The Fine Art of Gaming
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 6 (June 2003)

The Fine Art of Gaming

By Karen Moltenbrey

All images courtesy Microids/The Adventure Company.

Syberia from Microids and The Adventure Company contains stunning backdrops and detailed architecture created mostly in Discreet's 3ds max. During the past year, the release has received several industry accolades for its imagery as well as its intrig

Game players tend to judge a new title in terms of how much bang they get for their buck—or, more precisely, how much power they can get from their characters and weapons. Consequently, the aesthetics of a game's environments often become an afterthought during development.

Cyan boldly altered this formula nearly a decade ago with Myst, which raised the bar for graphics realism in gaming. But, despite the availability of powerful hardware to run state-of-the-art imagery today, few have followed Cyan's lead, opting instead to develop the action first and the artwork second.

Yet, there are studios that are placing game imagery at the forefront of their development efforts. One such company is Microids. Founded in France, with R&D studios in Paris and Montreal, the developer has created two releases, co-published by The Adventure Company, that use stunning 3D graphics to not only enhance, but also to advance, the action/adventure aspect of its games.

This attention to graphic detail is perhaps most evident in Syberia, released last year. The game contains highly detailed 3D environments that more closely resemble digital art than computer game backgrounds. "Syberia's main goal is to immerse the player in a mysterious and extraordinary universe," says art director Benoit Sokal, who also authored the game. "Foremost, Syberia is an adventure game that boasts strong graphics but relies on a deep story line and compelling characters to give it a style all its own."

The game focuses on Kate Walker, a New York City corporate attorney who is hired to negotiate the takeover of an old toy and automation factory in the dreamy French alpine village of Valadilene. Over the centuries, the factory has developed clockwork devices, including those with perpetual mechanical movement. In order to complete the sale, Kate must track down a mysterious heir. During her journey, Kate encounters beautiful and intriguing cities bearing the mark of the heir's genius—locations that exude the charm of an earlier time. Among these are the industrial town of Komkolzgrad, with its underground mines, and the former seaside resort of Aralbad, which is situated on the shore of a sea that has long since disappeared.

Designed for maximum artistic impact, the graphics in Syberia help immerse players in the title's action/adventure story line.

Each game world is unique, though all the settings have a similar style—a fusion of the real and the surreal—that is present in both the outdoor and indoor scenes. "The environments were inspired by actual locations such as the French Alps and Russia," says Sokal. "However, we added a surrealistic touch everywhere, especially in the architecture." He notes that the artists also incorporated a personal feel to the environments by creating an exaggeratedly curvy architectural style.

While creating the digital imagery, the group worked from sketches made by Sokal and also used photos and books for reference. The artists even worked with an architect to make sure the buildings were designed correctly. They also invested a lot of time in postproduction to correct details and make adjustments to the lighting, fog, and other elements.

Syberia's imagery is a blend of the real and surreal. The locations are based on actual places, yet the artists added a surrealistic touch, including exaggerated curves for the architecture.

Syberia's production, spread over 18 months, required more than 30 designers, artists, programmers, and coders. To create the bold, beautiful imagery, the team used Discreet's 3ds max, along with a series of plug-ins such as Discreet's Combustion and Digimation's Shag:Hair and Stitch. The end result is imagery that helps immerse the player in the overall story. "The graphics set the ambiance, and they bring the story to life story by stimulating the player," says Sokal.

Through titles such as Syberia and the recently released Post Mortem, Microids has proven that good graphics, along with innovative play, can be a winning combination. In fact, Syberia has received numerous industry accolades. For instance, at this year's Game Developer's Conference, it was a finalist in the Visual Arts category. It was also named Best PC Game, Best Adventure Game, and Best Graphics Game by the trade press. "Industry recognition is a great reward for the sleepless nights the team endured while making the game," Sokal says. "But most of all, it demonstrates that there is a respect for those taking a unique approach to making computer games."

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior editor of Computer Graphics World.