“A lot of it is based on having worked on movies for many years," says DreamWorks animator turned game developer Lionel Gallat of his debut game, Ghost of a Tale.
"Movies are very short compared to a TV series or game, and they only happen once with very specific camera angles. That experience working this way gave me some clues about how to make the visuals feel engaging – an environment and world that made sense and would draw you to see what’s beyond this corridor or forest.”
Created almost single-handedly by Gallat (who helped make everything from The Prince of Egypt to The Lorax while at DreamWorks and, later, Universal), Ghost of a Tale takes players on a perilous adventure with mouse minstrel hero Tilo. It's a beautiful, vibrant game, but for Gallat the visuals are designed to be more than just eye-catching -- they're a way of drawing the player into the story and piquing curiosity about its characters.
“That was really very exciting – to be able to tell those stories and suggest, visually, the little details that would support the fact that there is a back story to this world," recalls Gallat. "Same as when you start watching a movie, the characters in the movie should look like they have had lives before it started."
"To keep the game dense and interesting, it was important to have an environmental scale that was a little more constrained."
An attention to detail in the character art and the world gives the player a reason to use their imagination, taking the visual hints and drawing up their own stories in their minds. It gets the player to furnish the place with their own ideas on characters and events, drawing them into the world through what they feel happened here, all thanks to the hints and flourishes Gallat worked into the game.
“That’s what the game’s trying to do – to draw the player in just by showing them something that’s good enough for them to hopefully be attracted," he says. "But then they, the players, do a lot of the work in terms of hearing the voice of the characters in their minds.”
It didn’t hurt that this "show, don't tell" approach to game design played to the newly-minted developer’s strengths as an experienced film artist and animator, as Gallat was able to tap into his experiences outside of games to help enrich the game in a unique way.
Conveying character and history through imagery
Tilo the mouse minstrel may only exist for the player in the realm of Ghost of a Tale, but for Gallat, it was important that the player get a sense that he, and the world he inhabited, had existed long before that. For players to care about his character and world, they had to feel like they had an existence beyond the game, which could be suggested through the art style.
“The goal in making the game was to create an environment, a kind of little world, where you can meet all these characters. Even though some of them are quite cute, it was interesting to create characters who are realized beings in their own right,” says Gallat.
The lute hanging from Tilo’s back, even when the poor mouse is imprisoned, tells the player how important music is for the character. Overgrowth in a dungeon, roots creeping through the cracks in the stone, hint that a place is old and been left to the elements, implying a history and abandonment. It tells the player that there is a story before they’ve arrived to this place, and encourages them to think on that, even if just in the back of their minds.
One might dismiss these things as the fine details of an artist working his trade, but these details didn’t exist just for the sake of fleshing out an image. Each aspect of a character or location was meant to enrich their backstory, conveying an unspoken narrative the player could pick up on and be drawn in by.
“When I was talking with Paul (Gardner), the writer, we talked a lot about developing the story for the world so that everything you see is not what I would call an animator’s game," says Gallat. "I mean that it’s just cute or it’s just beautiful, but there’s not much behind it. It’s all in the looks and animation. I really didn’t want that because I am a player. I wanted some substance behind that. So, it was really exciting to tell those stories and suggest, visually, the little details that would support the fact that there is actually a backstory to this world.”
“When you start watching a movie, the characters in the movie should look like they’ve had lives before the movie started – before the camera is here. It’s the same thing with the game,” he continues.
This storytelling through visuals wasn’t just confined to characters, but the setting as well. It was important for Gallat, that the world feel believable, drawing the player in with a natural curiosity sparked by the implication of a world filled with stories long lost.
"The charm is going to work a little bit more slowly than other games, but the fact that it’s credible is, in my opinion, more important than the fact that it looks absolutely cool and gorgeous."
“Establishing this sense of presence, of something that makes sense in terms of architecture and shortcuts," is what Gallat was going for, taking inspiration from games like the Gothic series and Dark Souls. “Even though some of it was rough around the edges, the level design in the Gothic series was really like a consistent world – it really drew you in. I wanted to do something like that with the game.”
“I visited many castle ruins in my life. I love that. I just wanted it to make sense,” Gallet continues. “To look like a place that is not necessarily hyper spectacular. It’s not doing something to completely blow you away. It’s a little bit more modest in that regard, and the charm is going to work a little bit more slowly than other games, but the fact that it’s credible is, in my opinion, more important than the fact that it looks absolutely cool and gorgeous.”
“For example, take Dark Souls or Bloodborne. The design and art direction is amazing – some of the best ever done in a game. Still, as someone who looks out at a place with like thirty towers with pointy roofs, I see that and I feel that it looks really cool, but it doesn’t really make sense. I didn’t want to do something like this,” says Gallat. “I wanted to go with a simpler look, but still have some quality with the ambience and the overall charm and presence of the environment.”
While not aiming for the same spectacular scope as some of those games, Gallat wanted to invoke that same sense of wonder that comes from these places – the sense of interconnected worlds and lived-in places. In drawing from this, he hoped to kickstart that sense of adventure and curiosity in his players that would make them want to know more about the world and its people.
Figuring out how to do more with less
The player wasn’t the only one getting to know Tilo and the world of Ghost of a Tale. Gallat’s own journey in developing the game was a mission of self-discovery as he learned what he wanted the game to be, who he was as a developer, and how he could use his strengths to best tell Tilo’s tale and draw the player into it.
“I had started working and learning how to code and using Unity as a game engine, because I really didn’t know anything about that. I’m not kidding when I say I was an animator who was working on movies," says Gallat. "Creating games and coding was something I had to learn from scratch.”
“Starting from this early stage, I had put a sort of prototype together for an IndieGogo campaign. I released it to show people how it would look, because I was starting to feel kind of confident that this would work. When I showed that, there was a bit of a fight that was happening. Tilo was hitting rats with a stick, and it didn’t do much,” he continues.
“There was a bit of a reaction to that, and some people were telling me that my melee combat kind of sucked, and that it should be more dynamic, and that was extremely helpful at the time. It helped me realize that this wasn’t the game I wanted to make.”
Like so many game makers, Gallat found himself coming to a better understanding of what his game could and should be by showing it to prospective players.
“I came to the conclusion that Tilo’s just a small mouse – he’s not a warrior. Why not try to use the fact that he’s faster than those bigger characters, and nimbler, and more discrete?" Gallat says. "[Ghost of a Tale] grew from the reaction of people seeing what the game could be.”
This was the genesis of the game’s disguise and stealth systems, as Gallat got to know Tilo (as well as what he could do within his own budding development skills) better and turned away from the idea of a third-person combat game.
The transition from "charming mouse action game" to "charming mouse stealth game" put even more pressure on Gallat to create and animate characters who could hold the player's attention even if they weren't doing momentous -- if the player was sneaking past them, for example, or engaging in a bit of conversation.
Notably, Gallat says he focused on conveying character and nuance through portraits and dialogue quirks, rather than making the characters speak for themselves by rigging the mouths and making them move, as such detail work was beyond his scope.
“As an animator, some choices were difficult to make. For example, the characters don’t have any facial expressions. We don’t have lip syncs or shots of characters talking because, while I know how to do it, but it’s just too much work. I could never do it at such a level that it would be really great in my lifetime," says Gallat. "I had to make a choice and say not to do that – that we’re going to use nice painted portraits with expressions changing depending on what the character is saying.”
This decision put a bit more weight on the game's written dialogue, since it has to both carry the weight of the game's narrative and also convey a lot of rich, charming character details. Gallat says this came down to writing specific characters with very unique, identifiable patterns of speech, in an effort to cultivate a unique "voice" in the player's mind.
“The characters reveal themselves in the way they talk to you. Their little animation cycles that you discover the first time you meet them. The way they react to your presence. What you can catch, right away, of their personality,” says Gallat.
“We worked very, very hard on this with Paul, but we wanted to make sure that the characters speak in a certain way. They have what’s called a voice, even if there is no ‘voice acting’ in the game – the tone they are speaking is specific to their character to the point where, if you took some sentences out of the game and tried to see who was saying what, you might be able to find out who was talking.”
While voice acting was off the table based on time, Gallat still felt that well-written dialogue, body language, and some nice character portraits could give players enough to make the characters of Ghost of a Tale stand out, while also leaving room for their imaginations to let them fill in the gaps.
This is a good example of how less can be more in game development, and Gallat took much the same approach to designing levels for Ghost of a Tale. After realizing early on that he couldn't count on being able to create large environments as lush/dank as those in games like Gothic and Dark Souls, he scaled back and set the game primarily in smaller, more constrained locales like dungeons and caves.
“It meant that the scale was going to be simpler than things you’ve seen in Bloodborne and Dark Souls because I couldn’t manage it properly," Gallt says. "To keep the game dense and interesting, it was important to have an environmental scale that was a little more constrained.”
Gallat relied heavily on his experience making animated films while sorting out all these (and more) first-time indie dev problems, falling back on his skills at capturing the eye and drawing it to certain things. He created characters and lands that hinted at lost histories, partly by necessity and partly because it would make the game more compelling. His approach, born of a unique path into game dev, is worth studying by other devs considering how best to create characters that players empathize and engage with.
“It sneaks up on the player; the charm of the game is really not in your face. You don’t have big explosions or complex cinematics telling you that you should really love this character because they’re really cool," concludes Gallat. "All of the emotion or interest that the player feels comes from the player. It’s up to them to say ‘Yeah, I want to know more and discover more things about that’.”