Today I’d like to talk to you about picking the art style for Airborn. That’s something I don’t see discussed often in the indie community. Perhaps it’s considered either common knowledge or too subjective to write about, but regardless it was a significant hurdle for me so I hope it helps someone else.
From the start I was planning on having a synthwave inspired soundtrack (there will be a post dedicated to the soundtrack… once I have one 🙂 ) and so it felt like the obvious choice was for the visuals to be synthwave inspired too. If synthwave doesn’t mean anything to you, it’s a genre of music inspired by 80s soundtracks, heavily utilising synth instruments. It’s kind of synonymous with visuals such as:
Looks familiar right? Ever since Hotline Miami, as a community we have been obsessed with this aesthetic.
That initial decision influenced everything else. Synthwave landscapes are always facing a sunset, so my game had to be perpetually set at the same time of day.
Synthwave environments are usually combined with low-poly, basic shapes, so naturally my enemies had to be low poly with no detailed textures. For example, here’s what the drone enemies looked like for a long time. This was always a placeholder model, but the overall style wasn’t a million miles off what I was thinking for the final game.
I found sticking to the established “rules” of this aesthetic quite limiting, so I came up with ways to elaborate on them. My favourite embellishment is how I implemented the neon grid that makes up the floor of synthwave environments. In my case the grid is actually a floor made of slate tiles with realistic bumps and details, and the neon light comes from the grout inbetween the tiles. You can see this in the sunset gif I posted above. When you’re in the game this does a lot to make the world feel like a bizarre-but-real place you’re inhabiting, but it doesn’t do enough to make the screenshots stand out from the hundreds of other games using the synthwave style.
(You might notice the grid is still in my more recent clips. I’m still looking for a floor design that’s worth replacing it with since the grid lines rushing past you is a good indicator of speed in an infinite landscape, but it may end up being the only remnant of the original art assets in the final release)
My frustrations with this artstyle came to a head when I was trying to design the final enemy models. I knew what each enemy’s function was and had ideas on how to convey that, but I couldn’t find a way to make them look interesting. All I knew was that they should look alien and menacing in comparison to the player. For weeks I was sketching page after page of same-y looking enemies. I felt too attached to both the basic shapes I’d laid out in my placeholder models, and the basic rules of my chosen artstyle to come up with anything that even slightly broke the mould.
Eventually, I was saved by Tilt Brush.
Tilt Brush is a VR program from Google that essentially lets you paint in VR with effects ranging from 3d paintstrokes to columns of smoke and fire. But more importantly, it gave me a space to experiment and finally start thinking about different materials, rather than just different shapes. I pretty quickly came up with a visual language that worked for me. The enemies are now hybrids of biology and machinery, with their “vitality” represented by veins of glowing light. It’s simple, recognisable from a distance, and contrasts with the player character nicely.
I realised I couldn’t think why the game was improved by evoking the 80s. It had all stemmed from matching it to the soundtrack, which itself is only inspired by the 80s, it’s not attempting to recreate it. Moving away from the first decision I made in regards to artstyle has freed me to be more experimental with enemy design, environment, and even UI. I’ll do a follow up on those other two later, but I’m particularly excited about the new environment.
I’ve rambled on long enough but essentially my two tips if you’re going through this yourself are:
- Don’t stop at the first answer. Don’t settle for ideas that get the job done, ask what they really add to your game.
- If you’re in a creative rut, try different art mediums. Drawing, sculpting, photomontage, or painting in 3d. Anything to force you out of your comfort zone.