The Beauty Found Below
By Mathew Kumar
In the yearly bombast of E3, videogames’ biggest event held each June in Los Angeles, you wouldn’t expect the scene of a tiny character, quietly tying his boat up on a deserted beach, to be quite so striking.
But as the first images seen from Capy Games’ Below—stuck so strangely in the middle of Microsoft’s all-singing, all-exploding Xbox One coming-out party—there was something so enigmatic about the game that it was immediately one of the most discussed on Twitter: What was it? Were the characters really that small? Was this a sequel to Capy’s breakout hit Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP?
Months later, the game’s mysterious allure remains, and so much of that comes from the stunning art style: in contrast to even Capy’s own works, Below sheds all sensation that a screen should immediately be recognizable as a video game. Painterly yet with a real sense of place, it calls to mind the great works of the matte painters of the late 20th century that defined “epic” in cinema as we understand it.
The spark for Below began in 2009 when Capy creative director Kris Piotrowski presented the idea and artists Anthony Chan and Sylvain Coutouly begin lightly concepting. “Originally the game was to be a ‘single screen rogue-like,’” explained Chan, referring to the style of role-playing game typically signified by randomized levels and permanent death. “At that point we knew everything in the game had to be scaled to a point where that made sense.
“Then we started to explore what we were trying to go for, artistically,” continued Chan. The works of legendary artists such as Japanese animated filmmaker Hazao Miyazaki and French cartoonist Moebius were used as “touchstones” for him and Piotrowski. “All of that naturally comes out in our concepts and we refine from there,” says Chan.
Coutouly elaborated. “Kris has kind of the idea of how he wants the game to look and he gives us a bunch of references—books, movies, games—and we explore how we can mix it into something new.”
Though the game is no longer restricted to the original “single screen” concept, the process of exploring that idea defined the art style, which attempts to finely balance the game’s themes of solitude and the unknown with the requirement that the play space be clear and obvious to the player—especially difficult with the decision that the game contain no text at all.
It’s all about immersion, argued Chan. “It’s a challenge to reduce the UI as much as possible. But through the use of a clean art style and our effects we can make sure clarity is there. It’s things like the ‘tilt-shift’ effect: it’s not just decorative, it focuses the player on the character.”
Whereas Chan describes himself as the artist that does “all the things the player isn’t going to notice” like those graphical effects, Coutouly’s work as background artist means his work revolves around the things the player should notice, with environmental storytelling key in a game without text.
thatgamecompany’s Journey, described Coutouly, is a great example of this. “You see hints of this civilization that was there; it helps you put the story together. But lots of games are so story-driven and they offer this one path, this one direction for the player. We are trying to offer the player the space to look around, to see what’s happening from the backgrounds.”
Chan stressed the importance of game worlds having a history. “ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, they have no text, but you get a sense of the history of the place,” he said. “We’re trying to do even more. Say before you enter a cave, you see a piece of torn blue cloth on a rock. Later on in the game you can learn where that cloth came from. We’re offering the player the ability to put the pieces of the world together and form the narrative.”
Capy’s most comparable title, Sworcery, was surprisingly talky, but Chan takes no stock in the idea that they’re actively trying to avoid the comparison.
“We aren’t intentionally trying to make a spiritual successor, but obviously Sworcery is an inspiration,” he said. “We are really trying to stay away from fantasy. The intention is a naturalism; there will be moments of magical realism, but for the majority of time we are trying to keep it very grounded.”
Coutouly added that Capy hasn’t attempted this tone in a game before. “There will be jokes, but the heart of the game is really about loneliness, about life; without being too melancholic, this is the tone we are looking for.”
In this context, everything falls into place; the rogue-like design (in which players face irreversible and frequent deaths) paired with the fine artwork and a tiny protagonist.
“Our work echoes the message of the game,” summarized Chan. “Every life will seem insignificant; you are so small, so frail, and die so easily. But every life adds up, every life means something in the bigger picture, and every life is beautiful.”