Rise of the Neon Hellscape: Establishing the Atmosphere of Until You Fall
Hi, Champions! I’m Justin DeVore, the Art Director for the neon-tinged, VR, hack’n’slash roguelite Until You Fall.
As AD of Until You Fall, I work closely with the largest number of sub-disciplines on the project, including concept artists, UI/UX designers, character artists, riggers, animators, VFX and SFX artists, environment and prop artists, and soundtrack composers. My role, as I see it, is to take the creative impulses of these insanely talented artists and guide them into a cohesive whole that meshes with the design and tech for our game. At Schell Games, visual and audio content production fall under the Art Team, though I tend to refer to that cohesive whole as the Atmosphere of the game rather than just “art.” Using the term “art” can misrepresent the vitality found in the combination of what your eyes and ears are relaying to you.
In previous Developer Diaries, Project Director Dave Bennett and Design Director Patrick Jalbert respectively went over how we established strong Project Pillars and designed our core combat experience. I’d like to talk about the journey we took to find the right audio / visual styles to really complement and reinforce those principles and designs.
In the Beginning…
At the start of the concept phase of development, when Rokar was at least a year and dozens of iterations away, we had a rough combat system in mind and little else (besides a Blue Sky world of possibilities).
What we did know is we wanted a visual style that would stand out from all the other melee games we saw inundating various storefronts. We were looking for something that would rise above the gritty, desaturated sea of grey-brown screenshots that have come to dominate the genre. This was further complicated by the fact that in many iterations of the story, Rokar was almost always a post-apocalyptic fantasy world of sorts. You would be wading through the remains of a once-great civilization, brought down through their own hubris. What could we pair with this desolation to make it a memorable, unique world?
We were drawn early on to the vibrant, otherworldly, dreamlike palettes of games like No Man’s Sky, Destiny 2, and particularly a lot of the promotional concept art for Duelyst. In short, gorgeous art with highly saturated colors and strong hue contrasts (Split-Complementary palettes in a lot of cases). Even in our earliest concepts, we explored the half-buried monolithic runes that would eventually come to define our landscapes. When we started combining that imagery with those brighter palettes, the wonderful weirdness of Rokar started to take shape.
We leaned towards a certain ambiguity in the length of time that had passed since Rokar’s destruction to allow new-growth foliage to provide pops of colour—beautiful organic accents against the stone ruins and terrain. Setting our campaign in this colourful forest growing around these strange ancient ruins gave us the angle we needed to avoid looking like a typical, drab dungeon crawler.
We explored a lot of character designs, for the player and enemies before we landed on our trademark blend of plate armour, metallic lattice, and magical inner glow for the denizens of this world. We wanted characters that oozed dramatic-flair, so we leaned towards flowing capes, gleaming armour, strong silhouettes, and graceful (but powerful) animation sets. We also started exploring weapons that would work well with shape languages and materials used in our character concepts.
But for all of this early development and potentially interesting visual directions, we hadn’t quite found the guiding light that would ultimately tie all of these pieces together.
The Swordwave Revolution
The turning point for our visuals didn’t emerge from more concept paintings, but by first defining our soundtrack. As we made the shift to a Roguelite game structure and doubled down on the goal of fast and frenetic swordplay, Dave proposed several genres of music he thought would match. We coalesced as a group around Synthwave / Darkwave after playing tracks like NARC by MEGA DRIVE and Turbo Killer by Carpenter Brut over top of footage of our combat. It perfectly captured the intense, forward-driving feel we were going for.
This decision gave us the rest of the theming we were missing. We already had characters with glowing interiors and a known desire for vibrant landscapes. We added a tinge of 80s nostalgia and went all-in on neon. This took us from a more traditional fantasy world to something that straddled the divide between magic and sci-fi genres. As odd of a mashup as it was, it worked. It gave off a vibe like one of those fantastic paintings on the sides of 80s pinball or arcade cabinets had come to life and this was the fantasy that those 8-bit experiences would have been if only they had the technology at their disposal.
With the term “Neon Hellscape” in hand as a guiding phrase, we set down two parallel paths to fully flesh out our Atmosphere.
One path included creating a series of visual concepts that could define this new aesthetic—one for each of the three Tiers of our Campaign and our outer loop hub (the Runeforge). The concept art team took that grocery list of thematic requests and produced images that proved all those elements could work well together. We continued to reference the palettes defined in each of these concepts for the rest of development. Our character, environment, and prop artists took over from there and got to work bringing this vision to life.
The other path was composing an original soundtrack to complete the Atmosphere. Dave and I sat down with our composer (who wasn’t yet overly familiar with the Synthwave genre) and listened to a lot of reference tracks. We tried to distil elements of the music we felt best fit our experience since the ‘Wave genres contain a lot of variety. We gravitated towards songs that were fast-paced, contained driving beats that made your head bob involuntarily and had a bit of a grungy feel. We also paired in soaring, sustained synths and wailing guitar riffs to make player encounters feel epic. Our composer started there and worked on writing some “generic” synthwave that hit those marks to make sure he could really master the genre. Once we were all satisfied with that exercise, he set out to bend those initial set of rules and make it a sound of our own.
The final result was a wide-ranging, custom soundtrack (available for free on Steam and offered on most streaming audio services) in a new sub-genre we affectionately dubbed “Swordwave.” All the tracks contained song elements that would tie into our various gameplay beats. Music during combat changes dynamically based on how players are faring in the current encounter with a different base song for each Tier of the campaign and an additional track for boss fights. The further a player gets into the campaign, the more alien the music starts to feel, incorporating more chaotic and glitchy elements, with hints of chiptune, mirroring the build-up of intensity in the gameplay. Returning to the Runeforge between runs gives the player a break with calmer, more ambient synth tunes that, while still definitively Swordwave, offer hints reminiscent of late-80s, post-Waters Pink Floyd.
As our soundtrack and visuals developed, they reinforced and inspired each other. New songs would push the visuals they tied into. New visual art helped us refine the songs even further. In the end, this symbiosis ensured the cohesion of Atmosphere that we were striving for.
Searing the Synapses
With the visuals and soundtrack of the world and characters established, we were able to focus on putting the neon icing on the cake for individual features. Dave already wrote a bit about this when talking about our second Game Pillar: “Supercharged VR Interactions.” The trick was finding ways to take our already vibrant world and push it over the top. Our visual effects and sound effects artists knocked it out of the park.
We approached each key interaction in a way that would sell the emotion of the moment with appropriate style and intensity. Absorbing the power of an Aether Bloom at the end of a level was tuned to feel like an overwhelming wave of power—something the team affectionately refers to internally as “the warm hug.” A player selects an upgrade by crushing it in their fist as it crackles with energy (and generous use of haptic feedback) before exploding in a true “I HAVE THE POWER” He-Man moment. It’s more common than not to see players voluntarily raising their fist towards the heavens during this interaction. We spent multiple sprints getting the Hit FX feeling juicy enough in an effort we called “One Good Hit.” Summoning or dismissing your weapons was tuned to feel both effortless and completely badass.
It’s also worth noting the powerful interactions we created were uniquely possible in VR. By layering all these VFX, SFX, careful timings, and haptic feedback on top of the player’s propensity to roleplay in these moments, we created an immersive whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.
Specific enemy attacks and scripted moments in boss fights also received the super-charged treatment. These effects are our main way of indicating things like phase changes in a fight and lets the player know their enemies are also brimming with power. The first time you encounter an Empowered Knight bursting into magical flames when he’s chipped down to his second health bar (and even before he unleashes the overwhelming flurry of strikes) you know that the tides are about to change.
When we added a Super ability to each weapon, it was another opportunity for our hit squad of FX artists to shine. They established Magic’s personality in this world, and their internal documentation defined several schools or flavours of magic. Each school was given its own unique colour palette, visual theming, and audio personality. Building up supercharge during combat culminates with your weapon intensely glowing and humming—a reminder to the player that supers are meant to be used liberally, not saved up. Firing off a super results in some of the most bombastic and satisfying effects in the Until You Fall, whether it’s hurling a screaming bolt of Soul Burn towards an enemy, stirring up a storm of Aether Shards that tears through enemy Guard, or unleashing an overwhelmingly powerful shockwave towards all nearby foes with Concussive Blast.
As we entered Early Access on Steam and Oculus Rift in late Summer 2019, we got fantastic feedback from players on which moments were succeeding, which moments could use more oomph, and in some cases requests for FX feedback on emergent interactions. The best example is probably weapon scraping. Players really enjoyed the physical interactions we allowed between their weapons with our dual-wielding system. Since the weight of the weapons was so convincing, it felt super bad when they went to grind or bang them together but received none of the juicy feedback so common in the rest of our world. So, we added a few systems and FX to support and encourage those actions. Now it’s one of the most loved, although subtle, interactions in the game with Twitch streamers regularly “sharpening” their blades before charging into combat or menacingly responding to a Captain’s burly taunt animation by clanging their own weapons together.
The Quest for Atmospheric Parity
Until You Fall was well underway in development on PC platforms when the original Oculus Quest came out. By the time we started Early Access on the PC, it was becoming increasingly clear the Quest was going to be a popular platform, and going wireless would pair excellently with Until You Fall. Once we added the majority of the content we felt was necessary for a 1.0 launch of the game, we began work on creating ports for the Quest and PlayStation VR (as they would have similar optimization challenges).
Our primary goal with the ports was to maintain gameplay parity. We didn’t want it to seem like a less featured, mobile version of the game. Additionally, we still wanted these ports to feel like the same world we had built on the PC—we wanted Atmospheric Parity. Since performance budgets on these platforms were drastically different from what we had at our disposal on the PC, it obviously meant exact visual parity was out the window. We set to work figuring out our baselines and limits. The amount of geometry and materials we could use were a fraction of our original budgets, the use of transparency in almost all cases was prohibitively expensive, and post-processing effects were definitely out.
We sat down and took a look at what visual elements of the PC version’s Atmosphere would be necessary to preserve in some way to still make Rokar feel like Rokar. Player feedback was paramount since it directly informs gameplay. Making sure our characters and weapons retained their unique personalities was extremely important as well. Environments, which typically take up the majority of our rendering budget, still needed to describe the same world.
Stepping back and looking at these needs from a wider lens, we reminded ourselves of the original steps taken when concepting the PC version. Our vibrant colour palettes, explosive interactions, and rich soundscape needed to be preserved. We would approach the specific visual assets as gestures—stylized interpretations of their PC version—but use those mentioned elements as guides to ensure cohesion remained.
Some optimizations, for things like characters and weapons, were time-consuming, but straightforward: lower the amount of geometry and materials used in the scene, clean up the textures so they’d still read well at a smaller resolution, and simplify the shaders. Our Graphics Engineer developed shaders that roughly simulated the more advanced materials used on the PC so we could still maintain a sense of metal and detail for these elements. It’s hard to be impressed by earning a new shiny sword if it doesn’t actually gleam in the light.
Environments needed to be rebuilt in an entirely new way that allowed for most objects in the scene to be merged together under the hood to reduce the number of things the renderer would need to draw. Textures were repainted to be unique for each coloured Tier of the campaign, in order to match what we had previously achieved using expensive techniques for the PC version. Geometric and shading complexity faced a huge reduction, but keeping in mind the idea of capturing the essence of each environment in a “gesture” allowed us to allude to all the important compositional elements of each scene.
Foliage, which was an important part of our setting, arguably faced the largest stylization. We could no longer use the texture cards typically used to represent leaves, grass, etc in most games due to their reliance on transparency. Furthermore drawing lots of geometry made up of very small or thin triangles was also expensive on the Quest chipset. So, we leaned into stylization and went for “chunkier” grass, bushes, and canopies. These shapes alluded to the original plants but more importantly allowed us to keep those pops of colour in our scene that they so vitally contributed.
VFX faced similar hard challenges, especially the transparency limitation. Nearly every effect in the PC version uses some form of transparency and bloom to sell our “magic.” To get over this hurdle we rebuilt every VFX asset in the game with a stylization similar to how we had approached the foliage. Soft glowing particles were replaced with chunky, opaque, geometric shapes that got their sense of “glow” through smart use of vibrant colour contrasts.
In the end, our approach to porting allowed our simplifications to feel intentional and a coherent part of the greater whole. It’s easy to play one of the ported versions and forget that you’re not playing on the PC because it really feels like the whole experience is still represented, the vibrancy of the colours is still there, and it still sounds like Rokar.
…In the End
Working on Until You Fall, seeing this entire new universe take shape and become loved by so many, has been one of the greatest moments in my career. The love and care we poured into the game have been rewarded ten-fold by the reception from our community. Building a strong Atmosphere that could persevere across different visual interpretations of the game, in my mind, is no small part of that success.
If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Rokar, our Discord is a great place to start. A lot of us devs frequent its channels and we’re always excited to talk about Until You Fall’s development and hear feedback on where players would love it to go next.
Source: Read Full Article