Dragon Age II: The New Art Style

by Jeff Cork on Jul 23, 2010 at 11:00 AM

During our trip to BioWare’s offices, we had the chance to sit down with the company’s senior artist Matt Goldman and talk about the visuals behind Dragon Age II and learn a bit more about the team’s creative direction. Here are some of the highlights in Goldman’s own words.

On cinematic influences:
One of my favorite films is Yojimbo, and that was made shot-for-shot into A Fistful of Dollars. I love those Sergio Leone movies too. I have a lot of screenshots from not only samurai movies but those kind of cowboy movies [around the office] – Conan is obviously one of our other ones.

On the updated look for Dragon Age II:
Before, I think Origins was kind of like Death Dealer meets The Hobbit. It was half really “raah, scary” and half really whimsical. We wanted to take it into more of a desolate feel and kind of strip it down to a hot-rod Samurai look. Not only visually, but in terms of the actual storytelling motifs that appear in those movies. The cautionary tale was really appropriate for DA2.

On the new narrative structure and what it means for artists:
One main thing that the framed narrative story device has let us do was modify the UI stylistically in constructing a more coherent and consistent look. In Origins you had quite a few things – the leather book, the tribal thingies, the blood and parchment and so on and so forth. There were five or six different elements.  For DA2 we use the tapestry elements in a lot of different ways – in the world map, load screens – and the actual presentation of the UI then becomes kind of like an illustrated manuscript that ties into the main story device.

On taking stylization too far:

Historically, I don’t think that ultra-stylized games really are that compelling for something that’s grim and nasty. It has to be at least believable, if not realistic. I think actually right now, games are in this kind of baroque phase, where everything has to be realistic and super-encrusted in detail. That was also another factor in the decision, trying to put the art in a place where it looked different from other things out there. Basically, we have this epic game. Origins is very large. There’s no way you could make a game that huge that is as baroquely and finely detailed as Gears of War, say.

On working with well-known fantasy archetypes:
I think there’s a lot of rich source material behind that. I don’t think you want to be throwing that stuff in the garbage. The job of the art team is finding an interesting way of conveying that character that is unique or has a fresh take to it. We definitely didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We did have latitude and we have changed around not necessarily the way elves look but the space that they’re coming from and what their mindset is. They’re more like plains Indians than like bushmen, say.

On the sequel’s technology:
Technology-wise, we really focused a lot of attention on the lighting engine. The basic forms and spaces are in themselves interesting and good lighting makes a substantial difference to the volumetric feel to the world. We spent a lot of time on epic terrain – sweeping vistas is something we tried to do, and I don’t think with very much success in Origins. 

On thinking about artists:
We invested a lot of time basically making it easier for the artists to work on stuff. It’s not exactly a sexy feature, but by letting the artist iterate on things and look at things quickly, you end up with a much better product.

On realism:
The combat is really over the top. It looks crazy, but when you’re actually playing it’s very satisfying to do the whirlwind and see all those legs standing there that don’t know they’re dead yet. 

On spell effects carrying over to cutscenes:
I personally argued against that a lot. There are various game reasons why [we did that]. It would be cumbersome to cast all of those spells again. But I think it really takes you out of the moment when you’re standing there, talking to a guy and he’s wrapped in glowing red plastic and there are flames shooting out of him and rocks falling on top of him. I absolutely agree that that needs to not happen.