If you’re looking for an alien encounter (and who isn’t?!), then Waking Mars, the iOS game by Tiger Style Games, may be right up your alley. Set in 2097, the game puts you in the role of an astronaut (Liang), fighting off alien species in order to survive. The game was a finalist in a couple of different categories at this year’s Independent Games Festival, but what really blew us away were the hyper-stylized caves, caverns, and landscapes within the game.
We tracked down the environmental designer Amanda Williams who spoke about designing for the virtual world and described some of the different scenes you can expect to see if you play.
Waking Mars features several rock families, including crystal caves. Without spoiling the game for anyone, these caves provide an enchanting space in which to reveal certain parts of the story, and appear toward the end of the game.
The Creators Project: How did you get into environment design?
Amanda Williams: Making art was something I never thought I’d be able to do for a living, and for a very long time it didn’t occur to me that I could learn the skills necessary to make art for video games! I rarely played games for any reason other than to explore a world of interactive art. I’ve been drawing since a very young age, and I could never shake my desire to have an art career of some kind. I decided to give it a try and left a comfortable office job. A friend of mine, Harvey Smith, contacted me and said Tiger Style was looking for an artist to draw environments in an Edward Gorey style for their first game Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor. I jumped at the chance to work on an illustrated game. I had very little formal training, but I bought a scanner and taught myself to color digitally for the art test, and that first level still exists in the game. I’ve been painting environments for them ever since.
How did you go about designing a place, like Mars, that physically exists, but is still a complete mystery?
Our lead designer, Randy Smith, spent countless hours researching Mars. The plants, creatures, and rocks are based on life forms and places on Earth, which gives them a familiar feeling while still being different. The plants seem to have minds of their own sometimes, and continue to thrive off screen. If you travel back through the game, you can see it’s constantly changing in some way. We really wanted to create a world that seems to exist on the other side of the glass.
We added some realism visually, which is reflected in the detailed environment art, creatures, and technical art tricks that help make the 2D game seem a little 3D. When I created art for the caves, I used certain techniques to help give it some depth and atmosphere. For example, the foreground objects have the most detail, and as the layers move further away from the viewer, they become more abstract. In some places, the background simply looks like large, undulating brush strokes with large holes leading to unknown places. This helps keep the focus on the foreground, while maintaining a sense of mystery in the background. The astronaut you play has a light around him at all times, so the corners of the screen are always some varying level of darkness, which creates a really nice, natural looking vignette wherever he goes.
In addition to visuals, fantastic sound design by Bobby Arlauskas brought the atmosphere to life, as did our musicians who added to a sometimes moody, sometimes fun soundtrack that’s placed throughout the game. It’s so magical to hear the deep sounds of a waterfall as you approach one for the first time, or a slightly creepy creature making annoyed noises at you before slithering away, or a piece of music begin to play at just the right moment.
This is where Liang first encounters alien life. The dramatic silhouette frames a closeup of the plants once they start to grow.
What was your creation process like? Did you start with pen and paper, or start the process on the computer?
My original intention for the art style was to use watercolor and walnut ink, since I used traditional media so frequently in our previous game, but I could see that would be very time consuming so I chose to do all digital painting. You can still see many of the original pieces throughout the game, however. The process for actually adding art to the game begins with the designer. He places a bunch of little lines to form passageways and rooms, and then our technical artist Randy O’Connor fills the space with pieces of art that were either created by me previously, or with temporary art that I need to paint.
Rock formations formed by water dripping from above. Fossils can be found in this level, and one of them is especially interesting if you can find it.
Liang with some sleeping creatures and a cavernous background. To help add depth and atmosphere to some of the cave areas, I painted abstract backgrounds that hint at other tunnels and rooms.
A subterranean lake. Giant plants help channel water to other parts of the cave, and the walls are made of a living membrane.
Deep inside the cave you’ll find ribbon-like sandstone and lots of waterfalls. In Waking Mars, you spend a lot of time planting seeds and growing plants, so various types of terrain provide fertile ground for certain types of seeds. The green is fertile terrain, the blue wet terrain, and the spiky acidic terrain. Credit for the terrain, and almost all of the wonderful plants in the game, goes to Mallika Sundaramurthy.
Our Mars has an ancient former planet surface, where giant plants called MegaZoa live. They’re actually sensors that gather information about the planet’s surface, buried hundreds of feet under ground. Most plants in the game are based on life forms found on Earth, but I chose a fantastic design for these. I imagine them forever watching and waiting for surface changes that will never occur so deep in the cave.
A very early concept for various rock types in Waking Mars. Several styles were tested, but this one seems closest to the final art style. The actual levels are of course less Escher-like! I really enjoyed working on this piece.
It’s hard to describe this scene without giving too much away, but you’ll find odd looking structures such as these scattered throughout the caves. Inspiration for the walls was mother of pearl, and gold was a really lovely color to work with.