This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Alto's Odyssey takes players on a stunning sandboarding journey across shifting sands, gliding across striking landscapes and beautiful backdrops that hint at a world of stories beyond the dunes.
Gamasutra sat down with Harry Nesbitt, Lead Artist and Programmer of the Excellence in Visual Art-nominated Alto's Odyssey, to talk about the thoughts behind the game's art style, how its minimalism helps players bring their own creativity to the game, and hinting at larger stories through visuals.
Connecting art and tech
My name is Harry Nesbitt and I’m the Lead Artist and Programmer for Alto’s Odyssey.
I didn’t get into games until fairly recently – Alto’s Adventure was actually my first experience working as a game developer. Before that, I was working mainly as a freelance illustrator and designer, but I’ve always had an interest in art and technology and the way they intersect, so making the jump to games was actually quite a seamless transition. It’s a medium I couldn’t be happier to be working in!
From the slopes to the dunes
Following up Alto’s Adventure with a game set in the desert was something that naturally suggested itself quite early on – even before we’d finished the first game. The real challenge came from trying to reconsider the game's mechanics and ask ourselves what was integral to the overall experience, and what we could iterate and improve on for the next game. We were also keen to avoid any typical desert cliches and be respectful of the environments and cultures we were drawing from.
The game is built with Unity, which is an integral part of our toolset and allows us to make games in the way we do. Neither myself, nor my colleague Joe Grainger, have a formal background in computer science, so the prospects of having to build and maintain our own game engine would be prohibitively difficult, especially for such a small team. Off-the-shelf engines like Unity and Unreal have gone a long way towards democratizing the art of making games, allowing a much broader range of would-be developers to try their hand at creating something personal to them without the barriers to entry that might have existed a decade ago.
On making the environment the star of Alto's Odyssey
We’ve always wanted to try to make the player feel like they’re just a tiny part of a much larger world. In many ways, the game’s environments ARE the main character, with Alto and the gang being secondary to that. We actively try to avoid showing the characters too much in our marketing material for this reason. We hope this allows anyone to be able to project themselves into the world and feel like they’re experiencing their own adventure, as opposed to one depicted for them.
How procedural generation helps them be competitive
The procedural aspect of the series is ultimately what allowed us to ship a game that could even hope to stand alongside others with much larger budgets or more experienced teams. We're able to focus our efforts on refining a core set of rules that generate a seemingly-large experience from a relatively small number of assets, and can be refined throughout development. It also means that no two players' experiences will ever be the same, with all the game's overlapping systems working together to create an infinite number of unique possibilities.
Creating the flow of gliding across the sands
The key focus when designing the game’s content was to try to make everything feel as natural as possible, with a sense of balance and flow. We mix a lot of procedural content with hand-crafted sequences in order to punctuate the random nature of the game and give players memorable moments in each run.
However, it’s also important to ensure these bespoke sequences don’t draw too much attention to themselves or appear too frequently, as they can quickly become tiresome and stand out for the wrong reasons. To combat this, we sprinkled the game with a lot of subtle, understated moments to help balance things out. There’s definitely a distinct rhythm to the gameplay that took time to get right.
Creating landscapes that hint at larger stories
We always wanted to create the impression of a living, breathing environment with its own history and culture. We want to spark the player’s imagination, and hopefully leave them feeling curious about what exists beyond the screen. This comes from a lot of different details that we tried to work into every aspect of the game, whether that’s the butterflies that flutter around, or the gradually shifting lunar cycles – it hopefully all builds towards a sense of something much larger than yourself, that you want to keep returning to.
Ambiguity in visuals to inspire player creativity
I’m a huge fan of art that plays with the boundaries of minimalism and surrealism, to create a sense of ambiguity; something you just can’t stop thinking about because you don’t have all the pieces. I guess I’ve tried to apply that philosophy to Alto as much as possible by always being careful about what I show and don’t show – how far can you simplify a form until you’re left only with its essence. Hopefully by doing so, you instead build towards an “impression” of a reality, without the need to rely on details; the player's mind can do all the hard work of filling in the blanks.
Creating a feeling of stepping out of your comfort zone
With Alto's Odyssey, we knew we wanted to explore a different range of feelings. A lot of the team had experienced some form of personal upheaval in the months leading up to development, so I think this inevitably fed into the core themes of the game. While Alto’s Adventure was about creating a cozy space for players to call home, we wanted this game to be much more about stepping outside of that comfort zone into the larger world.
From an aesthetic standpoint I think this manifests in much brighter, more confident use of color, as well as more extreme variations in the environments and obstacles that you encounter and the mechanics you use to traverse them.