Hi everyone! Yite here.
To break out of radio silence over these past few months, we are kicking off a series of new blog posts about the design and development of TIHL, we have been working non-stop during these past months so we will use these brief capsules to share with you what is happening behind the scenes and keep on improving with your support and feedback.
As the game’s many-hat creative director I am also responsible for the art side of the game, so today I want to start by talking a little about how The Time I Have Left style came to be. Let’s get down to business!
A look to the past
If you are reading this article, you probably know about pre-rendered backgrounds and their use during the early days of 3D games. Tons of horror, RPGs, and adventure games used this technique to produce imagery far more complex than what could be done in real-time, and by the end of the first decade of the 2000s, we had gorgeous titles like Onimusha 2, or Baten Kaitos.
This technique altered the way games were being made, and for a while, it was a pretty popular format. In exchange for beautiful and cinematic camera angles, some degree of freedom has to be lost (mainly camera control) and the level design and positioning of those cameras had to be carefully thought out in advance by blocking the scene and then using the resulting frame as the base for the final render. Of course, navigating those areas with shifting cameras can be pretty difficult in terms of control too, so there was a lot of experimentation with the obvious dominance of the tank control scheme.
During the decade of the 2000s, many games tried to bring that essence into real-time 3D by adding fixed and on-rail cameras to replicate and improve on the formula, but the final image would compare unfavorably when compared to the pre-rendered option mainly due to the lack of rendering power.
Despite that, some truly incredible results were achieved at the time and there were critical improvements in cinematography and dynamism.
And then, as modern engines started to appear and machines became more capable, this kind of game design was abandoned by the big names and later on returned in smaller games and the indie scene (the Fixed Camera Appreciation Society has some great examples available on steam!).
We think there’s still plenty of room for expanding on this kind of system with current technology and bringing it forward with modern technology, and our art approach had to consider that.
Our art goals
All this history trip is very important to the topic at hand because it greatly influences our artistic process and also how we approach the level design and even narrative.
Having decided to create the game using fixed cameras, we got to define the core keywords from where to build up the whole art style. TIHL is a hybrid of genres, so we have to keep it familiar to both audiences while defining our own identity.
We did some tests before actually defining this goal. Despite deciding soon on using Unreal Engine, realism was a no-go from the very beginning and we always aimed for a stylized approach, but it didn’t take long before we scrapped all that and decided to take a bolder approach that could be crafted with a very small team while still looking unique.
Everything in The Time I Have Left is rendered in real-time. Even though we love the approach, pre-rendered backgrounds are essentially bitmap files with set resolutions. Even if there is an ultra-high-res version of that background (which sadly, is not the case for a lot of old titles), eventually resolutions are gonna increase, making it difficult to bring the title to future systems.
Despite being real-time, we want to get as close as possible to the level of density and richness that many of the games with pre-rendered backgrounds achieve. Crafting each camera angle is a lot of work but we put our best into making all of them the most interesting we can!
We use the aesthetics of the game as a visual guide of sorts, taking clues not only from the usual game design tricks but from signage and graphic design too. Light is there to guide the eye to important things but there might be some secrets hidden in the dark too!
In the second volume of our art posts, we will focus on our building process, roughly explaining how we create our levels.
Meanwhile, leave us your comments about what you like (or dislike) from TIHL’s aesthetic and art design, or tell us about your favorite games with fixed or on-rail cameras, which one do you think does it best?