Cypher is the kind of game that invites you into its world with its looks. The dark, gritty world of NeoSushi City is reminiscent of classic films like Total Recall and Blade Runner. It features beautiful art created by Carlos Cabrera, who previously worked as a concept artist on games like Section 8, F.E.A.R., and the upcoming Aliens: Colonial Marines.
It sounds like a cyberpunk fan’s dream — and it certainly looks the part — but there’s one thing about the game that makes the level of artistic detail surprising: it’s a text adventure.
The art of interactive fiction
"Neon signs in a rainy city."
Though they retain a dedicated enthusiast following, text adventures — also known as interactive fiction — aren't exactly the most popular genre these days. But there was something about them that appealed to Carlos and brother Javier, who developed Cypher together: the notion that the player's imagination could be stimulated through words alone, much like a good novel. This led them to create NeoSushi City. Cypher puts players in the role of a down-on-his-luck smuggler as he explores the seedy underbelly of the futuristic metropolis. After a deal goes bad he's left holding a mysterious suitcase, and the story takes off from there.
But while text-based gameplay alone would've been enough to keep players glued to their screens 25 years ago, Cypher needed something more to exist in today's world of flashy, action heavy releases — particularly for people new to the genre. "If you come out with just plain text over a dark screen you will lose potential players who may have never even played a text adventure before," says Carlos.
The actual text takes up a large portion of the game screen, while the right hand side is augmented with the visual enhancements — ranging from items in your inventory to the various locations you'll explore around the city. And in a nod to classic text adventures, the game even includes a logo on screen at all times, just in case you need a reminder of what you're playing. "Who puts the game title on screen nowadays?" asks Carlos. "Back in the days this was a common feature that the developers began to replace with mini maps, or big score letters."
Cypher is a game that draws from a number of different sources, both for its visual style and for its fiction. "Blade Runner, Akira, and Total Recall basically contain the core of Cypher," says Carlos. But he also cites some less obvious influences, including films like Dark City and Argentinean comedy Esperando la Carroza, as well as comics like Ficcionario by Horacio Altuna and the works of Katsuhiro Ōtomo. "I tried to add all the mood that these kinds of movies had," he says, "the neon signs in a rainy city."
But aside from notable comics or movies, Carlos was also encouraged by the work of his brother. "Javier brought me another layer of inspiration to the process," he says. "The descriptions are so rich in terms of writing that I found myself working looser than I had ever worked before. And I don't say this just because he is my brother, or because we did the game together — I have almost ten years in the game industry and not many people can bring a world to the player as Javier did."
Making the cover art
"In this case I used a triangular composition," explains Carlos. "This means that the most important information will be inside that triangle — every object, stroke, or color has to help the audience to focus to the objects or characters inside that triangle." Once this is done he goes back in to add more definition to the sketch.
"When you sketch and design a character it doesn’t matter how great the render is, instead you have to worry about the shapes. If you look at the image above, you will see that you still can recognize every character just with their shape. This is very important because the viewer needs that kind of 'hidden' information, our brain can teach itself to recognize shapes and non-accidental patterns."
The next steps involve getting the lighting and coloring down. "I used two kind of lights, an ambient light to give a rich volume to the character and create the correct mood for where they are… the second light is the key light. This light will separate the characters from the background and if you use it right you can add a perfect mood to the illustration." Once that's done he decides on the colors for the piece. "In this cover the base color is a desaturated green and the keylight is a sky-blue to leave the warm colors just for the main character and the logo."
"The render is complete, the composition is correct, and everything works perfectly. Some trained eyes might say that there may be too much free space on the top of the image, but I left that space to paste the big red logo of Cypher. See how your eyes are drawn to the eyes of [main character] Dogeron Kenan then to the big guy behind him and finally continue to make a circle that brings you back to Dogeron? This is why all these techniques are important. They help us to have a nice cover without wasting too much time on extra detail."
"Sometimes you need a little push to your imagination."
Carlos uses relatively standard tools like Photoshop and Flash for his paintings, along with Wacom’s Cintiq 12WX tablet. He also recently purchased a Samsung Series 7 Slate, which he describes as "an excellent tablet that I can use to finish most of my paintings."
The amount of time spent on each piece in the game varies, though he says that on average they take around a day to go from sketch to completed work. More in-depth pieces, though, such as the game’s cover, can take around two full days of work. He describes the creative process as much less formal than his experiences with more traditional game development. "It's better for small teams to talk and throw some sketches over a table and decide there what kind of art assets they will use in the game," says Carlos. "If you apply the ‘big game company steps’ you will lose your time and money."
Carlos’ artistic output includes more than just what you see in the game, however. Interactive fiction games are fondly remembered for including "feelies" — physical objects like cloth maps or postcards — and Cypher doesn’t skimp out on this aspect, though the game does do things a bit differently. Depending on what version of the game you get you’ll receive everything from a hintbook and city map to a papercraft model of one of the in-game computer terminals. The twist is that all of these extras are only available digitally. While it’s not quite the same as having physical items, Javier says that these extras are an important part of any text adventure experience "It was — and it is, at least for us — as important as the game."
All of this work has led to an experience that both feels like a classic interactive fiction game but looks like something modern and new. This should help appeal not only to genre fans, but hopefully bring in new players as well. And while some may scoff at the idea of adding art into a game where the focus is on words, Carlos realizes that for some people, it’s an important addition to the experience. "Sometimes you need a little push to your imagination."