Gravity Ghost
9Sep/133

Aesthetics are Emotions: What animators know that we don’t

I've written previously on the importance of finding unconventional inspirations for video games. I thought I'd share some of mine. These are videos I find myself returning to again and again, sometimes years after I first watched them.

Watch how much emotion these artists are able to wring out in just seconds of video, without saying a word. That's something we in games can do, and should aspire to. Indie-minded friends, we can go WAY weirder.

1) You Belong to my Heart

First, something from my childhood. Something Disney managed to release during the Second World War as a goodwill message to Latin America. I think it's fair to say that Disney is a company that banks on nostalgia, but this is so strange it's never mentioned anywhere. I'm talking about The Three Caballeros.

Here's Dora Luz and Donald Duck singing a song called "You Belong to my Heart."

Maybe it was the limited supply of children's VHS's at my local library, but I never got sick of watching this. I think the desire to collect strange flowers in space never left me, which should surprise no one who's played Gravity Ghost.

Apparently some contemporary viewers were scandalized by Donald's apparent lusting after a flesh-and-blood woman, plus some of the following scenes about a dancing cactus were not exactly in line with wartime morality. But little me didn't care about any of that, because space flowers.

2) Return as an Animal

At the Indiecade independent games festival in 2009, games journalist Brandon Boyer (who would soon be named Chairman of the Independent Games Festival), implored us game developers to incorporate unconventional art styles, unused aesthetics, and general weird stuff into our games. He shared this video, which I'm fond of watching at 3 in the morning. I find it very peaceful. I'm not sure why.

RAAA from Bruno Dicolla on Vimeo.

3) Laserlife

Gaijin games are perhaps best known for their Bit Trip Runner and Bit Trip Beat series, but it was a little-known prototype they released in 2011 that has the boldest aesthetic. Front and center is a flailing, skeletal astronaut, still wearing part of his destroyed spacesuit. I have no idea what the story is, but I was immediately drawn in by the premise.

Laserlife concept from CommanderVideo on Vimeo.

4) Little Boat

This is a student animation by Nelson Boles. And oh my god, the emotion in this video. It'd bring a tear to a glass eye*.

Little Boat from nelson boles on Vimeo.

*An expression I learned from Tom, a wonderful Scottish game reviewer who recently played Gravity Ghost.

5) The TV Show

You can watch this 100 times and you'll still find something new to notice. It's that good. As an example: I've probably watched this 100 times and I just noticed the colors in each scene match the colors of the TV test pattern.

It's rare to find something that makes you want to get up and dance, let alone something that makes you want to simultaneously jump through your TV.

6) Futurelina

I have no idea what this is, but Keita Takahashi linked to it once and now it is forever with me. Some of Gravity Ghost's unpolished, handmade look owes itself directly to this video. I think there is such a thing as overpolished. If you can't draw a straight line, don't. The wiggly line might be more interesting.

7) Molten Light

Trigger warning: The next two videos may be disturbing for some. There's animated blood, protruding bones, violence, nudity, etc. So if that's not your thing feel free to skip to number 9.

I've been a huge fan of Canadian artist Chan VanGaalen since I was in university. Not only does he write his own songs, he animates his own music videos and invents the occasional instrument. All his work is worth checking out, but Molten Light stands apart. To me it's the story of something so terrible it cannot be undone. Some people sing about love. And some people write songs where the chorus goes "She'll find you and she'll kill you..."

8) WOFL 2106

WARNING: This video gets LOUD. It's VERY sudden. I wouldn't wear headphones (seriously).

Some of the viewers on Vimeo experienced ringing in their ears, so please, turn the volume WAY down.

Okay, ready? It's by the master of the intersection of disturbing and cute, David OReilly.

WOFL 2106 (HD) from David OReilly on Vimeo.

Well that all got a lot more disturbing than I intended. Let's pull it back to something that's at least a little uplifting.

9) When I Grow Up

I cheated, this isn't an animation. But it tells a fascinating story almost entirely with environment, camera work, and mood.

There's a real gift in being able to take the familiar and everyday and twist it into something disquieting and foreign. Much of the darkness in video games comes from violence, but that's not the kind of darkness that most of us experience in our everyday lives. More common are the mundane horrors of living: family dischord, feeling cast out by friends, worrying about one's level of professional achievement, watching a loved one slip into dementia or disease. These are some themes that video games are just now starting to explore.

There's a scene in this video, no more than two seconds long, in which someone (possibly meant to be the main character's father) looks on with disapproval. That's it. It's riveting.

I suppose that's not exactly uplifting, but hey, at least nobody died. Let's try one more.

10) The Parachute Ending

I considered ending with any of the following videos: Little Twelve Toes, I Say Fever, Don't Go Phantom, and Move Your Feet. But those all sit comfortably in the category of 'music video', without standing as works of animation unto themselves.

Great music videos are not the point of this post. To fit the criterion of 'videos I find myself revisiting over and over', I realized it had to be this one: The Parachute Ending by Birdy Nam Nam.

Once again, we're plunked down into a world that barely resembles ours. But watching this video is the feeling of being along for the ride.

The visuals remind me of playing King's Quest VII for the first time as an 8-year-old, wandering out into the desert, and watching my character die of thirst. Over and over. Until I realized that the playable map was a small island, surrounded by certain death. The only out was to solve the puzzles and survive - which included a terrifying interaction with a red-eyed spectre who the desert had already claimed. All this from a children's game. I was hooked.

BIRDY NAM NAM - THE PARACHUTE ENDING from Steve Scott on Vimeo.

I hope you enjoyed these videos, they're a huge source of off-the-beaten-path inspiration for me.

Also, if you haven't already, please consider preordering Gravity Ghost on our brand new store page. For a limited time you can preorder for $9.99 ($5 off the launch day price), and you receive 2 copies - one to give away to someone special.

I promise you: this game will be weird.

19Jun/125

New Toys!

I really ought to write a post introducing our team. That way when I say things like "Mike built this totally sweet plant editor" you'll know who I'm talking about.

Anyway this new plant editor is totally sweet. Check out what I made today:


Welcome to my space garden.

Somewhat interesting backstory about the color palette:

The art store right next to my favorite café was going out of business. They were out of almost everything, including pencil sharpeners, erasers, and colored pencils in colors you'd actually want.

The result was me buying a bunch of weird colors and sharpening them in the café with a razor blade (they weren't out of razor blades). You'd be amazed what you can get away with when everyone is on a laptop.

Anyway, this page of my notebook was a product of the 'weird colors.' I liked the way that tree looked and tried to reproduce it in the game.


What space trees look like, probably.

Tl;dr: Constraints are good, they force your creative side to do things you find uncomfortable. With razors.

2Jun/127

Sustainable Inspiration

Maintaining your creative gusto throughout a project is nearly impossible. When you're feeling creatively depleted, it's tempting to either soldier on and hate every second, or give up completely.

But I think there's another option: actively filling up your inspiration stores. These are a few ways I know of to give yourself a creativity burst and get mentally 'un-stuck'.

1) Screensavers save

I've been saving cool images on my hard drive for years, but they mostly end up forgotten in a folder somewhere. Then I learned of a better alternative in a GDC talk by Hanford Lemoore. His idea: set that folder of cool images to be your screen saver.

I've adopted this idea and I think it's great. It brings up all sorts of neat things I had nearly forgotten - derelict buildings, nice illustrations, funny cat pictures, etc. And something about how the images are shuffled randomly, playing only for a few seconds, makes you process them in a different way.

The difference in emotional tone between a picture of ancient pottery and a cartoon about Kermit the Frog really jolts your creative side. You only have a second to think, 'Oh, that's neat' before something else takes its place.


"We're context-free!"

What I didn't expect was how immediately relevant some of the pictures were to my game. It wasn't long before I started to see solutions to my game design problems. E.g.: When I wasn't sure how to fill out the vertical space in a certain level, I came upon picture after picture of waterfalls and bridges.

It would be easy to create a shared folder (Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.) and have several friends save images to it. I imagine it'd be like a shared iTunes library of visual inspiration. If anyone decides to try this, let me know.

2) Buckets, not lists

I found so many images in my collection that were directly relevant to my game that I started putting them in one folder. But when that started to get chaotic, I thought of a bit of design advice given to me by Robin Hunicke: "Buckets, not lists." That is, it's better to group things into broad categories than simply add them to a pile.

I applied the buckets rule to my pile of Gravity Ghost inspiration images. I look at these all the time, and add to them almost daily. Here, friends, are my buckets:

I use these folders mostly as stored inspiration for art style and mood for different sections of the game. This is from the folder marked "Spring":

And this one is from the cryptically titled "Terrariums+Geometry"...

A few inspirational quotes have snuck in too.


Preach on, Jake.

There are a few websites designed to let you save images you like (E.g. Pinterest, like this random person's folder for "Design"). It's very different from something like tumblr, which only lets you aggregate things in one place. If you don't mind keeping your images online, these sites can help you keep large quantities of inspiration manageable.

3) Cast your net wider

You'll notice that none of the images above are related to video games, and I don't think that's an accident. Video games have a well-established set of aesthetic themes, and I'm trying to stay away from them. Not because those choices are bad, but because I want to create something unique.

Little Big Planet used the rendering power of the PS3 not to create realistic-looking humans, but to make the game look like it was entirely handmade. I'm a sucker for original art styles.


The inspirational quotes folder strikes again!

I understand there are important business decisions that go into determining the look and feel of a game. But if you're here, you've probably got a bit of an indie bent, and I encourage you to cast your net wider. And not just for art - for settings, for protagonists, for game mechanics, and anything else you think games now are missing.

We've got enough games based on other games. Look to your hobbies, your travel photos, your favorite childhood books, etc. and see what comes back. I bet your creativity will surprise you.

4) Step away from the computer

Recently I started to feel like none of my work was getting done fast enough. I knew that wasn't accurate, but I realized one of the culprits was probably the handful of constantly-updating websites I like to visit.

So, I took a two-week Twitter and Facebook vacation. Already I appreciate the larger attention span I have for my design, art, and coding problems. It's amazing how much you can actually get done in an hour if you set aside everything else.

It's largely overlooked that there's a deep pleasure to really getting your head into a problem, and the even greater payoff when you think of a solution. But it takes time to get into this state, and involves barricading yourself against interruptions.

For a bit of celebrity endorsement of that idea, here's John Cleese talking about creating 'oases of space and time' in which to work on your problems.


A 10 minute internet video? I believe in you.

5) Explain your problem to people who aren't into games

Nothing will toss you into a social black hole as much as talking to people who don't have anything to do with video games. You'll find half of your normal subjects of conversation cut off (and maybe even a chunk of your vocabulary). But before you swear off the idea, hear me out.

Last year I saw a talk by the creators of the Zooniverse project. It was a crowdsourcing site to classify galaxies photographed by the Hubble. They thought they might find a few volunteers, but they underestimated the internet's desire to contribute to science. The entire collection of hundreds of thousands of galaxies was sorted in two weeks. Talk about inspiration.


Weather balloon and weather balloon.

After the talk, I went to dinner with the astronomers and a few people from our educational games group. I ended up seated across from an astronomer who hadn't played a video game since the original Super Mario Bros. (he didn't remember which one). When he found out I was a video game designer, he said, "Okay, explain video games to me. I know there's something to them because I can't get my kids to stop playing them."

I tried giving a few examples from different genres, but he hadn't heard of any of the games I mentioned. So I came up with an explanation based on Mario:

- There's nothing that says jumping on turtles and colliding with walls should be any fun, yet we know how popular Mario is.

- The answer is good game design.

- A game design is made up of nouns and verbs. Mario's main verbs are running and jumping. If we replaced all the art, it'd still be a game about running and jumping.

- It's the game designer's job to make sure those verbs are absolutely as enjoyable as possible.

- None of the verbs matter without nouns to act on.

- What the nouns are is not as important as the way the verbs affect them (e.g. turtles being 'stompable').

At this point, the astronomer said, "Ah, so Mario doesn't have to be going through pipes..." and I said, "Right, they could be ladders, or slides, or elevators." "And it wouldn't change the game design." "Precisely."

Maybe not the most elegant of explanations, but I was satisfied with that breakthrough. I then talked a bit about how a game designer would adjust actual numbers for things like jump velocity (trying to think of things an astronomer would care about).

I also talked about how a game designer would create levels that asked more and more of the players' running and jumping skills, and I think he got the point. I suggested that maybe his kids enjoyed their games because they offered an optimal level of challenge as their skills increased. He nodded and said he would ask them, and I could tell he was really thinking.

That conversation crystallized a few things in my mind about what exactly my job is. All the artistic flourish in the world won't matter if the game's main verbs aren't fun from moment-to-moment. Keeping that in mind is a good way to focus on what's important about the game, and where to best expend my energy.


This is a picture of my brother. I threw it in here to break up this large block of text.

I'll give another quick example. One of my best friends is a massage therapist. The last time she came to visit I started to complain about problems with our asset server, then realized I had to first explain what that was. While explaining that, I realized there were important things to work on that didn't require the asset server to be fixed. Boom, productivity boost.

6) The world is your Wikipedia

The last suggestion I wanted to make is a bit more subtle. I believe that the more research you do about the subject of your game, the better the final product will be. Everything you can teach yourself will deepen your pool of potential inspiration. Think of it as going on an 'information raid', pulling in large chunks of knowledge in a limited time.


Age of Accuracy II

In the strategy game X-COM, there is an energy source called Elerium-115 that is only found in the alien enemy's ships. It's incredibly valuable, but it's so fragile that setting off explosives too close to an alien power source will destroy it. Retrieving even a small quantity of this resource involves careful deliberation in a way that makes the game more interesting.

Elerium-115 isn't just an invented sci-fi resource. It's based on a real element of atomic number 115 ("Ununpentium"). In reality they haven't been able to make an isotope of Ununpentium with a half-life longer than a few milliseconds, making it pretty useless as an energy source.

Still, certain 'UFO experts' have been claiming it as a possible energy source for alien spacecraft since at least the 1980s. The idea is compelling enough that Ununpentium has shown up as an energy source not just in X-COM, but in Dark Reign, the Call of Duty series, and Tomb Raider III.

Is it possible that the X-COM designers would have had the idea to make an energy source rare, valuable, and fragile without knowing about Ununpentium? Of course. But by relating their alien technology to physical elements, I think they created a much richer narrative device, and lent some legitimacy to this alien technology.

I think this goes beyond appealing to the hard sci-fi crowd. This bit of extra research on the part of the designers probably gave them gameplay ideas.

I think that no matter what kind of game you're making, there's always something you can do to enrich your knowledge of the subject. Will Wright made Sim Ant by trying to simulate the behavior of real ants as closely as possible, and that insight fed directly into the creation of the Sims. Did you know each object in a Sim's house gives off 'pheromones'?

I consider seeking out inspiration to be a part of my creative process. I have a few sites I like to visit for this, but I'm always looking for more. So: what are your sources of inspiration? Now taking suggestions.