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.