Hi, I’m Maya, the former Art Director for Studio Archcraft. I was invited by the CEO of Studio Archcraft, Vincent Dehaut, to talk about the art for “Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled”, recently released for the NDS.
I have been told that many people, including those who have been following Black Sigil from its GBA days (when it was still called “Project Exile”, where in fact it was already Black Sigil before that!), are interested in how the art came to be. Thanks, and I’ll do my best to explain why and how.
I think I should first explain how I got into pixel art. When I was about six, I was blown away by Akira Toriyama’s design work in Dragon Quest I and II. Combined with the amazing interactive worlds the games offered - the art, the music, the story, the characters, I was just sucked right in! Cute little slimes, the tension of going somewhere new and frightening, and the excitement of finding Roto’s Armor set… who wouldn’t fall in love?
When I was in high school, games like Final Fantasy V, Estopolis (Lufia), Dragon Quest V, Secret of Mana, Illusion of Gaia, Romancing Saga 2, Shining Force 2, and Lunar were the golden games. I wanted to start making game art, so I scoured the net looking for amateur game studios to see if I can join in on the fun! I joined two teams - Project Whitehole in Japan, and Red Rain in Canada. Red Rain was a game being developed by Studio Archcraft’s programmer, Pierre Leclerc. At that point, I started to study pixel art. There were a lot of pixel art communities online where you can share your work with fellow pixelers: Pixelation, Kema’s (Japanese), and the forums found on the site that hosted Edge, the premier pixeling software in Japan (though I use Adobe Photoshop). I learned a lot about shading and rendering in a three pixel radius, and other obscure techniques there. As I continued to make design and pixel work with these groups, Pierre and I realized we worked really well together. That’s when we started up Studio Archcraft to make Black Sigil.
We spent the first year pretty much writing the story, building tools, and making mock ups. Originally I wanted to go for a more western look, with realistic proportions and large, detailed environments. I wasn’t too happy with the outcome on the GBA screen. First, the characters were too serious looking. The small, undescriptive faces felt too impersonal. To show any details in the face I had to make the sprites huge, which made movement impossible. I then tried the super deformed style (two head lengths) but it was too cutesy and lacked character in the body. I tried out a few things here and there and ended up with what’s in the game now.
For the environments, I wanted to make a massive world filled to the brim with details. I wanted people’s rooms to look different, stew to be cooking on the stoves, and kings sitting in lavish, over the top throne rooms. I didn’t want “screen after screen of pretty illustrations”, but a whole connected world you can really feel and understand, and most importantly participate in! For the world and map designs I was really inspired by Bethesda Softwork’s Morrowind (my favorite RPG of all time, bless that company!). Everything in that world was logical, and I just “get it” and feel so immersed. Everything belongs in just the right places, and isn’t a mess of rooms and corridors like in most SNES-era games. I wanted the world design itself, just by the visuals, to allow the player to be able to imagine
that area being built, expanded, and populated. I wanted each place to make sense according to the world map, and the player to be able to understand why each town was built where it was built. The biggest problem was that the GBA had limited memory and I couldn’t use too many tiles (and darn it, too few artists!). Tiles are square building
blocks (in Black Sigil’s case, 8×8 pixels) that you align on a grid to make a map. I guess you can imagine building something using legos, where the basic shape would be a 2×1 box. It sort of made the maps a bit clunkier than I wanted and I couldn’t add in all the details, so I tried to focus a lot on layout and having one, simple theme for each
area by having a (hopefully) memorable layout and one or two unique objects (such as ice and height for Bel Lenora, the gated wood community of Fort Domfriu surrounded by forest, and the water towers of Cythere).
The user interface was pretty fun. The one I worked on was the GBA one, and it was interesting trying to show the mass amount of information available onto a tiny screen. Having only 4 buttons (L, R, A and B) was challenging too. I tried to make sure the player knew exactly what was happening when swapping inventory and changing equipment, since I think it’s really important to show the before and after for stats, rather than just the after. I wanted everything to be easily accessible too. I avoided submenus as much as possible, since it’ll be a chore to have to cycle in and out of so many menus, which would happen since there’s only “A” to select and “B” to cancel/go back. L and R were reserved mostly for switching through characters.
For the battle interface I wanted the player to not really have to look at the screen, because honestly the GBA screen was very dim and I found it hard to make out things. Also, I couldn’t have huge boxy menus block the screen since the battle is in real time. I tried to make a system where players can remember button combinations, like “down, right, right” for heal instead of relying on visuals. I think it is similar to Mash (Sabin)’s button entry system in Final Fantasy VI. A lot of the challenges were for the GBA so I guess I don’t need to go into that too much.
For the character illustrations, I started with pure anime, eastern style, but as production went on I tried going for a blend of western and eastern style, at least with rendering. I think it’ll look more eastern or western depending on who’s looking. From my standpoint, Ni no Kuni and 7th dragon looks very eastern, while Mass Effect and Oblivion looks very western.
All in all, art is always a learning process. I learned a lot while I made Black Sigil, and I could go on forever about what I want to fix/change but I’ll have to save that for the next game!
Thanks for having me here. It was a pleasure, and I hope everyone has a fun time with Black Sigil.