Stylisation, rhythm and saving your sanity

Developing for mobile VR can be a challenge. Trying to create expansive, visually engaging worlds with bright, diverse environments that work from two points of view can be even more so. As an artist on Lola and the Giant, a first person/third person narrative adventure game for Google’s Daydream VR headset, we were faced with technical challenges from day one. But the team used these restraints as a springboard for creativity, rather than battling against them.

From the get go, the team wanted to avoid making the visual load too stressful on the phone. It seems obvious with hindsight, but by directly comparing our vision for the end result – an airy, open space – with the need to not have too much on screen at once, we could make bold choices that would help us avoid optimisation hell later on. We opted for floating islands, rather than a world set on the ground, which would allow for the immediate reduction of visible polygons on screen. You don’t need quite so many trees when there isn’t a floor to root them to.

We were also well aware that aiming for realism in a mobile VR space is only planning for heartbreak. The key to a successful visual style when working in low poly is through getting the most out of your shapes, and by building angles into an art style. 

There’s a reason The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker has aged so well; ITS visuals are a masterclass in vertices that all say something. Using sharp corners that contrast against curves utilises the age old artistic principle of rhythm (repeat things in fun ways), and is a great way to make something that is aesthetically pleasing to look at whilE giving your rendering engine a break.

Similarly, implying detail through gashes in rock or chunks of missing roof tricks the brain into presuming it’s viewing something at a higher fidelity than is actually the case.

Getting the right visual style does seem to be built on a series of clever ruses.

Anna Hollinrake, Climax Studios

Unsurprisingly, environments viewed both up close in third person as Lola, and far away in first as the Giant, need to look visually arresting from both viewpoints, and adding dramatic, silhouette changing details such as this worked both up close and far away (and additionally work incredibly well in VR). 

As with a great deal of games development, getting the right visual style does seem to be built on a series of clever ruses. Our approach to environment art also took us back to the heady days of texture atlasing and techniques from the PS1 and PS2 eras, using segments of detail laid on top of each other and cut into models rather than creating unique materials. One 4K texture was all we had to work with for each individual world, but the possibility of seeing just how far you could push models in terms of creative reuse of textures made set dressing and worldbuilding a fun challenge.

Ultimately, this was a theme we saw repeated over and over throughout development – take something that would normally be frustrating and reflect it back on itself as a positive. Through working with limitations we can open ourselves up to even greater creativity.

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