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Splatoon’s stylish world was inspired by skateboarding and hip hop

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Functional design

Splatoon 2

Splatoon’s colorful inkling characters started out as bland, white boxes. During early prototypes of the game, these rectangular characters — which the development team at Nintendo started calling blocks of tofu — would shoot black-and-white paint at each other in a simple arena. Eventually, as the game started to evolve, so did the character design.

At first, Nintendo toyed with the idea of using familiar faces like Yoshi or Mario, but the game was so different from the company’s previous work the team realized they needed completely new characters. Since it was a game about controlling space, they initially thought that infamously territorial rabbits would be a good fit. But why would rabbits shoot ink or paint? This led them to create squids and then to the transforming inklings that became the series’s defining trait.

The Splatoon series is arguably the most stylish in Nintendo’s lineup, but that style is born from functionality. The inklings don’t just look cool; their design is meant to enhance the game, whether it’s the action or the storytelling. “My approach is not just to create art, but to try and sense what a game’s content and function demand from the art, and create art that’s in line with the game’s particular needs,” explains Hisashi Nogami, Splatoon’s producer.

Slides from Nogami’s Splatoon 2 presentation at GDC 2018.

Nogami got his start at Nintendo working as an artist on Yoshi’s Island, and he says this process is something he learned from Super Mario and Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto. The famed designer would tell Nogami to ensure that “the look of the thing you’re making is in line with the function.” And it’s a trend that has continued through to Splatoon 2, which launched on the Switch last summer.

That line of thinking extends to virtually every aspect of the game, including fashion. The inklings — half human, half squid hybrids that can change form — dress like teenage skate punks. They wear band T-shirts, high-end sneakers, and face masks with skulls on them. As a competitive multiplayer game, customizing your character in Splatoon is an important part of the experience, as it allows players to show off their individuality. And Nintendo not only launched Splatoon 2 with a huge range of gear options, but it has also continually updated the game with new clothes. But the extreme sports aesthetic wasn’t chosen randomly.

“We start with thinking, ‘OK, what is the activity in this game?’ And the activity that the inklings do is shooting ink at each other in these wild battles, as an extreme sport of sorts,” Nogami explains. “Like skateboarding or snowboarding in our real world; in their world, they take on these ink battles. So what type of clothing would someone need to wear? What would they want to wear?”

Splatoon 2

Fashion isn’t just a way to let players express themselves, it’s also a world-building and storytelling tool. It enforces the place these characters have in the world, and for the sequel, fashion was also used as a way to show the passing of time. Two years passed between the launch of the original Splatoon and its sequel, and that same amount of time passed in the game’s lore as well. One of the ways you can see this is through clothing. A pair of canvas sneakers featured in the first game might be available in Splatoon 2, but with some minor changes; they’re made of leather now or available in different colors. Nogami says this is a way of “telling the player ‘Look, time has passed in this world.’”

The Splatoon team also uses contrasting visual styles and moods to differentiate between different modes of play. In the main competitive multiplayer matches, for instance, the arenas are typically large and open, taking place in bright, well-lit locations like a mall or skatepark. For the co-operative “salmon run” mode, things are a bit darker, taking place in a swamp-like environment at what appears to be dusk. “The setting is different. You feel danger as you’re playing the game,” explains Nogami.

For the game’s first major single-player update, a new chapter called “Octo Expansion,” the team went even darker. The initial trailer takes place in a subway, and mainstay characters Marina and Pearl are not-so-subtly dressed up like rappers Tupac and Biggie. “Hip-hop culture has a sort of darkness that is something we kept in mind when making this expansion,” Nogami says. “That’s something that the designers look for when creating new content. What is the story behind this? What are the themes? They want to be conscious of the direction that they take as they create it.”

These are all examples of the large amount of thought that goes into every aspect of the game. Things aren’t added without reason. When a pair of new songs was added to Splatoon 2 over the winter, the reasoning was simple: time had passed in the game’s world, and there were new bands coming out. The same goes for big gear updates, which are rolled out like new lines from a fashion designer. It’s a game where style doesn’t override function — it enhances it.