agree that the second style could be something cooler. However, with this image I did actually intend something as simple as you see in my post, not something else. I worked for a bit on making something more similar to the link above, but somehow it didn't click in my head: it looks amazing in those inspirational pictures but I couldn't bring the enthusiasm to make something like that myself, apparently not my kind of thing to make (although I love seeing it!).

  5. I have played the game (Abunai 2014) & loved it. But there was no visual link at all between the concept & the art. Therefore; I would simply choose to shape the enviorment litterally like a 'Cello Fortress', as the visual theme for the game. This will also help to explain the unique gameplay to new players. And since the Cello isn't really modern music instrument, I would shape the fortress like a fortress from the time of the Cello's first creation, or when it was most popular. This approach would then follow the the logic of games like 'Brutal Legend'. Stylewise I would try to bring the shapes & material of the cello itself back into the game. So eventually it will be a variotion on the 'surreal architecture style' you present here. Oh, and I don't think that the cons have to be cons with the right approach. - The rough polygon style doesn't really make sense to me, knowing the gameplay; so I would stay away from that direction. Apart from this, I would be happy to make some concept art for the idea I described above :) - Kind regards Robin

    1. I'd love to see that concept art! :D

      The challenge with making something that is literally a "Cello Fortress" is that it easily slides into the direction of old platformers with music-themes levels. I think those are really cheap and crappy, so I tried to stay away from putting actual cellos in the environments. However, if you see some way to do that that doesn't look lame, then I'd be really interested.

      Someone linked these to me, which are really interesting because they do pair style and class with cello shapes:

  6. The surreal architecture brings up questions of setting. Why are you battling in such a city? What is your goal or end purpose? Is there an end? What would it mean to win? Should you try to preserve the architecture? Should you destroy it because it is a sign of something that is hated?

    While it is only tangentially related now, it seems that you could develop a back story around this that could be quite interesting. Is it a dystopian future where music and art are being banned and you are fighting to overthrow an oppressive government? Are you exploring a long-lost civilization that has been taken over by wicked creatures that despise music?

    That is, although the game would still be about cello music, it could be given a theme which is more about about the influence that music has on the world, which is much deeper and more meaningful. What do you want to say about music and its influence on the world? How can the setting help convey that message?

    The rough polygon style seems to emphasize gameplay as it is more abstract, and there seems to be less representation of the real-world. So, I think you have to figure out if you want the small project of just finishing the gameplay, or the larger project of looking for larger commentary in the game itself.

  7. I really like all the comments here So far, your mock ups are really cool. Personally I feel like a mix of the two could be kind of cool, as in a blank slate that, as the game progresses shapes to be buildings and landscapes in the background. The comment above was talking about a background story, and I think if implemented this way, you can introduce a story that the player learns as the landscape changes.

  8. I like the surreal architecture style.

    The game already really stands out — what a neat idea! — but this makes it even cooler.

    No, it doesn’t really fit with the existing turret and guns, but I don’t know that that’s a big deal. When the word “surreal” is brought to bear, it doesn’t need to match. (OTOH, maybe you could come up with surreal weapons to match the background.)

    And, if it is more fun to you, so long as the game remains playable at every step, and you don’t hesitate to perform it, then why not do it in a way that you love, and work at it a little bit over a long time?

    Let me add a challenge though: could you think up two more ideas of how you’d like to see it done? For example, perhaps the background is a music visualization and the playspace is more abstract. As a person always comes up with a better solution when they consider more options, what would you do if you could neither do the rough poly look or the surreal look?

  9. I think that all has been said. The pointed concerns are the right ones: readability, ability for the audience to get the bond between the music played and the game elements (having in mind that the audience has may be a poor knowledge of music or/and with game's world unlike me) and light conditions.

    My vote: Go for the rough polygon art direction ! Sometime it's necessary to put our own taste for the sake of what we want to show. I can imagine that a lot of great movie makers had to make hard decisions when editing their last cut of their movies. It's the same here.

    I think also that there are smart ways to make the rough polygon version nice looking.

    What rules here is really to make tangible what is not at a first glance: the bound between music and the game experience itself.