Jane Ng is currently the lead environmental artist at Campo Santo, the team developing Firewatch. Prior to that, she was a led artist at DoubleFine Productions where she was vital in shipping The Cave.
Her career began while at Swathmore College majoring in Studio Arts and minoring in engineering. “I was really interested in going into the visual effects field, so I cold called a few VFX people to ask for guidance and one person was kind enough to pay attention and answer my questions,” she says. She invited this person to come to her university and give a talk, but shortly thereafter he left the VFX industry to join a small video game company called Ronin Entertainment in Novato, California.
She followed him there for a summer internship, and moved to California shortly after graduating to work for the company, even though she wasn’t offered a position. “I naively thought that if I was persistent and made myself indispensable, they would HAVE to hire me, right?” Ng explains. She continues, “While I don’t recommend anyone doing that now, I was lucky that it worked out for me, and Ronin is where I learned the basics of game art.” After Ronin went out of business, much of the crew moved on to work at Electronic Arts as they prepared to make Return of the King. “Since I had so little experience, the recruiter asked me to do an art test, ‘Make a scene, any scene, that you think would fit into the LOTR aesthetic and come back in three days,’” Ng recalls. Her work was more than sufficient, as the executive producer gave her the okay to join the team.
Ng’s particular specialty is with environmental art, but what does that mean? What does that position entail? “Imagine a theater. As an environment artist, I have to prepare the stage, props and lighting so when the actors come on all they have to do is give a great performance,” Ng explains. “If the stage changes, the artist has to figure out how to make everything work well, how to turn the scene from A to B,” she continues, “Do we need to request the engineers to make us a new tool? How can we do this within a certain budget and timeframe?”
Campo Santo, the company where Ng currently plies her trade, is developing Firewatch, a first-person mystery adventure game. “Firewatch is a game where you experience a mystery set in a stylized Wyoming wilderness,” Ng says. “As a player you get to explore your physical surroundings and also explore some pretty mature issues about trust and responsibility on an intellectual level.” The game revolves around the player protagonist, Henry, and his relationship with his superior, Delilah, who is never seen, only interacted with through radio. “I like that Henry deals with normal human issues that we might all deal with. The fact that he wears a wedding ring and I cannot think of another video game protagonist who has that as a feature of their regular character design reminds you how far from real life a lot of protagonists are,” Ng observes.
Another core member of the Firewatch art team is Olly Moss, who is renowned for his 2D poster and box art. His relationship with Ng, who is focusing on 3D art, has been an interesting and productive one. Since Moss is more experienced as a graphic designer, his role on Firewatch has been that of a production designer. He is in charge of the look and feel of the game, and he creates concept art and colorscripts to communicate that. Ng is in charge of implementing that look and feel within the toolset and working with the engineers to create new tools if what they need does not already exist. When Ng translates a piece of Moss’s concept art, she strives to create all of the models, textures and lighting to about 75-80%, after which Moss will do a paintover to give more direction or polish what has been created. Ng states, “It is a bit analogous to the relationship between an architect and a builder, or a fashion designer and a tailor. I love my job because I get to take designs on paper and translate them into a fully tangible experience.”
Firewatch’s art and story are not separate things; in fact, they’re married into a sort of symbiotic relationship: the art influences the story, and the story influences the art. “The art provides the setting, context and explanations for the universe in which the story is told. The art insinuates and fills in the blanks that need no words. The art shows that Henry has chubby hands, a beer belly, wears a wedding ring and is surrounded by pine trees and a lone firewatch tower with room for only one person. Is that just art?” Taken individually, each of those statements is powerful. Taken together, they illustrate the true power and beauty of art and the influence it has.
At GDC 2015 in San Francisco, Jane Ng gave a speech offering a behind the scenes look at how Campo Santo is developing the unique visual style of Firewatch. In it, she detailed how the art team at Campo Santo, led by herself, was able to transform the 2D poster art provided by Olly Moss into an interactive, explorable 3D world.
Moss’s poster art became the game’s core art style when only the premise of the story was set. “Henry’s story takes place in a very specific time in a very specific place,” Ng explains. Therefore, the game must evoke this piece of Wyoming wilderness, and while the art can be stylized, it must feel real. As Ng says, “We want the player to feel physically connected to Henry in the 1st person. The art needs to support this sense of realness despite its stylization.”
Ng presents an image of Moss’s poster, shown below, and introduced the subcategories of her talk by asking the question, “What makes this image special?” Those categories are: Layers of colors, atmospheric fog, strong shapes and narrative details.
“Since Firewatch takes place outdoors, the biggest chunk of color is determined by the sky,” Ng says. Knowing this, the team at Campo Santo developed an in-house dynamic tool in order to procedurally generate the sky. In addition to this tool, the team used Marmoset Skyshop and some other tools available for purchase. Ng offers a pro-tip in which she urges developers, especially those working in small teams, to spend the money to buy a tool if it will save development time.
The team used color strips to modulate the color and intensity of fog based on distance, something they call “stylistic fog”. This allowed the team to have control over different colors, which is a powerful ability. Here, Ng offers her second pro-tip, “When you do develop custom tools, do so to the strength of your team in order to minimize dependencies.”
Ng details the use of a color script, which is used early on in world-building to help set the colors of certain moments or environments.
“Colors drive the mood of a scene. It is important to recognize what kind of mood you are trying to convey with your colors,” Ng explains. She continues, “The art being in harmony with what the player is feeling truly adds to the immersive realness of the game.”
Strong shapes are important because, “We have to use natural elements to guide the players’ eye to where we want them to go.” This is shown with “Priderock” as you can see below.
Two of the games most important natural elements are rocks and trees. Ng crafted rock concept sheets to depict each different model of rock. “Think of these as your rock words,” she says. “Just as words are used to create sentences, these rock words are used to create different rock sentences that tell different stories.”
Ng takes the time to offer another pro-tip here, urging other artists and developers to make a small number of modular assets that are versatile, as that will mean less data to manage.
When creating trees, the focus was mainly on the silhouette they create when at a distance, and are thus realistically proportioned. Some are upwards of 30 meters tall!
A key way the player converses with Delilah is through objects that can be looked at or otherwise examined. For these reasons, human-scale props such as books and typewriters have quite a bit of detail and are all very unique. Here, Ng offers her final pro-tip: “Prioritize and invest your production effort in assets that will give you the most payoff in terms of player experience.”