How to Build an Awesome World: “Brink” Devs on Narrative and Visuals, Part 2

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In the first part of the talk with Brink‘s lead writer Ed Stern, he talked about how the look of the game can inspire plot and gameplay ideas. In this interview, art director Olivier Leonardi–the man in charge of Brink’s aesthetic–discusses how the eco-pocalypse FPS’ distinctive approach to character and environmental design came about.

Brink hits Xbox 360, Ps3 and PC on May 17th for North America and on May 20th for Europe.

I think the look of Brink is the first thing people notice and has been a big conversation point. So talk about your role in that, Olivier.

So, I supervise the whole visual aspect of Brink from modeling the environment, to animation, special effects, presentation, the HUD as well. Before Brink, when I worked on previous games, there was kind of a legacy. I worked on Rainbow Six Vegas and it was already a franchise. So I had some guidelines. When I joined Splash Damage, it was pretty much a blank canvas and we could do anything.

Your colleague Richard Hamm talked a little bit about the inspiration of hyperrealism. Can you talk about the movement and why you thought it would be a good fit for this game?

One of my beliefs is a quote from Charles Bukowski, that says, “Style is the answer to everything.” Which is to say, when you do anything in life, do it in style. So, the first goal was not boringly reproducing reality in a game. You have to add like an element of style. So that was kind of the starting point. And then, there’s more practical aspects of it which is like seeing a character from a distance, you are going to be automatically losing a lot of detail. You can add a lot of detail or any kind of sculpting. But you are going to lose it.

It’s going to become noise very quickly. So, the kind of inspiration of talking about the hyperrealist painters, was more in the process of doing things, not mimicking what they’ve done. I think two main techniques which was the deep focus and gigantic scale. Basically you scale up things so that the details just kind of pop out in your face. Basically what we did with the characters we kind of scaled-up every detail on the outfits. So, they still appear strong from a distance.

Right. So you can tell if somebody is a Heavy from far away.

Yeah, exactly. There’s always the problem of identifying who’s the guy way out in front. Is it an enemy? Is it a friend? We tried to separate palettes and for the factions as well so there’s really a strong silhouette and a really different set of colors. Security is mostly wearing cold tones and kind of neutrals. And Resistance, we use more patchwork patterns, off-colors, and rougher fabrics as well.

(More on TIME.com: On the Brink, Part 2: Talking with Splash Damage)

The main thing about the character creation that smacks you over the head is that none of the characters are particularly handsome. They’re not built with matinee-idol looks and there’s a lot of idiosyncrasy to their appearances. What was behind that decision?

Once again, when you remember someone, you’re going to focus on really strong facial features. So we’re pushing for those mean-looking guys. We used reference from actors, too. Like, if you take a guy like Danny Trejo, this guy has got a face.

His life is on his face.

Exactly. So we kind of wanted to have those guys having a really strong personality through their faces. Yeah, we had the kind of limitation of 12 archetypes and three ethnicities. But yeah, we don’t allow the player to change the main proportions.

There’s no sliders.

Yeah, because we’re not offering five very blandly good-looking guys. You already have that in many other games. In Brink, you’re going to go for the mean guy who suits you best.

And what about the clothing and the tattoos stuff. Where does that fit into the fiction of the world?

I think that was the first thing I kind of discussed with the lead character modeler here. OK, the story says that you have this kind of really quite organized faction with Security, which, at the beginning, they’re just kind of random police guys. So, some of the outfits were inspired by guys that could be like on the beat, instead of a riot police guy or special forces soldier.

Like a beat cop. Got it.

Yeah. Exactly. The kind of a beat cop with a simple shirt and badge. On the Resistance side, those guys, in the story, there are workers. So most of the outfit they use to kind of fight, are inspired by safety gear plus sports gear as well. You have some guy with kneepads. Anything that can be transformed into something that can protect you. Visually, the big contrast between factions is the well organized uniform guys and the kind of mix-and-match fabrics of Resistance.

(More on TIME.com: Airlocks and Body Parts: “Dead Space 2″ Review)

In terms of like telling the story which is kind of this whole apocalyptic environmental disaster thing, how did you try to like bring that idea through the overall visual design of the world?

There’s some clearly identifiable zones in the Ark. One is really clean. Even if this place had been kind of decaying like for 20 years, they still maintain ridiculous level of cleanliness for the Founders’ part of the Ark. And the section on the Resistance side is gritty and rusty, and it’s in this state because it doesn’t have the resources to be maintained. There’s no upkeep whatsoever on this part. So it’s clearly a slum.

The Resistance and their families are too busy cleaning up the rich people’s part.

Exactly. Some tiny stuff we put in also helps build the vision of the world. Like, if you go to the terminal of the airport, it’s littered immigration fliers. It makes it feel like the Ark’s a place where you’d need to apply to get into. We’ve added other touches like protest fliers saying, “Stop the abductions!” because people from the slums disappear and nobody sees them again. So, stuff like that.

So you have meta-story seeded throughout the environment?

Yeah. That’s a concept that Ed, our writer, called Instant Deep Context. So, it could be in anything like the tattoos, fliers on the floor, posters and signs, anything that kind of gives a tiny bit on the story, a bit more information on the story.

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