How former Pixar man Mark Holmes gave the PS4/PS3/Vita game its distinctive look
Greetings Counter Agents, this is Mark Holmes, co-creative meddler here at Dynamighty and art director of our debut title, Counterspy. After 16 wonderful years at Pixar, working on most of the studios’ films as a character, environment, graphic artist, art director and production designer, I was excited to bring my experience and passion for visual storytelling to Dynamighty.
Not only was I invited to help build a new and exciting game company from the ground up, I was given the opportunity to design a brand new game drawn from the cool world of 1960s cold war espionage! How could I say no?!
Having originally worked in games back in the early ’90s, one of my earliest goals coming back was to help us find our own original voice for CounterSpy that would reflect the tone, themes and ideas we wanted to explore as a company, while at the same time would set us apart from the many other titles that have explored this rich genre. Building a relatively straight-forward action-stealth shooter, we wanted to make a game that was simple, fun, and playful… but with an edge. Being the sardonic, sarcastic, silly people that we are at Dynamighty, we also knew we wanted it to have a sense of humor and we didn’t want it to take itself too seriously, yet behind it, there needed to be some personal meaning for us in making it.
We found early inspiration in the dry satire of Dr. Strangelove, where Stanley Kubrick so earnestly sets up the ridiculous premise of how easily one madman can flip the switch of the war machine to destroy the entire world. This began to inform our own point-of-view into the world, specifically around the inherent irony of the cold war arms race. Here were two global superpowers so fearful of the ideological threat they see each other posing to the world that they create an even greater threat by building a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the world many times over.
This became my design goal: to visually represent this ironic idea, rather than to make the game a literal portrayal or judgment about either side, or any of the events themselves. The focus would be on the machinery of war and the folly of the arms race, in our case twisted into a mad space race to destroy the moon. The world needed to be visually simple, fun, edgy, with a distinctly satiric attitude. One of the cornerstones was to portray both sides as abstracted representations of each other, with the irony being they were at once oppositional and the same. This then informed every design choice from shapes and colors to sets and characters.
One design element that really helped crystallize this voice was the Propaganda. Here in particular I could draw on some of my Pixar experience to use graphics to economically and clearly portray our ideas in-game, adding visual richness and humor to the background without upstaging with the core gameplay experience. Posters, statuary, murals and signage could become a key instrument for illustrating the ironic relationship between these two war-mongering sides that through each other’s eyes became known as the Imperialist Threat and the Socialist Menace.
The design challenges were many: I wanted to evoke each historical side enough that it could be easily recognized, but I wanted them abstract enough that this was a clearly fictionalized world; To underscore the irony, I wanted them at once visually opposite and the same.
And in keeping with the tone, these designs needed to be stylistically simple, clear, playful and edgy. Starting with reference, I turned to historic propaganda posters, murals, statuary and signage to find the pre-established commonalities and contrasts.
The first actual task I gave myself was to design the flags, from which I would derive the visual language for each side. I experimented with colors, patterns and shapes before finally settling on the design elements commonly associated with each flag: red, white and blue for the west; red and white for the east. As each nation historically employed the star, I also chose to use it as the central design element for both to stress their sameness, but inverted the values to show their opposition.
To abstract each side without deviating from their established design language I added an outer ring and inner circle to the western flag that evoked air force badging of WW2, and added a dark hexagonal frame to the eastern flag to evoke soviet badging. To relate them, I carried stripes across both flags, contrasting the simplified horizontal stripes of the west with radial stripes for the east, a little reminiscent of Japan’s imperialist flag during WW2.
With a clear visual relationship between the two sides, I then began designing the propaganda posters keeping with a simple design language of similarity and contrast. The Imperialist imagery featured horizontal and vertical stripes and faced to the right, while Socialist imagery featured strong diagonal elements and faced left. The ubiquitous universal guard became a key symbol for each, differentiated only by the color of his costume and the direction he was facing. Visually I tried to keep every image relatively simple in detail and silhouette so they would clearly read in the background even on small mobile screens and would add just enough visual interest to the scene without overly distracting gameplay.
This was a really fun element of the game to work on and I hope the playful tone it creates contributes to your enjoyment of the game when it launches August 19th. Have fun picking out all the various posters and signs littered throughout the game and keep an eye out for more work coming from Dynamighty!
If you want to see some of the work I did at Pixar, you can view some selections of my work on my personal blog.