Combining Narrative Process and Art Design

Until my friends and I put our tabletop games studio on hiatus due to COVID and other shenanigans, I was part of a team focused on creating a sci-fi deck building game with a strong narrative component. Set in a far future world where corporations dictate almost every aspect of humanity, part of the player’s journey is to figure out how they fit into their corporation’s business plan, and whether they can carve out their own space in spite of that relationship.

To play the game, you choose a corporation to represent during one of several strategic missions. The game story is a multi-session campaign which drops you on a hostile, alien world full of angry, dinosaur-like raptors and freezing snowstorms. You have to survive the environment itself, and also maneuver to outpace your opponents. This involves managing resources, choosing how to respond to changing situations, and trying to keep your team of agents from running out of corporate credit as the stakes get ever higher.

The deck you build is comprised of cards which symbolize your fellow corporate agents, as well as the infrastructure, tools, and information your corporation has on hand and is willing to loan you for your mission. As an agent working for the Anacron corporation, for instance, your starting deck might be comprised of information brokers and hackers, as well as agents, bots, and other programs which allow you to gain intel from the digital lives of your opponents. By contrast, a fellow player who chooses a different faction like Nishka Black might build a deck focused on elite mercenaries with chemical weapons, while another player who chooses TechNet might build their deck using giant mechs with armored plating.

To build a world with three very different factions, the entire game team needed alignment on how each corporation looks, feels, sounds, and plays. Since our game team was only eight people, that might sound like a simple problem to solve. But in reality, it took a lot of communication, coming together to agree on a shared vision of what these corporations represent, and applying that vision to the more than 150 cards we needed to make for the game.

Our goal was to make every card in the game immediately recognizable, from the colors, design, and logos on the card, to the card art and text. Everything should reinforce one of these three corporations, and there should be no ambiguity between factions.

We focused on two tools to help achieve this goal: a style guide, and a narrative codex.* Both of these documents are common in game development, but there are lots of variations in appearance and content. The tools I describe here are what worked for our studio; if you’re considering a similar endeavor, I recommend tweaking this process to fit the needs of your team.

A style guide contains all of the information necessary to ensure consistency in the visual representation of your game. Fonts, resolutions, colors, UI layout, and rules for character costuming, environments, and icons, all of these things are included in a compendium so that anyone on your team who is working to create a visual part of your game can rely on a central source document. Using a style guide can help to create a unified vision across an art team, even if your studio relies on many team members working asynchronously in order to create your game.

Because card games rely on iconography and color to help players more readily identify individual cards as useful or not useful to their play style, using a style guide also meant defining some core concepts behind the appearance of our factions. For example, if someone were drawing a new character for TechNet, here are some of the guidelines they would follow:

Blues should be incorporated whenever drawing this faction, especially the power sources of mechs and drones. Full cyberneticization is the end goal for any corporate agent, but most characters only have partial augmentation. Cybernetics are sleek and streamlined, not “do it yourself” style.

If your game is less character-driven, other aspects of your style guide may be more fleshed out than the example listed here.

For our game, the narrative codex explained why the visual world our art team was creating looked the way it did. We sought to answer, among many other questions and in as detailed a manner as we could afford:

– The reasons for all of the major characters in our game world to do what they do.

– The current climate the game’s solar system is in and why (political climates, economic climates, religious climates, social climates, intellectual climates, and artistic climates are all relevant here). Because we were making a game with space travel, this involved plotting for all of the solar system’s planets, not just the ones involved in the game’s “main plot.”

– Why the major game factions use the different technology they employ (ties in with the above point).

– Why the player characters are being asked to perform the missions included in the game box, and the outcomes of succeeding at or failing those missions.

There are a number of other questions you might need to ask yourself when making a narrative codex, but if I had to name one “trick” that worked for us, it is: be as thorough as you can afford to be in order to paint a believable world for your players. Game worlds are enriched when there is reasoning behind what’s happening inside them. Your players don’t necessarily need to know why there are six months of incessant winter on the moon they visit for the game’s first mission, or why one corporate overlord is exploiting another, or why a plague just broke out on one of the outer planets, but you should probably know those reasons.

Using the narrative codex and the style guide as the backbone for our in-game narrative and art, I believe that we were able to fail faster than we would have otherwise. We were quickly able to identify game art, story, or other components which didn’t match previous standards and realign them, or, in some cases, use the “mismatch” to fuel useful conversations about our game.** And we were able to determine the most impactful ways of depicting in-game characters, a boon for tabletop games, since space is at such a premium.

This is a mock up for four different versions of the same character, a mech driver from the TechNet faction.

Our process for using these tools went something like this: first, we created an “inventory sheet” – a list of the character and environmental art we needed for all of our game cards, to make sure all corporations were equally represented and that we weren’t missing art for any key game components. Next, we created a written description for each character, based on the core tenets of both the style guide and the narrative codex. Then, we delivered these descriptions to our art team.

Our character artists and environment artists both followed a similar procedure for content creation. For each card, they would sketch four possible scenes using the narrative, but also trying to depict different poses, actions, and/or levels of intensity for each option. Once this was done, the game team would convene and vote to select one of the four available options for each card. That option would be fleshed out into a final piece, and delivered to our UI artist for finalization into a card.

This is the final version of the mech driver, based on the team’s selection from the mock-up options.

This approach helped us create a large card inventory over a relatively short timeframe. It also helped us create three distinct game factions, each with a unique appearance and a cohesive design, despite the fact that our game team was scattered across the globe and living in a bunch of different time zones.

It is likely that none of the approaches I’ve outlined here will be an exact fit for another studio’s process, but hopefully this post can serve as food for thought about the complicated craft of aligning game art and game narrative.

* Also called a game bible.

** In one case, a particularly interesting character who didn’t fit with either of the corporations we were working on at the time led to the rise of a new faction altogether.

All art posted or discussed in this post was created for Bad Captain Games, LLC, by the artists Allen Black, Jonas Spokas, Bogdan Bungardean, and Santo Ibarra.

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