Letting Go

As Illyriad’s players have doubtless noticed, the game’s art evolves slowly. There is no industrial production line. Each piece is allowed the time it needs to mature, with no great rush.

This is probably clearest in the character art.

Here, we start with a single page narrative on the character, who he or she is – background, attitudes, etc. Then we assemble a mood board. Then step by step the character takes shape. And by the end, we have thought about it way too much.

For example, let me tell you about my daughter. She is lovely. Such a sweet girl. Of course, she has always had things her own way, and Her Majesty (my wife), says that I’ve spoiled her, but nothing’s too good for my little girl! And such an imagination! Most of her time is spent in the cellar, where she says she’s playing with her friends. How sweet! Heaven only knows what she gets up do down there, since she doesn’t ever take her friends down there – though I think there used to be some prisoners in the dungeon down there – but her games keep her occupied for hours and she’s always so happy when she comes up for dinner…

But in reality this character, about whom we have built up a whole back story (the spoiled sadistic serial killer, with her overly-doting father) is going to have to head out into the world of Illyria as a player avatar, to be imbued with a whole range of personalities and hopes, with a new persona for every player who selects her.

At some stage, however much thought and love we have put in to each piece of work, there comes a point where it stops being ours and belongs to the players. And that’s the whole reason for us doing this. We knew that that day would come, and that’s what makes it all worth while. At some point, she won’t be my little girl any more. But as every parent knows, it can be tough to let go.

Culture: Continuity and Variety

When we’re depicting cultures in Illyriad, there is a tension between the need to make each seem coherent and consistent with itself, and also the need to allow for a variety of¬†interpretation. That all sounds a bit obscure, so let me explain.

Players in Illyriad can pick any one of several races. In all of these cases, players might be coming to them with a range of expectations. For the Dwarves, Tolkien’s Dwarves are the obvious reference, but they might also be thinking of the Dwarves of Norse myth, or the Mostali of RuneQuest, or the insular Dwarves of Dragon Age. For Elves, they might be thinking of the superior and distant Elves of the Lord of the Rings movies, or they might be thinking of the spindly wood elves in illustrated editions of The Hobbit, or they might think of the dangerous and otherworldly creatures who kidnapped Tamlane in the legend. And so on.

The challenge in each case is to allow players to bring their own preconceptions into the world of Illyriad, while maintaining a sense of continuity and coherence.

This is easiest to do with the written Faction descriptions. So, if we are looking at Orcs, then people always assume mindless violence – but as Illyriad is about building cities and kingdoms, this begs the question of how Orcs might run a society. Simply, we don’t have to answer that question – we can propose different options, one per faction, and the players can gravitate towards, focus on, whichever suits their sense of what is Orc-ish. So, we have the ritualized violence of the Blood Reavers, the desperate attempts of the Pax Orcana to adopt ‘civilized’ habits, the measured confrontations of the Crimson Skulls… all offering a different view, a different treatment, of the same subject.

When we create art for the different races, however, there is a different challenge. The example of our Elves, above, demonstrates this. Here we have to bring together wisdom and compassion, with cruelty; the superiority of the “high” elf, with the roughness of the woodland dweller; the sexual fantasy view, with a more realistic depiction. There are a lot of different views of ‘what Elves are like’ coming together here, and the challenge has been to bring them into a single, visually coherent depiction.

Better Than It Needs To Be

The strength of Illyriad’s character art is that it isn’t as good as it needs to be. It’s deliberately much better than it needs to be.

It’s the Abba theory. Abba, the theory goes, may be at heart mere Pop music, but it has stood the test of time and is still well loved, because it is much better than it needs to be. Abba may be inconsequential Pop, but it’s so wonderfully crafted that decades later the songs can still delight.

The character art for Illyriad has been broadly praised, and many of the individual portraits have a quality that brings a smile to the face. The key to this, I think, is that we didn’t set out to make the characters good enough, appropriate, acceptable. We set out to make them brilliant, and then poured love into them. It’s easy to say, but hard to do – and requires a much greater focus on the details. Look, for example, at this close-up of our male Dwarf – at his pauldron and the buckle on his breast-plate:

No-one ever needs to see the character this close up. Players will see this piece of armor at between 10% and 30% of this size. We never said to ourselves “do we need to show scratches and chips on his armor? do we need that much subtlety in the texture on the metal?” We just put the detail in without questioning it, because we were determined to make the portrait brilliant. But having lavished love on each inch of a character, the overall effect, when you stand back and look at him or her from a distance, is that the quality shines through.

Revising the Character Art

When we came to revise the character art for Illyriad, it seemed clear that the first batch of characters should be warrior-kings and warrior-queens.

This calls to mind King Arthur (who in his prime, most people imagine as thirty-something), Genghis Khan (whose power was at its peak when he was in his fifties) and Alexander the Great (at his greatest in his late twenties). History and fantasy fiction are both full of warrior-kings who are thirty-something-ish, physically fit, with huge charisma.

But warrior-queens? Ah, now that was a problem. History is not full of strong, female warrior-rulers, and most that do crop up are contentious or little-known. Meanwhile, fantasy fiction tends to present a rather different view of female characters.

I saw the new Conan movie last night. It was full of capable male characters, aged anywhere from 15 to 50, many of them ugly, and all allowed to develop their own way of being cool. The key female characters, meanwhile, were indeterminately young, and implausibly good looking. This kind of predictable view of females in fantasy (maid, mother or crone – mostly maid, and generally only she is allowed to be kick-ass) was a challenge for us.

My first instinct was to say “b******s to that – we’ll have our females in Illyriad as real ass-kicking females would be – unsympathetic, beefy, no prettier nor uglier than the average – lets make them real”. But of course, we’re doing this for our players, not for ourselves, and a lot of people like the athletic warrior-maid ideal.

We considered both extremes. We considered a compromise. But then we settled on the solution of exploring both ends of the spectrum.

We wanted one character who was the sort of woman who would really want to go to war and crack skulls. As we evolved the mood board, we realised that a lot of the images we liked were Baba Yaga – so, our female Orc was born.

And of course we had to have one athletic-warrior-supermodel type, and she swiftly became the Elf.

The character I personally liked the most, was the Human. She’s probably over 40 (though, hey, this is fantasy, so she’s well-preserved for her 40s, and uses cosmetics), she’s good looking without it being obvious, and she has made sure that she’s well armored (close up you can even see that the red under-armor is heavy-duty brigandine, not some sort of soft quilt). And she has the gravitas, the authority, that you’d expect from someone who rules her own fiefdom. She’s a female ruler whom I can immediately believe in.

I was pretty happy with the results. Until I put the image together for this blog piece. Look at the picture. Face, palm. Doh!

Maid, mother and crone.

They are pretty cool. But it’s still the three stereotypes.

For the next batch of art, we’re going to have to find ways to be cool without reverting to any of these three types.