Couverture - Tales From the Devs #2

The Pixel Hunt #2 | Artistic Direction

In this second Tales From the Devs article with The Pixel Hunt, we’re joined once again by Florent Maurin, founder of the studio, and Alexandre Grilletta, artistic director on The Wreck and Project Gaia. Together, we take a look back at how they met, their creative process and the artistic inspiration behind their new game. If you haven’t seen our first article with Florent, you can find it here to find out everything you need to know about the genesis of the project.

NDLR : As the name of the game is still a secret, we have agreed with The Pixel Hunt to call it Project Gaia.

Point’n Think: It’s fascinating to see how creative partnerships often arise from unexpected encounters. Could you share how your collaboration initially came about, particularly given your work together on The Wreck?

Florent Maurin: It’s an interesting story, because when I first got involved in the world of video games, by creating The Pixel Hunt, I started by creating a blog. I discussed the many games that caught my attention at the time, particularly those in Flash. Among them, there were a few titles that corresponded to my interests, dealing with current events. One day I came across a game called Kill Mittal. It caught my attention because of its satirical take on current events, in particular Arcelor’s acquisition of Mittal and the chaos that followed, as depicted in the game. I was very amused by the experience, especially given the high production quality for a game that was entirely free at the time, with impressive 3D graphics. I wondered who was behind this project, so I contacted the person responsible and asked for an interview on my blog, because I thought it was incredible. That person was Alexandre, and that’s how we got to know each other in the first place.

Example of the cinematography in The Wreck
Example of the cinematography in The Wreck

Alexandre Grilletta: Florent and I connected through our shared interest in unconventional, topical and often political games. At the time, I was exploring the intersection between video games and political commentary, which led me to attend conferences where Florent’s work was being presented. Naturally, our paths crossed and I started by doing some work for The Pixel Hunt before really getting involved in the design of The Wreck.

Kill Mittal is a French flash video game in which players take on the role of virtual employees of steel manufacturer ArcelorMittal, fighting to keep a factory open. Loosely inspired by real events, notably the struggle of French workers against owner Lakshmi Mittal’s decision to close two blast furnaces in the town of Florange, the game depicts a scenario where players rebel against virtual security forces and even face off against a giant robot version of Mittal. Created by Alexandre, the game aims to represent the story of workers fighting for their jobs, without necessarily criticising the French government. The game’s narrative revolves around the year 2030, when Mittal is said to have closed many steel plants around the world, prompting steel workers to take drastic action against him. It illustrates the frustrations and disillusionment of workers faced with the economic reality of globalisation, while offering an interactive, thought-provoking experience of contemporary social issues.

Kill Mittal

PnT: Let’s move on to The Wreck. Could you tell us more about your roles and the collaborative process behind the game’s development?

Florent: The Wreck was a unique project for us, representing our first self-publishing production with The Pixel Hunt. With a small team and a shared vision, Alex and I took on multi-faceted roles, blurring the boundaries between art direction and creative direction. Our collaboration was characterised by in-depth brainstorming sessions and a fluid exchange of ideas.

Alexandre: Our working process on this project was highly collaborative and creative. Due to the small size of our team, we shared creative direction, which allowed us to freely explore our ideas and enrich each other’s work. We had numerous brainstorming sessions where we exchanged our visions and concepts, aiming to create an immersive and engaging gaming experience. My role as art director was not just limited to the visual design of the game, but also to contributing to the narrative and interactive aspects. We took a bottom-up approach, starting with our individual ideas and building a collective vision for the game. Our collaboration was marked by a good sense of complicity and mutual trust, which enabled us to express ourselves freely and exchange ideas without fear. We both brought our unique skills and perspectives to the table, which enriched the creative process.

Doll's house sequence in The Wreck
Doll’s house sequence in The Wreck

Florent: I thought it was an incredible experience. Alex brought innovative ideas to the table, particularly in terms of art direction and interactive design. For example, Alex ‘saw’ a recursive scene, with a house within a house within a house. This formal vision gave rise to an interesting writing constraint. However, this idea quickly evolved into an essential component of our story. The creative process was very collaborative, and we spent many hours discussing and exchanging ideas, often in informal settings such as afternoons in AirBnBs. Every time Alex came up with a new visual version of a character or story element, it inspired new perspectives and enriched our collective vision of the game. This collaborative and open approach enabled us to create a rich and coherent universe for The Wreck. When it comes to feedback, we’ve always favoured constructive communication, based on trust and mutual respect. We are aware that our main objective is to move the project forward together, not to satisfy our personal egos. What’s more, our experience has taught us that incongruity in writing can sometimes lead to brilliant and unexpected ideas. That’s why we enthusiastically welcomed suggestions from all members of the team, with Peggy and Horace for example.

PnT: It’s fascinating to hear about your synergistic approach to game development. Could you give an example of how your collaborative process has influenced the creative direction of The Wreck?

Florent: I’m thinking of the background to Marie, Juno’s mother. That was entirely Alex’s idea at the start. He suggested the idea of a very religious person, which initially surprised me – I hadn’t planned that for her at all initially – but in the end several people pointed out how striking this character was. I realised that this was an interesting opportunity to explore the role of religion in the life of this complex character, an abusive mother, but also a creative genius, who clearly lacked affection in her own past. So when Alex came up with the idea, I immediately thought of a scene where the character of Mary insults Jesus on the cross, expressing her resentment.

Concept art of Marie in The Wreck
Concept art of Marie in The Wreck

Alexandre: It did impose constraints on us, but in a positive sense. It’s something you often see, but these constraints pushed us to develop innovative ideas. The doll’s house, for example, added a really interesting narrative and gameplay dimension. It’s like a cinematic experience, but adapted to the video game medium, with zooms and dynamic sequences that work perfectly in this interactive environment.

PnT: Your exchanges reflect a remarkable creative symbiosis. Can you tell us more about how you integrate your artistic and narrative visions to bring your projects to life?

Florent: One of the beauties of our collaboration lies in the way our ideas weave together to enrich the narrative in our games. For example, when we started work on The Wreck, I had a clear narrative vision, but Alexandre’s input came as an aesthetic revelation. His expertise in art direction and interactive design added layers of depth and subtlety to our story, making every aspect of our game more coherent and engaging.

Alexandre: Absolutely. When Florent shared his ideas and themes, it provided a solid basis for our collaboration. My role was then to translate these concepts into tangible visual elements and immersive game mechanics. For example, the introduction of the dolls’ house into the story of The Wreck became a powerful visual metaphor that enriched both the story and the gameplay experience.

Florent: This idea of revisiting memories was something we had in mind right from the start. We wondered whether this would be done in a linear way, through carousels or something else. This process of revisiting memories, of retrieving information that modifies our perception of the past, is really at the heart of the creative direction. The discussions I had with Alex helped to clarify this vision. For example, the bathroom scene gave us a hard time. Initially, we’d imagined a scene where, on one side of the wall, there was Juno in her bathroom, and on the other side, Alex. But when we tried to bring this idea to life by prototyping it, it didn’t work as well as we’d hoped. At a meeting with Peggy, our animator, and Horace, our developer, we had to rethink a few things. That’s when the idea of using timelapse came up, suggested by one of the team members. This iterative approach to design allowed everyone to contribute to improving the scene, even those who weren’t directly involved in its initial conception. This process transformed a scene that wasn’t even supposed to be in the game into one of the most memorable, according to some of the feedback we received. This shows that, although Alex and I can claim a role as authors, the video game is first and foremost a work of collective creation in which every member of the team is involved.

Timelapse sequence in The Wreck
Timelapse sequence in The Wreck

PnT: Your ability to communicate and give feedback constructively seems to be an essential part of your collaboration. Could you share some insights into how you manage feedback and adjustments within your team?

Florent: Our approach is based on open and respectful dialogue, where every piece of feedback is seen as an opportunity for improvement rather than a personal criticism. This dynamic of honest and caring collaboration enables us to move forward together towards our shared vision.

Alexandre: Our professional experience and maturity have enabled us to rise above egos and focus on what really matters: creating exceptional experiences for our players. Every adjustment, every iteration is approached with a team spirit and a collective desire to achieve excellence.

PnT: Your brainstorming process seems to have been rich in ideas and in-depth discussions about the themes you want to explore in your next game. Could you tell us more about the genesis of the Gaia Project and how you approached these initial discussions?

Florent: The genesis of our Gaia Project was the result of deep reflection on the contemporary challenges we face. For my part, the idea emerged from my personal awareness of the urgency of climate change and my desire to make a significant contribution through my work. When I shared this vision with Alexandre, he not only embraced it, but also broadened the scope of the themes we could explore. Indeed, he raised the exciting idea of tackling other subjects such as the impact of work and relationships in the age of social networks. There was also a desire to go for something with more gameplay and to have this principle of replay value, of real narrative RPG gameplay.

Alexandre: Our initial exchanges marked the start of an intense brainstorming process, during which we explored various potential sub-themes and their relevance to our game. We plunged into in-depth discussions on topics such as the attention economy and online parasocial relations, all of which are essential facets that will enrich our main narrative on climate resistance. This process enabled us to identify the different angles from which we could approach these complex issues, while ensuring the coherence and depth of our narrative experience. But the idea was also to remind ourselves that just because we were going for something more gameplay-based, it didn’t mean we had to let go of that almost protesting real-life game aspect. I’m interested in these issues from a personal point of view. Ecology, but also the economy of attention on social networks and how algorithms can transform our lives.

Florent: For example, to be concrete, when Alex spoke to me about the attention economy, I immediately found it interesting. And as it’s a game about our times, talking about the environmental crisis is like talking about the elephant in the room. As far as these environmental issues are concerned, we need fiction set in a solarpunk future where everything has been destroyed, but where we’re rebuilding on sound foundations. But that’s not really what I wanted to do. I think we also need fiction from the present that talks about our struggles in the moment. For example, when Alex talked to me about the attention economy, I immediately thought of a character who uses environmental issues for fame, to turn it into something narcissistic. And that became the boyfriend of the main character in the game.

This question of the attention economy is becoming increasingly topical, particularly when we talk about the business models of certain GAFAMs (hello Netflix). In their book La Guerre de l’attention, Yves Marry and Florent Souillot explore the emerging concept of ‘attentional capitalism’. At the heart of their analysis is the metaphor that our brains have become the new black gold, a resource coveted by major technology companies in their relentless quest for profitability. The authors describe the emergence of this phenomenon, highlighting the central role of technology giants such as GAFAM in capturing our attention. These companies deploy strategies to appropriate our available brain time, transforming our lives into an uninterrupted series of screen moments.

La guerre de l'attention

The book paints a vivid picture of this struggle for our attention, depicting a real, everyday war without uniforms or defined territory. The authors use the term ‘war’ deliberately, highlighting the colossal stakes involved in this invisible battle being waged in cyberspace. More and more people are becoming aware of their digital alienation, opening the way for reflection on the need to disconnect and re-establish a balance between technology and the human. This debate between an increasingly connected society and a more moderate approach raises crucial questions about our relationship with technology and our own well-being. The Gaia Project is one of these projects, and will be one of a number of future works addressing this theme.

PnT: Can you tell us more about the iterative process you’ve followed to develop the game so far?

Florent: For me, writing Project Gaia was an ongoing iterative process, where I started by laying the foundations for the story and characters, then incorporated Alex’s feedback and ideas to enrich and deepen the narrative. We also had discussions about game mechanics and how they might serve our narrative themes, even though I’m not a gameplay expert.

Alexandre: Indeed, our creative process is based on a constant exchange of ideas and feedback, where each element is examined in the light of our artistic and narrative vision. One of the keys to our successful collaboration is our ability to listen to and integrate each other’s ideas, even if they’re not always in our area of expertise.

PnT: You’ve stressed the importance of maintaining a recognisable visual identity for the game. How did you approach this issue in the development of the game?

Alexandre: In the field of video games, the idea of art is often associated with the technique, workflow and shaders used to create the final rendering. This notion applies to many disciplines, such as painting, where the choice of materials and techniques has a considerable influence on the final result. In video games, the PBR (Physically Based Rendering) pipeline is commonly used to achieve realistic renderings. This pipeline involves the use of Normal Map, Height Map and Ambient Occlusion textures. However, this approach can be expensive and restrictive, limiting overall creativity. The most striking games are often those that have broken free from traditional, academic workflows. By freeing themselves from these constraints, artists can explore new techniques and create unique artistic directions. Notable examples include Monument Valley, Hyper Light Drifter, Sable and Dordogne. These games illustrate how the use of unconventional techniques can lead to visually striking results.

While it is important to break free from traditional workflows, it is also crucial to take into account technical constraints, such as performance and compatibility with different machines. The aim is to strike a balance between artistic freedom and technical constraints to create a compelling visual experience. The Gaia Project uses a minimalist, geometric approach to create a visual universe. This choice is inspired by the sobriety demanded of individuals in the context of sustainable transport. The environment is created using simple textures and geometric shapes to optimise performance and explore the player’s imagination.

An important aspect of the game was to render the driving phases well, symbolising the search for meaning and purpose in life. The aesthetic image evoked was that of driving along the motorway late at night, alone in the world and lost in thought. This metaphor illustrates the absurdity of the car’s speed, which is far greater than human physical capacity. The idea of a transparent car raised questions about our relationship with technology and the environment. The game also raises questions about moving a tonne of metal to transport 80 kg of meat.

Despite the ecological themes, the use of a car is a deliberate choice to underline the abstraction of travel and the mental escape it allows. I remember my childhood, looking out of the car window and imagining fantastic adventures. This sense of escape and return to more primal things is made possible by the solitude and isolation of the car. At night, lights are transformed into geometric shapes, car headlights into lines and landscapes into seas of moving forms. The aim was to reproduce this feeling of hypnosis, which is conducive to reflection in the game. The artistic direction, using simple geometric shapes and the play of light, allows the landscapes to be completely redefined, creating compositions that are reminiscent of illustrations created by a human being. This approach reaffirms subjectivity, emotions and aesthetics in a hyper-technological object like the video game and the car. This use of procedural techniques is seen as a way of creating landscapes that appear to be handmade, while respecting precise rules defined upstream of production.

Physically realistic rendering (PBR) in 3D computer graphics aims to accurately reproduce the behaviour of light in the real world. This technique is based on three fundamental principles: the modelling of surfaces using microfacets, respect for the principle of conservation of light energy, and the use of bidirectional reflectivity functions. By simplifying the visual creation process, PBR offers computer graphics designers parameters that are not interdependent, reducing the need for iterations when adjusting materials and lighting. This approach results in more realistic and consistent renderings, while improving workflow efficiency.

The integration of PBR into the rendering engines used in animated films and video games has led to the widespread use of this technique, offering high-quality visual results in real-time environments. By eliminating the need for lighting tricks and guaranteeing the luminous coherence of virtual objects, PBR simplifies the creative process for digital artists. This approach contributes to the production of more realistic graphics and has become a standard in the 3D computer graphics industry.

PnT: Thank you for this detailed explanation of your approach. It’s fascinating to see how you combine an abstract aesthetic with careful thought about the themes and messages you want to convey through your play. Now I’d like to know more about your creative process, Alexandre. How did you start thinking about the artistic direction of the Gaia project, and how has it evolved over time?

Alexandre: For me, the creative process was quite intuitive and organic. Rather than starting with very specific elements, I first sought to capture the essence of the themes and emotions we wanted to convey through the game. This meant exploring abstract ideas and symbolic concepts that might evoke an emotional response in players. The idea was to simplify shapes, such as using half circles to represent clouds. This approach was also influenced by dreams and references to other artists, such as James Gilleard.

James Gilleard
James Gilleard

I created a moodboard that sums up the aesthetic I was aiming for: a road trip with strong visuals and clean geometric shapes. The layout of the moodboard follows the progression of the trip, with blue tones at the start and warmer colours later on. The use of simple, uncluttered shapes is mastered, conveying clear ideas despite their simplicity. This approach is based on a formula that has already proved its worth in other productions.

James Gilleard
James Gilleard

The abstract, geometric aesthetic we’ve developed for the game helps to create an immersive visual experience for players. The game’s landscapes and environments are designed to be both familiar and strange, inviting players to reflect on the symbolic meaning of the shapes and compositions they encounter. Rather than providing clear, definitive answers, we wanted to encourage players to think about and explore the themes and messages of the game in a deeper, more personal way.

James Gilleard is a freelance illustrator and animator originally from London, but now living in Japan. He has worked on a number of small and large projects, perfecting his minimalist style, which some experts define as modern surrealism. It’s a kind of pixel art and digital art with a pinch of Bauhaus influences. He draws inspiration from the fashion, architecture, music and art of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, giving his work an air of nostalgia that sets it apart from the rest. Other unique aspects of his work are his beautiful use of colour and his ability to endow even the simplest character with great personality.

James Gilleard
James Gilleard

PnT: It’s fascinating to see how you use moodboards and reference scenes to guide the artistic development of the game. Now I’d like to hear more about the challenges you faced in creating the visual aesthetic of the game, particularly with regard to the specific constraints of video games.

Alexandre: Creating a video game is not simply a matter of reproducing cinematographic techniques. The player’s perspective, locked inside the car, imposes an interesting constraint. The window acts as a natural frame, limiting freedom of movement and focusing attention on what’s in front and to the side. This constraint becomes an opportunity for us in the end: we have to compose multi-layered illustrative landscapes, where the most distant elements can be simplified without detracting from the visual experience. As a result, the assets in the game are designed with several levels of detail, some of which need to be impeccable at close range and others which can afford a certain abstraction when they are in the background.

A moodboard is the perfect tool for exploring the visual style of a game design project. It also serves as a reference for the whole team, allowing everyone to visualise the final result. Online moodboards can include videos, images, links and colours, opening up new creative possibilities. The key to creating a moodboard is to decide on your objective, gather existing material, add inspirational images, examples of movement and sound, as well as examples of colours and fonts. Once all the inspiration has been gathered, it’s important to organise the moodboard to create an interesting composition, keeping an open mind to inspiration and explaining the reasoning behind each choice. By collaborating and building on ideas, the development team can use the moodboard to maintain visual consistency throughout the design process.

PnT: Thank you very much for these valuable insights into the next stages of the game’s development. How do you plan to tackle the next challenges before the game’s launch?

Alexandre: The idea is really to respect the initial artistic intent of the game, while remaining attentive to feedback from future tests and players. The artistic direction will be assessed on the basis of its clarity and emotional impact. The integration of assets into the game engine will be scrutinised to ensure visual consistency with the reference scenes. Feedback from players will be essential in fine-tuning the game’s visual identity and ensuring that it stands out from other titles, particularly if we find a publisher. We really want to continue with this aesthetic that gives a sense of immersion and hypnosis, building on the concepts initially envisaged such as streaks of light, headlights, rain and kaleidoscopic effects. But in any case, we’re going to do our best to stay true to the ideas we had in the first place.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this latest edition of Tales From The Devs with The Pixel Hunt. We’ll be back soon for episode 3!

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