How Firewatch translated 2D concept art into a 3D open world

This Micro Mortem is based on the talk that Jane Ng’s, Lead Artist at Campo Santo, gave at GDC 2016

Graphic designer Olly Moss designed the striking 2D concept art for Firewatch. But how did the team of Campo Santo translated his designs into a 3D open world game? Environment and Lighting Artist Jane Ng explains.

“We released a poster with an image of a lookout tower set in a forest as an announcement of the game. The picture was actually also the key art for our game. We knew what story we wanted to tell, but visually this was all we had. The next three elements were key in the transition from 2D to 3D.

1) Layers of colors

There are beautiful and bold colors here and they are in very distinct layers. And the color palette really sets the right tone for a mystery in the woods, but just lifting the colors of the concept art and apply them to the game is really out of the question. So we needed a dynamic solution.

Since the game is set in the outdoors, the largest chunk of color is determined by the sky. We developed our own tool to generate procedural skies. Sky is also important because we derive a lot of game lighting from it. And lighting is a huge factor in determining color on screen.

But how do we create these layers leading up to the sky? The answer is atmospheric fog. With this we can actually control the color of the fog in the different layers. When the fog intensity is high it really hits close to the graphic artstyle in the poster.

2) Strong shapes

Much of the composition of the key art is made with flat shaped but strong distinctive silhouettes. Since Firewatch is set in the realistisch natural world of Wyoming there are hardly no handmade iconic shapes to be found. Instead lots and lots of trees and rocks everywhere.

When creating trees I focus mostly on the silhouette they create in the distance. They still have to look good from up close of course but I just make sure that the lower branches are up to snuff because usually the rest of the tree is way beyond players’ reach. They are realistically proportioned so they are around 20 to 30 metres tall.

We use the landscape to create landmarks that the player can recognize. An overhanging cliff or a set of very pointy rocks for instance. We made just a handful of rocks that we place all around in the world in different sizes and angles. By keeping this number small we had less data to manage.

3) Narrative details

You may not notice at first glance but if you look closer, the story is actually hinted at in the little details in the key image. Now we kept the trees and rocks relatively standard because they only set the stage, but we put a lot of design, love and thought in the props because they help build narrative. And narrative is the core of our game. It establishes a visual language that helps the player navigate through the world. Any object with a certain level of texture detail is something that adds to the story.

Eric Bartelson
Eric Bartelson
Bartelson is a freelance writer, and former Editor-in-Chief of everything Control. He’s been writing about games, internet, movies and music since 1993.

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