An­cient art by way of sci-fi gods


Alien­trap’s Apotheon il­lus­trates its an­cient Greek story with im­agery in­flu­enced by black fig­ure pot­tery. But be­fore be­com­ing a 2D plat­former clad in the mo­tifs of an­cient Greece, Apotheon was an open world sci-fi pro­ject set on a space sta­tion; a story of god­like be­ings ma­nip­u­lat­ing hu­mans from on high.

“Even­tu­ally we cut away the space parts and just de­cided on mak­ing a game about Greek mythol­ogy it­self,” says Alien­trap co­founder and creative di­rec­tor, Jesse McGib­ney. “By that point, it seemed like a no-brainer to use the art style that was most as­so­ci­ated with those myths; black fig­ure pot­tery.”

For a while McGib­ney was torn be­tween black fig­ure style (black fig­ures on a red back­ground) and red fig­ure style (a later style with red fig­ures on a black back­ground). “In the end we set­tled on black fig­ure for read­abil­ity, but I took a lot of de­sign cues from the more com­plex styles of the red fig­ure art,” McGib­ney says.

The team ac­tu­ally ex­per­i­mented with ren­der­ing the game on a pot “with curv­ing ro­tat­ing edges and all that”, says McGib­ney. “This was ob­vi­ously need­lessly com­pli­cated, but there’s still some visual ef­fects we held onto.” One of these is the vi­gnetting at the corners of the screen. “An­other was the sub­tle nor­mal map­ping ap­plied to the screen, which dy­nam­i­cally moves with the in-game light sources to give a clay-like tex­ture to every­thing and helps re­in­force the style a bit more.”

Although char­ac­ters were abun­dant in the pot­tery, he strug­gled to find ref­er­ences to use for en­vi­ron­ments. “At most, there might be a tree or a small part of a build­ing,” McGib­ney ex­plains. “I ended up com­bin­ing the geo­met­ric pat­tern­ing and in­ter­pret­ing real-world plants, stat­ues, land­scapes and ar­chi­tec­ture to get the ef­fect across. It was a much big­ger de­sign chal­lenge than the char­ac­ters were by a long shot.”

the per­fect so­lu­tion

Colour was an­other chal­lenge. Ex­pand­ing the colour palette to in­clude blues, yel­lows and greens helped dif­fer­en­ti­ate ar­eas, and lit­tle pops of colour could help high­light ob­jects and other char­ac­ters. Apotheon also di­verges from the pot­tery in that its scenes have some visual depth – a fore­ground and a back­ground sep­a­rated by tinted fog – which helps with leg­i­bil­ity.

I ask why games don’t use the style more of­ten – it would seem a nat­u­ral fit for 2D plat­form­ing pro­jects. “My only spec­u­la­tion is that many games want to cre­ate their own vi­sion of things (as we did when we first started the pro­ject),” says McGib­ney. “Some­times they might over­look the per­fect so­lu­tion right at the root of their in­spi­ra­tion.”

RIGHT: The fin­ished game’s art style is in­stantly recog­nis­able even though it needed some tweaks to be player-friendly.BELOW: The ear­lier idea was fu­tur­is­tic space sol­diers meets an­tiq­uity.

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