Q&A: Remixing Renaissance Art in The Procession to Calvary

Developer Joe Richardson discusses the process for making The Procession to Calvary, an animated adventure game built on the back of Renaissance paintings.

There's just something about fart jokes and classic art that neatly overlaps. This was true in the original Monty Python TV show, where animator Terry Gilliam would assemble elaborate papercraft images to tell fantastically stupid jokes, and it's true in Joe Richardson's The Procession to Calvary, a new Renaissance-themed adventure game that remixes classic art into lowbrow comedy. 

Since not many games are willing to make use of these classic works to make compelling gameplay, we were curious what drove Richardson down this road and how he pulled off the custom animations that drive the game. Thankfully, the developer was kind enough to share his thoughts with Gamasutra, and discussed the "stupidity" that has made them a small success. 

The Procession to Calvary is your second Renaissance Art-themed adventure game, the sequel to Four Last Things. What drove you to this particular genre, and why do you think players resonate so much with this kind of silliness?

The reason I make adventure games is that they are technically relatively simple and I'm too stupid to make anything else. The Renaissance art aspect is a little more complicated.

I started making games while studying illustration at art school. Most of my artistic efforts were based around finding elaborate ways to distract people from the simple fact that I could not draw. I made my illustrations into 3D papercraft models, or animated them in Flash, or wrote ridiculous stories to accompany them so I could make them into little hand-bound books.

One of my more successful distraction techniques was using collage, so I didn't have to draw at all! My first game, The Preposterous Awesomeness of Everything was made by collaging elements from photographs I'd taken (including some nude selfies). I started out planning to make a really rough, obvious collage (kind of like the land of the living scene in Grim Fandango), but the more I tinkered with it the more obsessed I got with cleaning the edges and blending the joins. The result was a kind of creepy half-realistic, half-cartoony style that I loved, and made a lot of sense for that project, but it didn't go down terribly well with players.

Anyway, While I was working on that I got the idea that if I used the same technique, but with more attractive bits, I could make something really beautiful. Renaissance art seemed like the best source of attractive bits. When I started poking around I realized they weren't just full of attractive bits, but crazy characters and weird situations and potential stories. From there Four Last Things basically made itself.

I can't speak to why people enjoy these games. I don't understand people.

Your game makes use of copyright-free art and public domain music, how has this influenced your work as a developer, remixing this existing content into an original game?

Massively. My whole process is completely different on these games than on others. The artwork in particular plays a role in pretty much every creative decision I make. Usually I would start with a story, but when I make these games I do all the artwork before I have any idea what the game is about - There's no point writing a part where a duck falls in love with a marionette if I can't find a painting of a duck or a marionette - so I build all the artwork and a lot of the animations first. I choose characters that look interesting, or are doing something interesting, and scenes where it looks like some shit could go down. I pin them together into a vaguely coherent world. Then I pick puzzles and interactions out from the artwork, trying to find things that tie the separate scenes and characters together. Figuring out the story comes last.

What would you say are the greatest technical challenges for creating and animating assets
based on images of famous art?

Consistency is one issue. One of the reason I am using art from the Renaissance period is that the
style and content is actually fairly uniform. There is not as much variation as in later movements
where work becomes more stylized and personal. But there are still big differences between artists.

In Four Last Things I made a point of using predominantly Northern Renaissance works, partly
because they were the paintings that most appealed to me, but also to improve the consistency of the
world. Then, in The Procession To Calvary your journey takes you to 'the South', were I have used a
lot more Italian art.

Animation is also difficult. The body of the main character in Four Last Things is taken from a
painting called The Wayfarer, by Hieronymus Bosch. It depicts a traveler mid-stride, so an outside
leg, an inside leg, an outside arm and an inside arm are all visible. A soon as I saw him I knew that
he was going to be the my protagonist, because I can do whatever I want with that guy! But most
subjects are not so obliging. If someone is painted sitting with their legs crossed there is no way I'm
going to get them walking. Or if one of their arms is covering their body, moving it will reveal a
gaping hole in their chest.

The music was surprisingly challenging too. There's not a lot of options when it comes to public
domain music, and my decision to add musicians to every scene meant I didn't just have to find
fitting music, but I also had to find paintings of vaguely appropriate musicians to 'play' it.

Your game strings together paintings from different artists with different influences, what’s
your process for extrapolating the themes of their work into the comedy writing you’ve wound
up at?

I think the key is that I am an idiot. I make no attempt to discern the intended meaning of the art - I
imagine that is impossible even for clever people at this stage given that the context is so far gone -
I just take what I see from the paintings, and usually that is humor.

Also I have of course naturally gravitated towards paintings that I like. And those are generally ones
in which I see humor or surreal elements.

Has working on these games impacted your thoughts about the artists behind the original
paintings at all?

To be honest I didn't have much knowledge about the artists when I started. I knew Pieter Bruegel
and Hieronymus Bosh, and loved what I had seen of their work, but that was about it. When I
started making Four Last Things I read a bunch of books on the period, the art and the history. And
while making the game I studied hundreds of paintings, often in a lot more detail than I might have

Visiting an art gallery is a completely different experience now. Not only because I recognize
element in so many of the paintings, but also I look at them very differently now. I can't help myself
thinking about the stories behind the characters, the things that have happened, or could happen in
the scenes. So yes, I've learned a lot more about the period and gained a much deeper appreciation
for the art. This is partly why I have added gallery scenes, in both games. These show a selection of
the original artworks used to make each game, so if people are inspired to learn a bit more about the
period, they can do so while they play (but it's not obligatory!) :)

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