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The Witness artist reminds us to keep it simple, stupid

"To evoke emotions through art, in games or anything else, you have to break down your medium," says The Witness artist and Twelve Minutes developer Luis Antonio.

Alex Wawro, Contributor

October 31, 2014

7 Min Read

"To evoke emotions through art, in games or anything else, you have to break down your medium," says The Witness artist and Twelve Minutes developer Luis Antonio. "What’s the minimum amount of information we can use to tell you what you need to know about an object?" "Use that, and no more. That's what I learned on The Witness." Antonio's perspective on art in games is informed by nearly a decade of industry experience. He cut his teeth at Rockstar London as a character/environment artist before joining Ubisoft as an art lead, rising to art director before quitting to take a shot at indie development. He's currently working full time on finishing The Witness, and in his free time he's taught himself Unity and started making the recursive time-loop adventure game Twelve Minutes. "I wake up at 6:30 and work on my game 'til 9, and then again from 11 at night to 2 in the morning. And I have a daughter that was born like six months ago, so it's a bit hardcore," says Antonio, with a laugh. "I don't think it's feasible for a long period of time." I tell him he's not alone; that there are other developers out there, like Teddy Diefenbach, working on big projects during the day and pouring themselves into pet projects at night. I ask him to tell me what you can learn as an artist working on someone else's project. Specifically, on Jonathan Blow's project.

Learning to design by subtraction

Antonio wound up joining Jonathan Blow to work on The Witness some time ago, but by the time he came onboard the entire island within the game was built -- you could play the whole thing from start to finish, and it was "very clear what the experience was about, even though it looked like shit." The artist says that while the island was flat and featureless, it was clear what Blow wanted to communicate with his game and how it could be expressed using visual language. "Sometimes art design is more about what doesn’t work; you go about eliminating the possibilities that don’t fit with what you want to do," and you end up with something resembling the spartan design of The Witness, intended by Blow to be eminently readable. "The game is about no noise; things are very clear," notes Antonio. In doing so he echoes comments made by Blow himself in an earlier interview with Gamasutra about the importance of eliminating "mental noise" in games. "The Witness is about modelling the feeling of epiphany with great care," said Blow. "We set up a simplified version of the real world, as all game worlds are, and we tried to make this one very simple and clear in order to create very strong instances of this realization." So in trying to understand what that means visually, Antonio and his team would just experiment. "How do we reduce noise? We can reduce the amount of color, reduce the amount of detail, reduce the amount of silhouettes and shapes...that kind of thing." Antonio wasn't figuring this out on his own, either; he's one of three artists who worked on the Witness, though none of them take titles very seriously. "It's a bit like how Valve does it, nobody has titles or positions," says Antonio. The developers who have more experience end up making more decisions, but the artist says it's very important that nobody intentionally mutes anyone's opinion or input. "That's very good, I think, because people can bring very fresh ideas to the project, or a fresh comment that would otherwise die; it wouldn't even be allowed in other hierarchies."

Case in plant: Trees in The Witness

If you want a concrete example of what he's talking about, Antonio recommends you look closely at the trees that dot The Witness' landscape. Blow wanted players to understand that they were in different parts of the island just by looking at the trees around them, so the team at first attempted to research and model incredibly realistic trees. "We were working with landscape architects, and what they gave us...they just gave us catalogs with all the

"Sometimes art design is more about what doesn’t work; you go about eliminating the possibilities that don’t fit with what you want to do."

Latin names of the trees that might grow here, what they look like when they’re young and old," says Antonio. So the team set to building ultra-realistic trees, "but we realized: all we need is to abstractedly represent what these trees are." Consider a birch tree, for example: "If you squint your eyes, it has a yellow body and it has splotches. You understand it’s a birch," says Antonio. "You don’t need to see all the details. And a young birch tree is basically just a smaller version of an old birch tree." So the team set out to make the minimum viable tree, something that could communicate what they needed to with the least possible detail. "We would make a generic version of a birch tree," says Antonio. "Generic to the point that you understand it, and you feel it to be a birch, but without any extra detail. We would do this with buildings too; imagine you make a tower that’s just a cube. Once you chip away the sides of the geometry, you understand it’s made of stone because you can see the chipped sides. Once you put rivets, just simple circles, now you understand it’s made of metal. " So what's the minimum amount of information you can use, as an artist or a designer, to tell your players what they need to know about an object? Antonio says that it takes time to start thinking this way; most developers start by overdesigning things and then circling back to remove unnecessary detail. "Once you get really good, you learn to put in just the perfect, minimum amount of detail and say 'okay, we've got it. Let's stop here.'"

Art vs. commerce

It's very easy for me to pigeonhole Antonio as an ex-AAA game artist adapting to the demands of indie development -- I do it multiple times during our conversation -- but he takes pains to point out that he's thought like this for years; it's part of why he went indie in the first place. "I was always like this. At big companies, I think the main problem is when you start a new project, you have 30 artists, 10 programmers, and maybe five designers that are waiting for orders," says Antonio. And since everyone needs to have something to do, the artists tend to start producing assets before it's completely clear what the game should be or precisely what it needs to communicate. "This is why I think most games end up having an overly complex art style that goes too far; it evolved before design knew what they needed," adds Antonio. "This always bothered me, because there’s not really a solution; how can a studio justify having a whole art team doing nothing while we come up with the entire game first?" Of course, there are other reasons for developers to spend their time producing and polishing ultra-detailed assets: it boosts sales, and can be very satisfying for some artists. "It's safer for a studio to have very nice, detailed visuals; it sells much better," concedes Antonio. "And artists do get a lot of pleasure from putting in a lot of detail...and many of them do just want to do high-detailed characters, armor and guns. I think that's changing...but it's very slow." I ask him what artists at large-scale studios can learn from smaller teams, and how his own design efforts on Twelve Minutes have influenced his thoughts on art in games. He shuts me down, gently. "It’s not like we’re doing paintings for a gallery to express ourselves. The art is just there to follow a function. Maybe it’s too much to say that, but we’re just following orders, in a way," says Antonio, with rueful smile. "But..there’s still so much room to do so, you know?"

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