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Soaring to strangely familiar heights in Jett: The Far Shore

Road to the IGF: Jett: The Far Shore takes a powerful ship to answer an interstellar call, hurtling over strange woods, stretching coastlines, and stunning lands at high speeds.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

Jett: The Far Shore takes a powerful ship to answer an interstellar call, hurtling over strange woods, stretching coastlines, and stunning lands at high speeds. 

Game Developer spoke with Craig D. Adams, co-creator of the IGF Excellence in Audio and Visual Arts-nominated game, to talk about how snowboarding was a big inspiration for the game's ship movements, the desire to capture the grandeur of Earth through the game's striking locales, and the research that went into creating the game's visual mixture of ancient past and sci-fi future. 

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Who are you, and what was your role in developing Jett: The Far Shore

Craig D. Adams, Jett: The Far Shore co-creator: Hey there! My name is Craig D. Adams, co-creator of Jett, heading up the Superbrothers A/V side of things, ie. creative direction, design concepts, narrative, visuals, and audio. 

What's your background in making games? 

Adams: Growing up on the west coast of Canada, I was into art, music, snowboarding, and video games. I got into making video games in Toronto in the mid-2000s. I had established a style of pixel illustration under the name Superbrothers, and I attempted a few homebrew video game projects in the olden times before "indie games" were a thing. Then, I studied 3D art production for video games, got a fancy portfolio together, and joined the video game industry. 

I learned the ropes shipping a vaguely Jett-like project for console at a Japanese company in downtown Toronto where I was working in pre-release Unreal3 lighting skies, creating skyboxes, pitching in as a music and audio co-ordinator, helping a bit with PR and trailer-making, pitching projects and prototyping and doing pre-viz. It was a bit of a ramshackle shop, but I aimed to be as helpful as I could, and I'm sure I learned a fair bit. That's where I met Patrick McAllister, who would go on to create the one-person shop Pine Scented Software. 

Then, in 2009 I met some folks from Capy and I was given an opportunity to create a first video game under the name Superbrothers, which is how 2011's Sword & Sworcery EP came about. That project was co-created by Capy, featuring composer Jim Guthrie, with me on deck for creative direction, design concepts, narrative, visuals, audio, and so on. I chippied in some pixels for Queasy's Sound Shapes 2012 and then, since mid-2013 say, I've been slow-cooking Jett's distinct design and cosmology with Patrick. 

Jett's pre-production was just Patrick and I for several years, co-creating the design and building the project, with me heading on the creative side of things and Patrick on the technical side of things, along with composer scntfc in a loose orbit helping us establish an audio and music foundation. As we went along, we started to pull in contributors here and there, until in mid-2019 we spun up "Jett Squad 1.0," adding designer/producer Randy Smith to the core team and roping in a constellation of remote workers and specialists to execute on a pretty complex year production cycle that got rolling in mid-2019 and ran hot until 2021. 

On Jett, in that last production cycle I had to wear a few too many hats as each job became more complex, and it was tough going, scrambling up steep learning curves during a spicy time on Earth. Now that Jett's heavy dev cycle is all in the rearview, I'm feeling very grateful for the hard-won experience and new wisdom, and I'm eagerly applying those things in my work, with the goal of creating a much more relaxed work circumstance and life going forward [laughs]. 

How did you come up with the concept for Jett: The Far Shore

Adams: At root, the intent for Jett's gameplay design concept was to create a snowboarding-style video game with vaguely Metroid Prime verbs, happening in some evocative immersive sim-ish locations that would be fun to zip around on, with pockets of Monster Hunter intensity and fussiness and moments of awe a la Ueda, all while an intriguing and thoughtful science fiction narrative adventure unspools gently around you with notes of LeGuin, Herbert, and so on. 

We gathered all of those ideas together, thought them through and tried them out, and then spent a good long while attempting, somewhat inexpertly, to get all the puzzle pieces to fit well together. Early on, there was a feeling of this concept being a DIY moonshot—that our creative ambition might far outreach our grasp as two people without a great deal of experience in this design space. But we held to the thought that, along the way, as we built things out, we'd learn and grow in our jobs and eventually figure out how to make the design finite and deliver it. 

As mentioned, our premise called for the exploration of an unfamiliar planet, zipping around and doing Monster Hunter and Metroid things on a jett-snowboard, occasionally encountering an impressive kolos, always intrigued by a distant mountain, sometimes getting out of the jett and wandering a bit and talking to people. 

However, for such a project to appeal to people who may have enjoyed Sworcery or who prefer video games with narrative and emotional resonance, we felt our design would be well-served with an impactful prologue. One that could immediately intrigue the player with a rich-feeling world and put the player on the hook both emotionally and curiosity-wise, before establishing the interstellar travel aspect with some intensity and grandiosity. 

To hit those targets in a low-ish scope way, we had to find a distinct angle and hit a particular tone, and that's how The Mother Structure and Jett's interstellar travel sequence came about. Meanwhile Jett's somewhat nebulous and nuanced gameplay concepts came into sharper focus by degrees, eventually helped along in the Jett Squad 1.0 era by the addition of a specialist gameplay designer. Meanwhile the narrative elements were allowed to marinate for a good while. 

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What development tools were used to build your game? 

Adams: Typical tools: Unity, Adobe programs, Maya. Note: This is not an endorsement of those programs or companies. 

What inspired the striking art style of Jett: The Far Shore

Adams: The vision for Jett's visuals was to impress and intrigue with a fancy-seeming IMAX aesthetic, something with a bit of Stanley Kubrick and a bit of 1979 Ridley Scott, with some Metroid Prime-inspired vibes interwoven and a sprinkle of endearing Ghibli whimsy. There was an intent to deliver sufficient razzle dazzle to support a sweeping action adventure, but this intent had to be balanced with enough under-the-hood simplicity and practicality to be feasible for a small team. 

A high percentage of the signature visual elements were in place early on - the jett and its trail, The Mother Structure, the shape of Ground Control, Tor, the kolos, and Ghoke. Before the Jett Squad era, as we exited pre-producton, we had everything in place: the scenarios and narrative, characters, and kolos. However, at that time, the assets and meshes were temp and cobbled together. In order to bring things up to shippable, Jett Squad folks like visual concept artist Sam Bradley climbed aboard, added considerable art direction muscle, aiding environment artist Flaminia Grimaldi and character artist Chris Beintema hone and refine, and helping me direct various vendors, for vfx and lighting and so on. 

The character design demonstrates a culture that runs through the people of the game. What ideas go into creating a sense of culture with clothing, characters, and visual style? 

Adams: The vision for Jett's characters was to create a cast of intelligent, interesting companions that one would want to spend time with. These characters had to carry within them the flavor and history of their planet of origin. Narratively, there was an intent for the culture in Jett to resonate with people, but to feel separate enough from the rich cultures we know on our Earth so that we can better reckon with the ideas in the work. 

Aesthetically, I liked the idea that the origin planet for the people of Jett is an altered Earth, one with a familiar moon and an atmosphere and a solar neighborhood matching our own, only one that has had to endure more hardship, as if has weathered one or more asteroid impacts. There is also a sense that this world where there has been no "discovery" of "a new world," or if this occurred it played out in another way than in our history. In Jett's Earth, consequential civilization events tend to occur on the Eurasian steppe even into industrial and technological eras, with people drawn from all corners of the planet, unlike in our Earth's history where European-derived Anglo/American white men and their particular point of view played an outsized role in defining our industrial and technological eras and present circumstance. 

As for the characters, Jett Squad 1.0's Chris Beintema, moonlighting for us while at Bungie, modeled and rigged the characters, costumes, and props. He was working from designs by me and visual concept artist Sam Bradley, with assists from environment artist Flaminia Grimaldi, and others. 

What thoughts went into developing an art style that meshed a sense of both past and future? In creating a world filled with futuristic ships and art that hints at a long presence for an ancient culture? 

Adams: The vision was to create a science fiction universe with a few layers so that you could see and feel the culture's past nested inside its present. On Earth, the aesthetics of pre-industrial cultures persist into industrial and technological eras. In our surroundings, we may sometimes grow insensitive to this, depending on where we live, but they are often knitted together, particularly outside of big cities. 

What this boiled down to for Jett involved carving out Jett's industrial and technological aesthetic, drawing from 20th century industrial projects of the Eurasian steppes and the statuary of the USSR, and layering that atop locations that are older, resembling the Bronze Age aesthetics of Sword & Sworcery, whose main action took place in "the foothills of Mingi Taw," which is the Turkish name for Earth's "Mt. Elbrus." 

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What ideas go into creating alien worlds that capture the imagination? In making a place look like it is from a whole other planet? 

Adams: The destination planet in Jett, known as "the far shore," isn't too far afield from Earth in terms of its biomes and aesthetics. There are some familiar-feeling foundational elements such as saline seas, blue skies, grasslands, and woods. This familiarity helps the place feel inviting and legible. To spice that soup and get it feeling appropriately unfamiliar, we tweaked some shapes and colors for clarity and to serve the design, as one does in any video game, and we played with the scales of things a bit, so grasses and trees became quite massive, and a few hulking 'kolos' creatures became positively titanic. 

Into that mix, we injected a few larger visual statements, such as a pink-ish gas giant planet known as Ghoke (around which "the far shore" orbits) that is almost always looming in the sky above, plus a striking conical mountain known as Tor that is always beckoning on the horizon. Earth is replete with utterly astonishing and varied natural locations and spaces—spaces that intrigue the eye up close but whose grandeur is better understood and appreciated from above, and it was our goal to communicate some of our enthusiasm about this in Jett, and that Jett's design was intended as a platform for this aerial appreciation of natural spaces. I'll add that there's a great deal more that could be done in this space. 

What sort of research went into creating the visuals for this title? How did research shape the look of its many intriguing places, people, and devices? 

Adams: In the lengthy span of Jett's gestation, I traversed a fair amount of research material, gathering visual inspiration from: Earth's many remarkable natural spaces and biomes, the human cultures of the Eurasian steppe, the aesthetics of the Soviet space program and the historical dynamics of Earth's space race, classics of cinematic science fiction such as 2001 and Alien, plus literature from the industrial revolution era including Tolstoy and Verne. 

One particularly memorable visual inspiration in the midst of Jett dev came about on a visit to MassMOCA, an art museum in a small town a few hours south of where I live in the woods of Quebec. They had a pretty significant James Turrell exhibit where observers traverse various meticulously-designed spaces and experience some very specific lighting, stirring up interesting and even profound feelings. I'm still reverberating from the magic of that museum visit, and some of that inspiration found its way into corners of Jett's on-foot spaces. 

The player's ship gives a sense of exhilarating speed. What thoughts went into creating the look of movement so that players could feel they were moving quickly, but also be able to guide themselves along without feeling overwhelmed? 

Adams: The vision for Jett's locomotion has a great deal to do with my love for the feeling of snowboarding, particularly on the larger and more spectacular mountains out west. That feeling of carving and enjoying the thrill of going fast, and then easing up for a moment to take in the natural splendor around. As for the look of this locomotion, I love that IMAX helicopter-chase perspective, what it lets you see and understand of the world around you, and this drove the behavior and design of the jett's 'scope'. 

In the end, the jett locomotion and scope verbs we shipped with are distinctive, probably a notch too unorthodox, and it takes a little time to adapt. However, once you're accustomed to things, that desired experience emerges - jett hard, carve, jump, then ease up, spin the scope around and think about where you'd like to go next, what you might like to see. Trouble is, as the camera is so pulled back, we lose some of the enjoyable intensity of speed one could have had with a closer camera. To mitigate against this loss of visual intensity, we brought to bear a bit of few touches, relying on the controller's haptics and some UI and vfx touches to help communicate and accentuate feelings of speed.

This game, an IGF 2022 finalist, is featured as part of the IGF Awards ceremony, taking place at the Game Developers Conference on Wednesday, March 23 (with a simultaneous broadcast on GDC Twitch).

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