Fine Tooning
Issue: Volume 35 Issue 5: (Aug/Sept 2012)

Fine Tooning

Video games of late, particularly first-person shooters, strive for realism. Realistic characters. Realistic environments. Realistic physics. Realistic simulations. Realistic action. Sometimes, though, players want a break from reality, even if it’s virtual “reality,” to escape into a fun, fantastical universe that is as far from real as one can get —like that of Ubisoft Montpellier’s Rayman Origins.

Rayman Origins, a retro 2D side-scrolling game, is set in a lush 2D cartoon world. The rich, hand-drawn environments are brimming with objects and color, and each unique setting looks as though it were lifted from a 2D animation cel. The characters, meanwhile, appear to have stepped out of a Saturday-morning cartoon—or from the pages of an artist’s sketchbook.

The main character, the quirky Rayman, has evolved only slightly over the years since Ubisoft Montpellier introduced the character in 1995 for a sprite-based game played on the original PlayStation. During the decade that followed, Rayman, his friends, and his worlds would be ported to 3D as new consoles were introduced, while the titles for the various handheld devices retained the property’s 2D style. With Rayman Origins, however, the game has shifted back to its 2D ’toon roots, despite its release on a range of the latest platforms (including the PS3, Xbox 360, and the new PlayStation Vita).

Nevertheless, the character does have an updated look in Rayman Origins, thanks to a new animation engine and high-resolution graphics that are stunning and vibrant. But the more things change, the more they remain the same. Rayman is still limbless—he has no neck, legs, or arms, so his simply shaped head, his large, whitegloved hands, and his oversized sneaker-clad feet float in midair. He is joined in this new adventure by his longtime friend, the blue, blobby Globox—another squash-and-stretch character.

In addition to Rayman and Globox, the game features two additional main characters, the Teensies, as well as more than 100 others with which they can interact. In addition, there are 12 diverse environments (60-plus levels), all filled with rich, hand-drawn imagery— whether a steampunk-type of factory, a lush jungle, a candlelit temple, a snowy mountain, or a pond teeming with fish. Each environment proposes a different type of immersion and emotion based on its imagery, theme, music, and friends and enemies.

Rayman Origins is part of game series developed by Ubisoft Montpellier in 1995. Conceived first in 2D, the franchise eventually migrated to 3D as new game consoles were introduced. Recently, though, the developer returned the series to its 2D heritage, a move that became easier with the new UbiArt Framework engine.

“We began the project with the idea of going back to the artistic dimension of Rayman’s universe. We wanted to work with artists outside the video game industry—people in animation studios, traditional painters, and illustrators,” says Creative Director Michel Ancel, who created the Rayman franchise. “We believe that the combination of art and gameplay can create the kind of surprises that every player would like to experience.”

While Ancel and a team of artists at Ubisoft Montpellier are actually responsible for Rayman’s universe, the game’s lore purports that it is created by the title’s highly sensitive supreme being, the Bubble Dreamer, who conjures up the so-called Glade of Dreams world into existence each time he falls asleep. When the Bubble Dreamer begins to have bad dreams, players must ease the being’s fears and stop the nightmares with hilarious antics.

“While there is a deeper story to be unearthed, much of the experience in this immersive platform is about visual storytelling: the hundreds of different stories players will tell one another as they romp through this cartoon playground, interacting with the environment,” says Gabrielle Shrager, lead story writer.

More specifically, the game pits the baddies, the Darktoons, against the good Electoons. Players must battle enemies and try to rescue imprisoned Electoons, which is done by gliding in midair, shrinking in size, and even riding on the back of a mosquito. If an enemy or obstacle hits a character, it will inflate into a ballooned state until another player can bring the character back into the game by slapping it. Sound ridiculous? It is. But that’s all part of the game’s charm.

Creating Art

While Rayman Origins’ visual and play styles are based on those of the original 2D release, this is by no means a game built upon a 17-year-old game format. “The first Rayman was really art-oriented. So we worked with artists from the cartoon industry, and painters and illustrators, and developed new tools that enabled us to reconnect with those people,” says Ancel.

One of the tools that Ancel is referring to is the new UbiArt Framework, a proprietary graphics engine that allows artists to easily create content and use it in an interactive environment. “With Rayman Origins, we tried to get rid of the constraints and let the artists work easily, without thinking about polygons or textures or sizes, so they could just concentrate on the art,” says Ancel.

UbiArt Framework’s flexible architecture limits the repetitive tasks required in making a game, enabling artists to create HD animation and imagery from limited original artwork, without having to worry about the technical aspects of game development. Rayman Origins is the first title to use it.

“As the engine and the technology came together, it became clear that this was the right approach and time for Rayman to make his comeback,” says Ancel. “When we saw what we could do in 2D, the worlds we could create [with the engine], I naturally thought of Rayman. For the first Rayman, a major focus was on the art. Rayman was born in 2D, so this seemed like a great way for him to be reborn.”

With the UbiArt Framework, artists can create animated images from any kind of artwork that can be scanned, photographed, or digitized. The engine separates the imagery into individual pieces, and applies a skeleton and bones to the assets to provide pivot points for animating movements. Then, the animator simply poses the model and edits the silhouette, and the system deforms the image automatically.

As a result of the UbiArt Framework, Ubisoft Montpellier was able to keep the Rayman Origins team small and nimble. “I believe that smaller teams are more flexible,” says Shrager. “Then, if that small team has the level of talent, creativity, and innovative thinking that we put together, you can make something really special.”

According to Shrager, the new engine offered the group a great deal of creative freedom. It is optimized for high-def resolution, allowing the game to run in full 1080p HD at 60 frames per second. “We could iterate on concepts with high-definition graphics and gameplay assets in real time, which is one of the major keys to emerging concepts and creative, innovative gameplay,” she adds.

Rayman Origins contains bright, bold 2D cartoon images created by painters and illustrators. With the UbiArt Framework graphics engine, animations can be made from flat artwork or photographs.

Living a Dream

Work on Rayman Origins began approxi mately two years  ago by a team of artists and engineers with a so-called garage-game mentality. As Ancel contends, the reactive approach to game development enabled by the UbiArt Framework platform helped promote creative energy and innovation within the group.

“The ability to use the gorgeous handdrawn artwork of our artists directly in-game is one of the reasons Rayman Origins looks so fresh and different,” Shrager points out.

While the UbiArt Framework simplified the 2D animation process, that didn’t mean that the game creation was without challenges. According to Ancel, it is easier to create content, characters, and levels in 2D as opposed to 3D, but on the other hand, “you cannot hide poor game design behind Hollywood-type sequences,” he says. “2D shows every collision, mistake, and control error. It’s a precise kind of game that forces us to manage a lot of details.”

Just one look and it is clear that Rayman Origins is an artist-created universe, a perfect choice for a 2D game.

“After a long time spent on complex 3D games, it’s cool to jump into a full gameplay experience with no turnarounds,” says Ancel.

While 3D may be the standard for console games these days, there’s something that can be said for a compelling art-focused 2D game that utilizes the power of these machines. “The 3D consoles of today support incredible graphics and sound in 2D,” Ancel points out. “It’s amazing to be able to create a universe with the quality of the best animated features, but in an interactive experience.”

The game rollout began with titles for the PS3, Wii, and Xbox 360, and continued through the summer for Windows, the Vita, and the 3DS. So, choose your platform and ’toon in.