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  • Writer's pictureKatie Lofts

Games Proposal - Stray - Week 1

Week 1 Commencing 27/3/2023

Initial Ideas


I started out with this first sketch of the idea I wanted to go with, being an environment that portrays the story of a Robot that wishes to become an artist.


I chose to do the game Stray for the Art Splash brief because I felt like it would help diversify my portfolio. I would still say Stray is a stylised game, but I also feel as though the art in Stray is a lot more realistic and gritty. It is definitely not within the same genre of stylised art that I do, and I wanted to be able to give it a go and show that I can attempt it. Up until this point too, all of my environments have been outdoors, and I wanted to make up for that by doing an interior environment.


I played the game myself when it came out in July, and a big thing I thought contributed to the unique artstyle and atmosphere was the use of lighting. Previously in my portfolio, I think that I have concentrated a lot on individual assets and texturing, which is why I wanted to do the Art Splash brief to base it on Stray's art style to get a chance to focus on areas I think I have not much before - such as lighting in this environment and context. Another reason why I think this will be a big and hopefully positive switch up is that I tend to do a lot of handpainted, stylised, cartoony texturing which tend to only really utilise the base colour of a texture, or at least very rarely have lots of variation in roughness/metallic/height etc.


Playing Stray, you tend to notice how beautifully the extreme lighting interacts with the world around it and how it might reflect, shine, and bounce upon different surfaces.

I would say this is because the game's assets do in fact seemingly utilise all the options such as roughness and metallic options, giving the illusion of realism while still actually maintaining their own unique sense of stylised artstyle - although, not the typical 'trendy' cartoonish stylised art either.

When you make an environment that has these kinds of assets that utilise everything it can and have them placed in such a unique lighting setting, I think that everything just ends up tying itself together very well and seamlessly.




Left image belongs to Stylized Station on Youtube here, right belongs to Reddit user BlueCrystalStudio here.


This, above, is what I meant by the typical trending cartoon-y stylised art. And I do not mean this in a bad way at all! This is probably my favourite style of all time, and what I really enjoy working within. However, with a lot of big creators making tutorials on the style and lots of courses becoming available for it too, it has resulted in a surge of it online recently too, perhaps most notably within the past two years.

I think that when sometimes people label 3D art as "stylised", it tends to only be within this style above. But I would say that for an art style to be "stylised", it shouldn't just consist of this one style. I feel like the art style of Stray is indeed stylised too, just perhaps on a different end of the spectrum to this particular genre of cartoony stylisation. But I don't think it should be entirely overlooked, either.

For me, the reason I love stylied art so much is that I it does tend to portray or intensify fantasy or cartoony depictions within art, with it being watercolour styled procedural art or handpainted geometric styled art, or even pixel art.

I think the reason I tend to resonate with anything within the genre of "stylised" is because I do feel like it is the subject matter that immerses me within a game the most. I would say that there can be little evidence of real-world within this style of art, and as strange as I know that could sound, is why I love it.

Realistically, I feel as though If I went outside or saw a photograph of a field of grass, I don't know if I would find much intrinsic beauty in that. This is a very personal opinion and I think a lot of people may disagree, but I feel like there is more creativity - more human passion - within art of things that just don't exist, other than in a person's head. At least for me, a highly stylised interpretation of a real-life street sparks more emotion in me, compared to art or a 3D scene that perfectly tries to recreate the same real-life street one for one exactly.


In conclusion and going back to the point of this in relation to Stray's art-style, although the cartoonish stylised art has gained immense popularity recently, I strongly believe that it should not be the sole thing that defines what the term "stylised" means in the industry of games. I feel as though Stray offers a really refreshing take on stylisation, one that at least personally immerses me within the world that is not entirely realistic but still manages to captivate me and excite me, as though I am playing something entirely within the studio's imagination, and not just walking through something that could potentially exist within our real world. As an artist that adores the stylised art style that has been popularised too, it just simply means a lot to me as a medium that can showcase creativity in things that don't exist, other than in another artist's imagination.





Firstly, I had the idea of making a small kitchen room that would fit into the world and art-style of Stray. I ended up straying from this idea because it alone felt like it had not a lot of interesting basis around it or anything to keep the player engaged, so I went back to brainstorm to try and think about things that have been done previously, and things I think would be good for a player in an environment. This is where I came up with the idea for this project to be a sort of proposal for DLC within Stray - an addon, that is not destructive, and just slots in nicely within the pre-existing world of the game. I researched things people thought about the game' its flaws, its things it did right. It seemed that a lot of people truly did love the game as is, and that they wished that there was just more. An article I read writes - 'There just isn't enough side content in Stray to fully justify its price tag' [Source - Stray: The 5 Biggest Fixes the Game Needs from GameRant] which while I understand this is a relatively smaller company, I can see the reasoning why people would think this way. When something is just so good, you do tend to want more of it.


This is why I landed on the idea of opening up a part of the games' Slums area, which contains many inaccessible houses, as the grounds for my so-called DLC idea.



What is Stray? What do I need to know?


Developed by BlueTwelve studios, Stray is an adventure game in the third-person perspective, taking place in a dystopian future where humans have gone extinct. The game's storyline revolves around a stray cat that accidentally falls into the remains of an underground human society that is currently occupied by androids.


There are some important parts of the game I think someone that doesn't know the game should know so they can better understand my own proposal:


B-12

Firstly, In Stray, players are introduced to B-12 early on in the game. This drone serves as a guide and helps players progress through the story. With B-12, players can interact with friendly robots, hack doors, and receive hints when stuck. B-12 also gives some commentary on the setting and history of the world when they interact with things called Memories. Spoiler alert, but the reason the player must help B-12 recover these memories is due to the fact they were in fact a human before they uploaded their consciousness into this drone before humans were wiped out, and after so many years of being asleep, they must work to recollect what they once knew.


Memories

Memories are the main collectible in Stray. Each one allows B-12 to make sense of the new world and remember certain things about the one they once knew, giving insight into the history and lore of the game to both the cat and player. These memories are scattered throughout the game, usually in the form of murals, and usually requires the player to stray off the main path and explore. There will be an on-screen prompt to "remember" the memory upon finding one in the world.

Here is an example of B-12's commentary upon interacting with a memory:

There are 27 memories to collect in total, and after finding them all, the player is rewarded with an achievement and the option to change the cat's harness design.


Items

Items are another form of collectibles similar to memories, split into three types: carryable items, inventory items, and manipulatable items (paint cans, flower pots, etc.), that cannot be put in the player's inventory or picked up like the former mentioned.

Inventory items can be 'digitized' by B-12, which then places the item in the player's inventory and removes it from the environment. These items can be accessed through the inventory menu, allowing the player to examine and rotate them, or show them to B-12 for their commentary on the item.

Inventory items can also be shown to characters in the world if the 'show item' option is displayed. The character will comment on said item, usually giving a clue to the player on what that item corresponds to in a quest target.

If the player shows an item to the character who is the quest target in question, it will instead be given to them, usually ending or progressing that quest. Below are some examples of the wiki of the types of items the player can pick up, and the response from B-12 when asked to comment about them.

For the manipulatable non inventory items, here is what will happen to each type upon the player interacting with them, once again taken from the wiki:










 

Schedule Spreadsheet

For my last project in this module, I used a spreadsheet to plan out my time and keep track of my progress. I felt as though it was very successful and helped me to organise myself, so I will be doing that again for this project as well. I used the same template that I made for my last project but just duplicated it and edited some of the titles to suit my project. I felt as though the task titles still fit however, and so I didn't edit those.

Like my last project, I will include a spreadsheet update at the end of each weekly blog post or milestone.

 

Research

[From left to right: Real life image reference image collage, AI-generated image collage, and Stray in-game screenshot collage.]



I put together a collage of some of the references I found that would inform my concepting and environment overall.

When creating an entirely new piece, be it any kind of art, I feel like the best approach is to combine multiple different things or ideas into one now entirely new one.

My approach here was to combine elements of real life artist studios, with some sci-fi futuristic 'cyberpunk' AI-generated images.

For example, in this process, I tend to try and look out for recurring themes in each type of reference I search for. With the real-life images of artist studios I looked at, there were a lot of common themes in the pictures and reoccurring elements. Some of these elements included:

  • Materials are mainly wood - desks, tables, equipment, beams, floor, shelves, etc.

  • The colours mainly consist of earthy, neutral tones.

  • Most, if not all, objects in the environment are there because they serve a purpose.

  • The spaces are very cluttered.

  • There tends to be little technology in these photos.

  • Big windows for natural sunlight is common.

  • These studios tend to be situated in lofts or industrial apartments.

  • Aftermath from painting doesn't tend to be removed or cleaned up - e.g paint stains.

  • There may be multiple instances of the same object around the room - easels, canvasses, etc.

Next, I decided on generating and finding lots of AI-generated images for the next part of my reference and inspiration gathering process.

I also want to make it clear that I understand currently AI images are a controversial topic, and a lot of the algorithms have actually directly stolen from real-life nonconsenting artists. I try to stray away from these ones because it doesn't align with my own morals, and only use websites that claim to not use these practises. I also do not claim these images as my own, nor do I view them as valid artwork - they are more so alike to photo-bashing in my opinion.


On the other hand, I also see how big and growing the use of AI generated images is becoming, and how quick that has been. I think it is unavoidable that in the future, AI will be a big part of our lives and jobs, and we will have to adapt to that - no matter your job role.

Ultimately, I understand that working for a studio must mean that you should streamline your process as much as you can, to be able to produce balanced, good quality work in as little time as possible.

I think it would be a mistake for artists, or at least myself, to not try and utilise these new technologies in their own workflow if they can to speed up and learn how to integrate it into their own pipeline.


Now, when I went to analyse these AI-generated artist studio images compared to my other references, I tried to pick out what was so noticeably different. Of course, the AI tends to make mistakes and some parts of the images are not so clear on what they are - it is up to the human to interpret these. These are some of the things that stood out to me the most in comparison:

  • Technology is in abundance - there tends to be an overflow of computers and screens to the point it is excessive. (An artist may only just need a single monitor or computer to work, for example).

  • Lighting is often exaggerated and is from unnatural light sources - colourful artificial lights.

  • The 'sci-fi' trope seems to be exaggerated.

  • There are a lot of seemingly futuristic and robotic objects that make no sense or do not exist yet.

  • The actual material of objects lack very little colour in themselves, and colour tends to only seem to come from other light sources in the environment.

  • There are a lot of metals and industrial objects - cables, wires, and machinery.

  • Things that already exist in our time, like couches and seats, tend to be very weathered.

  • Lots of Greebles*


*The term Greeble refers to the practise of adding an abundance of unnecessary small details to objects or models. Usually, the human eye can not pick out any obvious details of a greebled object.

A cube and its greebled version

Greebles are also used to enhance interior sets. In Star Trek, corridor walls were decorated with objects such as pieces of pipe, which extended out from walls, usually with several fittings and a label implying it was an important part of the ship's infrastructure. In the movie Alien, the interior of the ship Nostromo was thoroughly greebled. Art director Roger Christian said, "Let's have a go at it. So we recruited some dressing prop people, got a hold of several tons of scrap, and went to work on the Nostromo's bridge... encrusting the set with pipes and wires and switches and tubing... then we painted it military green and began stenciling labels on everything."[4]

[Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greeble ]


 

World Exploration Analysis


I decided to do a quick replay of the first parts of the game, up until I got to the slums which of course is where I want to set my environment within. I took notes and screenshots of particular things that interested me and I thought were good design choices. I chose to annotate them with my thoughts, which you can see/read below:

[Image description/alternative text:

  1. The block of lighter blue in comparison to the environment also helps redirect the player, letting them know that this is infact the correct area the red arrow is pointing to. It is made more obvious by the yellow sign.

  2. While us game designers subconsiously associate red with danger, Stray has to change up this meaning depending on the environment. Red/orange is used here as a guide because the environment is already overwhelmingly blue-toned.

  3. Red arrow pointing to the exit. It is also easily read upon the yellow background.

  4. Lighter blue reflection in the puddle also helps to direct the player and guide their eyes to the objective.

  5. This screenshot was taken during a chase scene, in which you may be solely focusing on the ground to concentrate on the cat's movement. I believe that the strong reflection of the guide here in the form of a neon sign ensures that the player is indeed progressing along the right path.]

[Image description/alternative text: These tangents made by the washing line that the cat is riding across create a sort of forced perspective from this camera angle, creating a lot of emphasis on the end location as we ride down. Your eyes are naturally drawn down this line to the circled area.

Also, the end location is lit up differently from the current location - it is a lot brighter, denoting a sign of comfort or respite in that area.]

[Image description/alternative text: Realistically, there is not much reason for there to be a prominent coloured light in this air vent or fan. But Stray utilises very specifically coloured lights in their environments to imply different meanings - such as the cat being able to progress somehow through here.

It is also important to note that the speed of the fan allows the player to notice that there is one fan missing, implying a specific purpose behind this area being so noticeable.

The cat must pick up the bucket, which is already in his mouth in this screenshot, and get close enough to the fan to jam it, causing it to stop and allow the cat to pass through where there is a blade of the fan already missing.]

[Image description/alternative text: In a game that is mainly exploration based with little danger to the player (at least in this part of the game), Stray is allowed to break certain pre-established "rules" within design.

The pre-existing association behind certain colours can be creatively broken - the red light in this case is not used to specify or imply danger, but used to guide the player along a new direction.

This can be done so effectively because of the futuristic, dystopian setting in which a lot of areas do tend to be so poorly lit and dark in the first place, making lighting choices the most effective way of guiding the player.]


 

Concepting

For each concept art sketch, I have annotated a seperate image to explain some of my design choices. Please click these images to enlarge them if you struggle to read them at this size.

Concept art #1

Room Sketch #1




Room Sketch #2


Again, please read the individual annotations to understand specific design choices of parts of each image.

However, here are some general design choices that I tried to keep in mind throughout all of the concept sketches:

  1. Have multiple messages to the player in the environment to insinuate this is the room of an artist - e.g; have easels, canvasses, paint buckets, paint brushes, papers, etc.

  2. Have multiples of the same object if it can make sense to - linking back to my research and references into real life artist studios.

  3. Have at least 5 'points of interest' in each room - this was feedback from my lecturer.

  4. Have multiple ways to achieve a goal or get to an objective - e.g, different shelves or desks for the cat to jump on to be able to get to the air vent.

  5. Focus on lighting and the feeling of the environment - overall, make sure it feels like an artist's studio, and not anything else!

  6. Give opportunities for the player to leave traces behind in the environment after the cat has interacted with objects - e.g; scratched up rug, broken plant pots, knocked over books, etc. Intended to make the player feel as though their contributions matter.

 

For my second room sketch, my lecturer suggested that I tried to change up the perspective of the robot's little office walls on the left. We tried it, but in the end we went back to the original version. We also said that the original version's perspective felt more imposing, which would be ideal for the player as they play as a cat.

 


I also made a top-down level design sketch to get a feel for my layout and environment. I think I will choose to not make the whole environment of this sketch, like the outside courtyard etc, but focus on the first entrance room here.


My thought process behind this layout was that the cat (the player) would come into this DLC or environment with plenty of things to explore at their own pace but also can come back to continue on with this specific storyline when they'd like to, giving them a sense of freedom, which I think is extremely important for exploration games such as Stray.


In this proposal, the player would come in through the entrance to the studio, and would be given a moment to take in their surroundings. I wanted there to be a gradual discovery of the broken robot, instead of having the player come in and instantly the broken robot would be right in front of them, so I made the robot's little office be off to the side in a corner that is not immediately seen upon entering. I wanted to give the player a sense of wonder and allow them to discover things at their own pace, and not take away the surprise.


The intended order would be:

  1. Player explores the first entrance room, and finds the Robot, who tasks them with finding their paint buckets once woken up by the player.

  2. The player retrieves the first paint bucket, the blue one, in the same room, but they would have to uncover it and move about some objects blocking it in a cat-like fashion.

  3. The cat then jumps onto the countertop through one of the broken windowpanes to enter the courtyard in the middle.

  4. A robot would be idly standing in the courtyard, and the player would have to wait until they go to move through the gate and trail behind them to reach the second paint bucket in the alley, the green paint bucket.

  5. They would then return this one through the same window.

  6. Back in the courtyard, the cat would have to parkour across ledges and a large dumpster to reach the entrance of the hallway through an open window on the second floor to reach the third yellow paint bucket.

  7. This hallway connects to another hallway on the left through a door the cat would have to push open. Here, the player should notice a vent as they enter through. The final paint bucket, the orange one, is at the end of this hallway.

  8. With the final paint bucket in the cat's mouth, the player should traverse through the air vent they found before and then find themselves back in the original room to complete the objective.

[Fan-made map of the Slums by reddit user Pakotini - source]

When I was sketching my own map of my environment, it was difficult to find any official block-outs or level designs from Stray. Fortunately, I went looking on the Stray subreddit and found that the user pakotini made their own version of the Slums area.

Although it is fan-made, and as such, possibly not too accurate, I still found this very helpful to put into context my own map and what sort of things I should consider. However, I still kept in mind that there could be any inaccuracies.

It became important to me to have a lot of elements that the player could interact with just for the sake of it, because I think that it adds to the immersion of playing as a cat, which of course, cats do tend to just interact with things around them for the sake of it.


Looking at the Slums area/map, I think the most obvious thing to note is that it is quite 'circular' in a way. By this, I mean that the player can sort of circle around any part of the map in any fashion or rotation to complete any side mission at their chosen pace, as opposed to a more linear map with a specific direction. This is something I tried to keep in my mind for my own environment as to make sure it would fit into the world of Stray accurately.





The art Of Stray - 200+ Concept Art (iamag.co)

I also found the above article that collates some of the assets and environments made by the artists on the team. I put all of the models into the collage above for myself so that I would have an easy reference to go back to when I get to modelling and texturing my own models for this project. This was really useful because these model showcases are a lot easier to see and breakdown, due to them not being placed in the world of Stray with a lot of harsh lighting - so it is a lot easier for me to study the textures as they are and see any little details I might have missed.

 

Blockout Later in the week I got to starting my blockout in UE5 from all of my references and concept sketches.

I really wanted to make sure I got all the scale measurements right, so I asked my friend Miles, a level designer, in our class to help me figure out such. We got on a call and he was able to show me all the measurements he uses in his own levels that correspond perfectly for an average human height and he also gave me some other little tips as well, like some things he has discovered recently in UE5 and implemented into his current projects.

I felt that it was very useful for me to work closely in this way to a level designer, and understand some deeper techniques they might use in their own levels that I could apply to my own environment here.


As I was doing the block-out, I made sure to place multiple mannequins in to make sure the scale of the room was how I wanted it. I wanted it to be a little bigger than usual, as to imply it is in fact a big industrial studio loft with high ceilings as well. I also wanted higher ceilings to give myself more room to add more verticality elements in my design, giving more chances for the cat to ascend and descend parts of the room freely.


I then exported all of the walls from UE5 and brought them into Maya to work from and create my room. I found that it was better to work directly inside of my room block-out, instead of making all of my assets seperately in a different scene, because I was able to put all the models in context to the room it would actually be in. This also ensured that the scale of things were correct, and helped me to identify areas that were lacking in clutter etc.


A part that I was excited to do but was also quite anxious about was the curtain - I had no idea how to go about doing it! I wanted to attempt to do it quite early on in my modelling process, because I felt like if I couldn't get the curtain model to look good then I would have to rethink parts of my scene, given that one of the main focal points of my environment is of cousrse the large canvas/painting on the wall with the curtain covering it to the side.

I found this tutorial video that goes over how to make a curtain from a plane using nCloths.

Basically, you have to attach a plane with really high subdivisions to a point and then use interactive playback, resize the plane, and it will create folds in the plane like fabric as it moves - really effective for the curtain look!

Of course though, once I had the final look I needed, I just duplicated it and deleted all the history and retopologised and remeshed it myself, so that there was not so many unneeded faces. I just made sure to keep the edges that really made the silhouette, because once the curtain has the soft shading turned on anyway, it looks very much like fabric anyway.

Then, I just soft selected the top row of the curtain plane, and pulled it back to look as though it was hanging from the curtain pole above the canvas, giving the rest of it some volume.


Now, it was just a matter of filling up the scene with the main objects that I drew in number two of my room concept sketches.

It was important to me to make sure I did not spend too much time on modelling, as I thought that the most important part of my finished scene would in fact be the finished lighting.

As such, I deleted a lot of faces where I could to make UV'ing easier, and opted to keep everything relatively low poly where I could - avoiding smoothing and bevelling where the models really did not need it.

Previously, when creating a smaller set of assets for my portfolio, I knew that it was justified in having them a higher amount of polys/faces so that they would look better in the final result. But, this time, I was aiming to create an environment that of course fits within Stray, a real game - that has obviously been optimised.

I felt that opting to keep things lower poly for this would allow me to demonstrate understanding of workflows that go into actual studios, prioritising speed and making sure things are 'game-ready'.

Also, before duplicating anything or mirroring, I made sure to UV that object so that I wouldn't have to UV the same duplicated objects over and over later on.



Here is a video I recorded of my process of creating the pipes using the bridge tool. I learned this method earlier in the year for a different project and was happy to be able to use it here as well because it definitely makes the process of making shapes like this a lot quicker.



 

Game Overview Document [GOD]



Similarly to my last project, I wrote a Game Overview Document because I thought this would be the best way to fulfill the task title on my schedule sheet that asks for a 'written intro' that 'outline(s) the tone and artistic motivations'. Again, I followed the the suggestions that were listed on the Blackboard module materials for what to cover in the document:


 

Schedule Sheet End of Week Update:



Overall, this week I focused a lot on trying to solidify the foundation of my eventual scene, with a lot of research on Stray and generating ideas. I was able to start some of the modelling too, and I am hoping to do the bulk of it next week.




My lecturer for the other module, Naomi, also helped me plan out this schedule so that I can balance my work between the two modules better. This was very useful for me and this week I was able to follow it.


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