How crucial is building a signature style?

Hard-boiled wonderland


Northern Ireland studio Straandlooper has developed a bold artistic style for its short films and indie adventure game series Hector: Fat Arse of the Law.

The colourful and cartoon-like style contrasts dramatically with the frequently dark and cynical nature of the stories the studio tells. Here Richard Morss tells Develop why it matters that an indie studio builds a signature style.

Straandlooper has already established itself as a studio with a very individual and expressive 2D visual aesthetic.
We set out to be distinctive, both in our choice of content to develop and in it’s visual styles; we are lucky in that we have talented designers like Dean Burke, Ciaran Oakes and Alastair McIlwain in house.

What are the challenges of presenting a visually engaging game world within the restrictions of two dimensions?
I think the main challenge was recreating the 2D visual styles we had created for our linear content in a game friendly way. We put a lot of effort into the cinematic cut scenes in the first Hector game, and have striven to retain those production values for the second and third games.

I don’t think the 2D or 3D question was a particular issue for us; Dean Burke created some wonderfully detailed artwork for the games that we hope will engage players as effectively as 3D backgrounds.

Is enough attention paid in general to the visual design of digital download games?
My general observation would be that more and more attention is being paid as the industry matures and competition grows.

As animation specialists, design is of overarching importance to us – not only for its aesthetics, but for its relevance to the IP and also to a project’s cost base. A strong design for a low budget pipeline can lift a cheaper production above the ordinary. The wrong design can hamper the production process and end up adding costs to production.

Does game content influence design, design influence content or is it more of a mutable process?
Content certainly influences design. Each IP is different and demands its own specific look. For example in approaching our collection of short lifestyle disasters, Small Tragedies, we took a different design approach to each short to suit the subject matter.

For Hector, the decision to develop a game in the tradition of the original 2D ‘point and click’ games was certainly a fit with the existing 2D style of the piece. We are however looking to develop more than just 2D properties as the company moves into its next phase.

What games have influenced the design work at Straandlooper?
Obviously the 2D point and click games were an influence, but the look for Hector was developed with an eye to the faux noir styling of many TV cop shows combined with an eclectic grunge from many different sources.

One of the most appealing aspects of Dean’s design work on some of the characters for Hector is a surprising sweetness – at odds with the ‘gritty’ subject. For our other properties design influences have been as diverse as the Northern Ireland coast and US 1950s record sleeves.

Considering Straandlooper’s experience, would you recommend other animation studios look into developing games?
When we started Straandlooper three years ago it was to develop a truly independent company creating and exploiting owned IP. To remain in existence I believe companies like ours have to develop content that is rich enough to work in a number of iterations, and to take the plunge into different realms of story telling.

Having said that we were amazingly lucky to have the team of Dean Burke and Kevin Beimers at our disposal, Dean to write, design, direct and compose and Kevin to write, produce, and importantly to program and get us through Apple approvals.

What could the triple-A games industry learn about games design from the indie sector, and visa versa?
There are such huge disparities of scale within the games industry between the triple-A graders and small indies like ourselves.

I guess the lesson for the big boys is that size isn’t necessarily everything – but big or small, engaging worlds, characters and above all stories are. And what can we learn? Where do I start? New stuff every day.

How important is visual design in getting players to identify with a game?
I think it is crucial. ‘Stickiness’ has to be to do with wanting to be in the places a game takes you- even if you’re just there to shoot the crap out of each other.

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