What up CG peoples! My name is Brandon Martynowicz. I have been working in the game and film industry for the past 10 years, primarily as an Environment Artist. Recently I completed production as the Art Lead for the game: What Remains of Edith Finch. Finch is a first person, narrative-driven exploration game, walk around at your own pace and check shit out. This article will be a high-level brain dump about how we, as a small art team, created the massive amount of content for What Remains of Edith Finch. Since Finch relies heavily on the environment for the storytelling, this is what I will be mainly focusing on.


I was brought on board with Giant Sparrow to:
  • Create an art/asset pipeline
  • Define a cohesive art style
  • Plan out long and short term schedules
  • Find/hire a small art team
  • Create a fuck-ton of content for the game
Some of the game development challenges that we were facing include:
  • Four story house interior and exterior with 20 different fully detailed rooms
  • Day-to-night static light baking
  • Coastal/beach forest exterior environment
  • 10 unique playable stories, each with different artistic styles and game mechanics
Most game designers will know that this is no small order. The 10 unique playable stories, each with different game-play mechanics...well that's just fucking stupid ambitious, especially with such a small team. The secret sauce for creating all of this was pretty simple: there is no secret sauce. We all worked hard, and we all wanted the best game possible. We got into a pretty good groove of getting shit done the best and fastest possible way, the first time we did it.

To help illustrate the process we used to create the art for Finch, I will breakdown and discuss part of the production workflow. At its earliest state, with a whiteboard full of ideas, concept art begins the visual exploration with some rough, quick sketches. Next, block-out begins figuring out the navigable space in 3D, solving for room scale and size— while concept is moving onto more detailed painting and reference image gathering. Once block-out is signed off on, the Environment Art team comes in and makes all the final in-game assets. This process was used for creating all of the rooms throughout the Finch house, and can be applied to creating the exterior environments and most of the stories you play as well.

CONCEPT ART


Theo Aretos was the only concept artist on Finch, and he was on the project for about a year before I joined the team. He had already established a wonderful painterly style that was bold with his own personal flare, great shape-language, moody lighting, and that was rich with story-telling details.


This was quite helpful to me coming into a new project because what Aretos had done was establish the visual tone of what we had to create in 3D. As most 3D artists will tell you, modeling from a soft painterly piece of concept art is not always the easiest or fastest way to get things done. For the hard surface assets that made up the interior of the house , we soon began to push on the helpfulness of line drawings that catered more towards quicker 3D modeling production. Since line drawings are significantly quicker to make, I was able to work with Aretos on iterations and crank out the exact camera angles we would need to create the spaces in 3D. Probably not the most fun concept art to create, but at the time it was crucial to keep us making content quickly.


BLOCK-OUT

We knew early on that the Finch house needed to feel quite lived in, intriguing, and a bit strange. However the design of the flow/game-play direction had to feel a bit mysterious as well. We didn't want the player to get confused, nor have the player feel lost, but also did not want to have the linear path of the game-play space feel so blatantly spelled out for you. This is where our Game Designer Chris Bell came in and helped out tremendously. Bell would block out in 3D (a very quick mock up of the room) and figure out the player pathing throughout the space. He would solve for the obscure entrance/exits, points of interest for story telling purposes, and how the player should navigate the space.


Bell would iterate on these play spaces with our Creative Director Ian Dallas to make sure all of the important story telling elements were covered in the block-out version of that room. The benefit of this workflow was that the art team was busy creating all the assets for a different area while Bell and Dallas were ironing out all the details for what we would work on next. This way the art team had very minimal throwaway work.


ASSET CREATION

Since my time was split around 80% creating content ( set decking and lighting all environments) and 20% Art Lead tasks, I had to rely heavily on the other 3D artists to understand and execute consistently within my proposed asset creation workflow. When I began working on Finch, the first asset I made was a dresser. I modeled the dresser twice, and re-textured the asset three times. Each time with different approaches to detail, UV layouts, and baking techniques. After deciding on the best technique to go with, I began documenting and showing my workflow to the two Environment Artists, Cory Davis and Greg Prior. Since Davis and Prior would be responsible for making a lot of these assets, I had full confidence in their consistent asset development because of this dresser that I beat to death. This also gave me the piece of mind knowing we would not need to spend much time reworking assets.


Since we had neither an army of 3D artists, nor an outsourcing budget, we had to model out everything from scratch. With not a lot of time to noodle on the details for every single prop, knowing the playable space and what is closest to player height became irreplaceably important— so we could put a little more love and detail into certain props, rather than others. The workflow from creating a prop would go like this:

Model the low rez asset in Maya using photo ref or concept art

Quick high poly mesh based off of the low, use floater details where necessary

Bake down in XNormal, textures crated in Photoshop

COLOR

After we had completed a first pass on all of the art for the game, it was time to start polishing and adding all the fun little details within the environment. One of the first things I noticed was the lack of color cohesion throughout the rooms. These characters were so different, and died at different time periods— how could I help separate them and really help give them unique identities in their bedrooms? To solve this problem (rather than just picking colors that I thought would be interesting) I came up with something I called the ActPass. First thing was to create a chart that had two columns: Active and Passive. Then I printed and cut out all of the characters’ names. I gave these to Dallas and Bell to hand place on the paper where they felt the characters would be.


Next, Bell and Dallas moved each characters name around on a circular chart that had a bit more in-depth descriptors, still within the active and passive range.


After we all agreed where the Finch family members landed on the circle of descriptions, I overlaid a color wheel, and got a good idea of color that represented each family member’s persona.


The final step was to create color combinations based off of where each family member landed on the ActPass board.


These color palettes were used a guide to help bring a color cohesion to each bedroom, and also to help evoke a certain feeling for the player as they discover a new bedroom for the first time.

LIGHTING

For me, the lighting in Finch was one of the more rewarding and challenging aspects of the game. Since the player walks up to the Finch house on an overcast afternoon, lighting the exterior posed no issue. A stationary directional light and a sky light that were close in intensity to replicate the overcast feeling was used, yet both still cast some dynamic shadows for the immersion.


The problem was, if I used this type of lighting setup to bake the interior, the house wound up being way too dark, flat, and boring. I could fix this with post process volumes and exposure compensation, but still, no Pop!- and very little light bounce, and almost no color bleeding.

My solution was to fake the lighting direction with static spotlights outside the windows. I decided to throw real world lighting scenarios out the window and light the interior with artistic decisions as the driving force. If you look for it, every interior room in the Finch house has a pretty strong key light coming from one of the windows. This make no sense in terms of how sun light would work to illuminate the house, but it does create inviting contrast and scene composition throughout the finch house.


INDIE VS. AAA

In Indie development you wear many different hats— from asset creation, lighting, optimization, set decking, to story telling. In AAA production you are usually hired to only do one thing. In terms of studio culture, indie studios are often small, (ours was the size of a large living room) with 11 people packed in like canned salmon. There was a sliding closet door with very loud, and very warm server racks three feet behind, and one bathroom to all share. Indie development is much more intimate. On the opposite side of things, some AAA studios now have the large state-of-the-art tech campuses with a cafeteria, basketball courts and on site yoga studio. They certainly each have their pros and cons, and I would recommend both to anyone who wants to deep dive into learning every aspect of what goes into video-game development.


CONCLUSION

Finch, being my first indie game, was quite the whirlwind of emotion, dedication, stress, accomplishment, and growth. One of my biggest professional gains was on time management, and predicting when the art team would deliver the tasks planned out for that milestone. This was something that became very seamless over time, thus allowing me to make confident decisions on the overall scope of the game. Having such an impact on every single artistic decision, in the end was such a gratifying feeling, especially when everyone on the art team respects each other the way we all did. Looking back, the amount of work was scary at times, but well worth it in the end.

A big shout out to the entire team that worked on this game at Giant Sparrow. It was wonderful to work with a team so dedicated to making something right. Annapurna Interactive for having faith and patience with our team, and my sweet wife for helping me deal with life when things get stressful.