Producer Hannah Nicklin speaks to Nicolai Troshinsky about his work on the art and animation of Forest of Sleep, touching on his influences, background, and the innovative approach he’s bringing to the visual feel of the game.
This is part one in a series of blog posts by producer Hannah Nicklin featuring in-depth interviews with the Forest of Sleep team, focussing on different aspects of the art, animation, sound music, inner-workings and influences shaping the game. Nicolai can be found on Twitter as @PluralGames and online at troshinsky.com.
Nicolai is the first of the team members I’m talking to as part of this series of long-ish reads investigating the making of Forest of Sleep. This first conversation with Nicolai focusses on his background and approach to art and animation within the game (though we’ll likely return to Nicolai on other gameplay and design topics, as he’s also is co-designing the game with Ed).
Nicolai is Russian-born but grew up in Spain. He was born in Moscow, Russia, in 1985, but his family left to escape the turmoil of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and moved to Spain, where his father had found work as a viola player. Nicolai explains that “most of my culture is Spanish” but he has a lingering Russian influence that has helped inform the Eastern-European setting of the game.
“I did get to see lots of classical Russian animations and I was told a lot of these tales as a kid. Eastern European folk tales are often variations on the same themes, there’s many familiar characters and motifs, things from my culture and childhood. Also because I was a Russian-born illustrator living in Spain, I was asked several times to illustrate Russian folk tales in Spain. So while I’m not an expert, […] I can see [Eastern European folk tales] both as an exotic thing, as a foreign thing; how it can look interesting; but also have some understanding of culturally where it comes from – how it is felt – I’m lucky, to be able to see it from both perspectives.”
Nicolai trained primarily in illustration, studying in Madrid, and working as a freelance illustrator from 2006. Then, wanting to expand his experience in visual storytelling, he went to France to study at La Poudrière – a filmmaking school, where he made several animations. It was just after that time that Nicolai discovered experimental contemporary games.
“I stumbled upon independent video games and decided to give it a try, make things up using simple tools. My first game ever was published on iPhone – adapted from a PC version – by an Australian studio, and my second ever game got into the IGF, as a finalist, so that was a bit surprising! I had no expectations at all, it was very fun to suddenly infiltrate this new place!”
Where it All Began
Nicolai met Ed at the IGF in 2011, (Nicolai was there exhibiting Loop Raccord, which was that year nominated for the Nuovo Award). Ed and Nicolai kept in contact, and after Ed released Proteus, and Nicolai released his multi-award-winning short film Astigmatismo, they started talking again, and Ed proposed that they collaborate.
“I think he just said ‘let’s work together’. He was toying around with a few prototypes but no real concrete ideas of what he wanted. We bounced around ideas and eventually Forest of Sleep started emerging from that. He liked some of the work I did for Russian folk tales I had illustrated, and he knew of Ivan Bilibin, so we had that in common. He was talking about procedural storytelling, and I said ‘let’s make something set in Eastern European Folk tales’ – it seemed like a good fit.”
The idea began with the theme of ‘Russian Folk Tales’ because Nicolai and Ed were interested in drawing influences from areas other than games.
“I find games exceedingly self-referential, how games look, how characters move, how they interact, how you talk to other people. In working together, we tried to figure out the consensus of how those things are done, and then how we want them to work differently.”
As development of Forest of Sleep progresses, we’re constantly re-shaping how we talk about the game (the copy on the site already needs updating, for example). This is partly because our ideas are continually being developed and refined, but also as we’re learning how to talk about the game to other people, which is a whole other challenge! So, bear in mind that things said in these early blog posts might not totally reflect the final game. Roughly speaking, though, Forest of Sleep is a procedural story game, where the player interacts with the game to play through their own folk tale. All of the scenes, characters, costumes, music and possible actions in the game are procedurally generated and/or dynamic. The player will play as three children who fall asleep in front of their campfire, and wake up in a magical world, full of adventure and surprise. The gameplay features no text or recognisable speech, instead it uses a carefully constructed graphical and visual language. A lot of these decisions have been heavily influenced by Nicolai’s background in animation and film.
Developing a Style
Nicolai describes his process in developing an art style for the game as one of imitation and assimilation. He and Ed dug up reference points, then Nicolai would experiment with their approaches and techniques, working out what he can draw to shape his own style.
“What I usually do is look at other things a lot, copy them for a while, then stop looking at them at all, and in time you preserve the things you understood and they start integrating in your natural way of drawing. Then at that point I might look at something else, do that process over and over until I find something that feels like a good balance. We started by referencing a Czech illustrator, Štěpán Zavřel. […] We were talking folk tales and handmade illustration this was my initial immediate thought. It looks nothing like any videogame you can find, so I started out experimenting – imitating some of his stuff”
Janusz Stanny, a Polish graphic artist was another influence – particularly the overlaid patterns that make up a lot of his work, Nicolai explains that it fitted well within the practicalities of animating art within a games context: “I figured it’s super easy to do on the computer – layers – which also work nicely with movement.” Early on, the intention with the art was to use no outlines whatsoever, just washes and shapes of overlaid colour, but the demands of game animation over film animation (at least in small, independent team) mean that this wouldn’t work.
“it was just too hard to make it work when it needs to be drawn efficiently. I was really struggling with that and at some point I had to simplify. Make something more natural to the way I draw.”
Józef Wilkoń is a further reference point – which can particularly be seen in the current ‘map screen’ as well as being a bit part of the early art experiments. And as well as illustrators, there are many animation references informing Nicolai’s work. Eduard Nazarov, Ivan Maximov, Priit Pärn, and particularly Yuri Norstein.
“Yuri Norstein is the biggest master of Russian animation, the teacher of all the contemporary Russian animators, and beside really liking his work, I worked in a similar technique in my own films, it’s a style that I understand and feels good to me.”
Developing a Visual Language
When you ask Nicolai to talk about what exactly it is from this Eastern European/Russian school of animation that captures him, and that he has fed into the game, he talks about the overall ‘feeling’ of the work.
“Animation, not just in games but in general, is drawing mostly from the American School. For me the American style and the Eastern European style are very different at even an ideological level: they care about different things. The Eastern European style is my favourite animation style in the world, it’s the one which connects with me the most.”
Nicolai explains that the dominant style drawn from American animation (and we’re talking about animation as an artform in and of itself here, not so much as the animation made in a hollywood, filmmaking context) is “mostly about the impossible” – if you can draw anything then let’s draw the impossible, playing with the extreme, the abstract, unreal and extraordinary. “By contrast Eastern European animation is often very slight, tiny gestures, it’s slower, less flashy, does not try as often to be spectacular.” Nicolai explains that Eastern European animation is fascinated by the ordinary, by the contradiction at the heart of spending frame upon frame of exhaustive work to depict the slightest and most ordinary of gestures.
“If you spend time, for example, animating someone peeling an orange it becomes very significant, it can become like poetry, you have to look at every detail under a microscope, find a way to represent it, whereas if you filmed it with a film camera it would be super boring.”
These are the things that animation can do that other mediums can’t. Each frame holds within it a value of attention.
“In general that’s some of what I try to bring to the game: to animate carefully the little things, to take care of the gestures and the tiny details, not so much the dynamic and spectacular actions.”
What’s interesting about this approach (to me, at least) is that in Nicolai’s attention to the small gestures and idiosyncrasies, he’s also playing within the broad brushstrokes of folk-tale storytelling. Which is further heightened by Ed’s wish to make the game without words.
“Ed was hoping that I can figure this out, because I’m an illustrator, and my films are without words. It’s an interesting problem to solve, so basically every time we’re figuring out a design problem – “how do we communicate this?” – and we propose solutions, they come often from cinematic language. One of the early principles we agreed on was skipping the action, this was done both as a way to save work (we’re a tiny team, we can’t do everything) but also tree animated from because we’re building a game that is about storytelling and about getting people to make stories in their head about what is going on – allowing them to connect the dots themselves. I really like films that do this, they jump in the middle or skip important bits. So we started to establish a language based around that idea, showing what is necessary, jumping everything else, and creating a rhythm out of that.”
This idea of leaving room for the player to complete the work – to leave room for an imaginative leap between artist and audience – is one that suffuses many of the non-naturalistic artforms of the past few centuries. From the way the Italian Futurists talked about their movement painting, to the ‘suspension of disbelief’ talked about by Samuel Taylor Coleridge with regards to Romantic Poetry, and often referred to in theatre. Throughout the centuries artists have been interested by the power of the imaginative leap – not attempting to portray a hyperrealistic what is but playing with the audience to ask what if? This ‘what if’ is at the heart of storytelling, which is why, Nicolai and Ed often explain, they’re interested in using an art style and visual language which invites the player to make their own leaps – to collaborate with the story system. And in that way, Nicolai explains, you could call the game more cinematic than the most hyper-realistic AAA approach (though of course, this has its place).
“In some ways I think when people talk about ‘cinematic games’, that this is way more cinematic than a game that just tries to replicate camera shots, this is about the grammar of cinema. How cinema tells stories, not just how it frames them.”
When I finish by asking Nicolai what players might expect from the game, he laughs.
“To be surprised! I think in general I go to see a movie, or read a book, or play a game or whatever because I want a certain sense of wonder, and so the kind of things I like to experience, are some of the things I try to put in my work. I want you to be surprised, to have a sense of discovery or wonder. We want to surprise you.”